The President of Canada

Three and a half years ago, I grumbled about Stephen Harper’s dismissive and insulting attitude towards members of other parties. Not much has changed since then. Harper has repeatedly, and ever increasingly, shown himself to be belligerently divisive and utterly disrespectful towards any elected Member of Parliament not from his party, as well as to the Canadians who did not vote for his party. In a minority Parliament, this has proven damaging to the country and possibly fatal to his government.

In his mental construction of our constitutional framework, Harper was elected the President of Canada on the 14th of October. His opponents had been defeated: the soon-to-be leaderless Liberals greatly reduced in their seat count, the NDP making only modest gains, and the Bloc – as separatists – dismissed out of hand as always. To his binary world view, all that mattered in the end was that he had defeated them.  A land in turmoil cried out for a hero. He was Harper, a mighty warrior economist forged in the heat of the Commons.

So when Harper’s attempts to ram the most extreme and partisan elements of his policy through the new Parliament met with genuine resistance, it is quite natural for him to claim (as he truly believes) that the opposition are overriding the results of the election. They lost. He won.

Except he didn’t.

At least, not in the way he thinks he did. Now, our system certainly has its faults, its lack of proportional representation high among them. But it is not so dysfunctional as to reward the Conservatives, with 38% public support, with a majority of seats in the House. Interpreting an uninspiring vote share and a mere plurality of the seats in the House as a “strengthened mandate” is fine as a bit of election night hubris. But governing on that basis is reckless and irresponsible. The election results may at best be interpreted as a rather modest approval of Harper as Prime Minister, but they did not in any way entitle him to the office. That power and privilege comes from only one source: commanding the support of a majority of the elected representatives of Canadians.

And how hard would that have been? The Liberals are not only broke financially, but they are also fresh out of political capital. They are taking a huge risk by forming government now. Getting them to agree to the government’s plan – any plan – for the next year would have been like convincing a starving man to accept a 12 ounce steak. Unless you go out of your way to poison the dish, it is not a hard sell. But that is, incredibly, what Harper chose to do: to come up with propositions so hostile, so utterly partisan and unacceptable, that the Liberals have been essentially forced into a desperate – and almost certainly damaging – coalition government as the only possible recourse. Bravo.

Harper has failed spectacularly in the relatively easy task of winning the support of any other party: “Socialists, separatists… Liberals!” When faced with the undeniable yet incomprehensible reality that Canadians did not, in reality, give him a majority mandate, Harper chose insult over dialogue and bullying over compromise.

That his main option for survival is to insulate himself from the review of the people’s elected representatives by proroguing Parliament speaks to which side has the superior claim to democratic principles. Continuing to govern based on his gravely mistaken belief that he was given that unqualified mandate would be so egregious as to undeniably require that the opposition took him down at the first opportunity, and go a long way to legitimizing the coalition in the public eye.

Given that he genuinely believes that the majority of MPs representing a majority of Canadians do not have the right to form a government responsible to them, I think prorogation is likely. If and when a coalition does form, Harper must expect that electorate will punish the parties involved. Having rejected the values of compromise, cooperation, and consensus-building, Harper thinks that Canadians will reject them as well. It will be difficult, but not impossible, for the new government to prove him wrong.



  1. Gnomes said,

    Monday, 1 December 2008 at 6:27 pm


    To revisit my earlier post on the topic, engaging in polarizing politics by sneering at “Liberals, socialists, and separatists” is not a way to build a majority, or support for your minority.

    A Liberal-NDP coalition will need the support of the Bloc, this is true. But so does the Harper government.The support of the Bloc, is, in fact, how they passed two of their budgets in the last Parliament. That’s how they planned to replace the Martin minority government – without an election – in the Parliament before last.

    Like them or not, the Bloc are the elected representatives of a strong majority of Quebecers. Inflammatory rhetoric does not help or heal. They do not want to “destroy Canada” as with a nuclear bomb or catastrophic climate change, they want to separate Quebec from the rest of it. This is a view I profoundly disagree with, but as a federal state, we must acknowledge the right of the people of Quebec to do so if they choose, and to be represented by whomever they choose while they remain in confederation.

  2. Gnomes said,

    Monday, 1 December 2008 at 9:25 pm

    If the coalition partners all do as well as Layton did today in making their case, I think they might actually make a go of it:

    “I think a lot of people in Canada have been looking for politics to be done a little differently. I think it would be fair to say that what you’re seeing here today is politics done a little differently. It’s actually done with the notion that people who have had differences of opinion, sometimes quite profound, might be able to find issues and avenues and strategies and ways forward together in difficult circumstances. And to me this is an expression of enormous optimism.”

    Perhaps they could adopt the motto “Yes we can!” for their message of hope. Canadians certainly wouldn’t want to let the US government move left without doing the same, right? How would we convince ourselves that we’re better than them?

  3. Manatee said,

    Tuesday, 2 December 2008 at 9:48 am

    I agree with all of your points. I am usually quick to point out the impossibility of the Liberals and NDP working otgether, in election campaigns for example, due to substantive ideological differences. However, given the Parliament that was elected, any attempt to govern that has the confidence of the House is both democratic and, given the economic context in which we find ourselves, justified.

    Claims of the coalition being either undemocratic or dangerous are my new pet peeve. In the economic times in which we find ourselves, the politics of compromise and compassion certainly should trump the politics of hostility.

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