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Canadian Politics: A New Government Without An Election?

There is something very odd going in on Canada this week, Canadian politics are exciting. Normally politics in Canada is about as predictable as watching paint dry, you know what the result is going to be well in advance no matter how much anyone says otherwise. So what's been going on over the past week, and what will come to a head in another week's time on Monday December 8th, is really quite incredible as its something that has almost never happened before in Canadian history.

For the first time since WW1 and Prime Minister Robert Borden's war time Union government made up members of both his Conservative Party and Wilfred Laurier's Liberal Party, Canada is looking at the very real possibility of a coalition government running the country. Led by the Liberals, as they have the second largest number of representatives in the House of Commons, it would also include the left leaning New Democratic Party (NDP). Although the Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec nationalist party, would not be part of the coalition, they have all ready made it clear that they would be willing to vote with them on important issues.

What's that you say, what about the guys who won the election on October 14th (2008)? While it's true the Conservative Party of Canada won the largest amount of seats in the last election, as everyone predicted they didn't elect enough Members of Parliament to have an outright majority in the House of Commons. Under these circumstances the government can lose votes in the House of Commons without any serious ramifications except in the case of a vote on fiscal matters or what is known as a vote of Non-Confidence.

Under normal circumstances when a government loses in either of these situations they would be forced to dissolve parliament and call an election because they are no longer able to govern. However, there is also the option that the opposition parties can go to the Governor-General of Canada, The Queen's representative, and ask her permission to form the government without a new election being called. Canada is a constitutional monarchy with the Queen of England being our titular head of state. Both her role and the role of the Governor-General are strictly ceremonial and they are not allowed to refuse a legitimate request by the opposition to form a coalition government.

How these circumstances came about is last week Prime Minister Steven Harper's government introduced a fiscal package to the House of Commons that was what they called the first stage of their solution to help steer Canada through the upcoming financial crises. Instead of offering ways of stimulating the economy they have proposed a series of spending cuts and taking away civil servants right to strike. The opposition parties were so upset by this that they made it clear they would not support the bill, which means that the government would go down to defeat on a fiscal matter, necessitating an election. Knowing full well the opposition wouldn't force an election so soon after the last one, the government refused to back down, probably not believing that the three opposition parties could set aside their differences and form a coalition.

One of the major stumbling blocks towards forming the coalition is the question of who would be the Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal party, as they are just beginning the process of replacing the man who led them into the last election Stephane Dion. While he is still the leader of the party, the leader of the NDP, Jack Layton, had made it clear that he would not agree to any deal that made Dion Prime Minister. As the vote on the fiscal package is imminent the Liberals don't have time to hold a leadership convention, so they will have to pick someone from among the caucus to be leader. The question is whether or not the candidates running for the leadership would be willing to allow one of their number to become interim leader, and Prime Minister.

Initially the Conservative Party was going to hold the vote on this coming Monday, December 1st/08, but when they saw the way the wind was blowing they put it off until December 8th. They hope to use the coming week to convince the people of Canada that the rightfully elected government is being hijacked and to sway opinion against the coalition. Unfortunately the extra week will also give the Liberals and the NDP the opportunity to figure out a way to make it work. If the Liberals are able to appoint a new leader in that time, probably Michael Ignatieff not only will it satisfy the NDP, but it will also take some of the sting out of the Conservative party's spin against the coalition.

In his speech announcing the delay on the vote Steven Harper challenged the legitimacy of Stephane Dion to become Prime Minister as he has all ready agreed to resign as leader of the Liberal party. If Stephane Dion does remain as leader when the coalition approach the Governor General about forming the government it could mean that Steven Harper and the Conservative Party might not recognize the legitimacy of the new government and be the beginnings of a constitutional crises. Unfortunately for Mr. Harper, constitutional experts say that Governor General Michaelle Jean will have little choice but to give the coalition the chance to form a government as long as they meet certain provisos, even if Stephane Dion remains leader.

According to Louis Massicotte, an expert in government affairs, there is overwhelming cause for not calling a new election under the current circumstances. According to precedent from both British and Canadian parliamentary history whenever a government is defeated during its first sitting there is no election. As long as the three opposition parties, the Liberals, NDP, and the Bloc Quebecois, produce a written agreement guaranteeing support for the coalition and how long it would last, it would be Ms. Jean's duty to accept it so soon after an election.

As of now the NDP and the Liberals are still negotiating and the Conservative party are putting their spin campaign in motion, and the next week promises to be one of the more interesting ones ever in Canadian politics. How it will play out in the end is still anybody's guess, but come Tuesday December 9th/08 there might just be a new government in place without an election being called. I guess we couldn't let the Americans be the only ones to make electoral history this year.

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