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Canadian Politics: Prime Minister Suspends Parliament To Save Government

In an attempt to prevent his government from going down to defeat in the House of Commons and be replaced by a coalition made up of opposition Members of Parliament, Prime Minister Steven Harper has received permission from Governor-General Michaelle Jean to suspend the current session until January 26th/09. Taking advantage of a little known parliamentary technicality called "prorogation", which gives the Prime Minister the right to shut down Parliament in case of an emergency, Harper will avoid having to face a vote on his fiscal policy scheduled for December 8th/08.

The opposition parties had already made it clear that they planned on defeating the governing Conservative Party in that vote, and approaching the Governor General with the coalition deal they had worked out over the past few days in the hopes of being given the opportunity to form a government. The coalition would have temporarily been led by current Liberal part leader Stepheane Dion (he would be replaced in May by whoever won the Liberal leadership convention) and would have included members of the New Democratic Party (NDP). The Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec nationalist party, wouldn't have been an official part of the coalition but had agreed to support the new government on all issues of confidence to allow them to rule without having to call an election. (In a parliamentary system a minority government can lose votes in the House of Commons as long as they aren't on fiscal issues or specific motions expressing lack of confidence in the sitting government.)

Mr. Harper is the first Prime Minister in current history to have chosen this option rather than face going down to defeat in the House of Commons. As recently as 2005 then Prime Minister, Liberal leader Paul Martin, knew very well that he would be defeated on an economic package he was presenting to the House of Commons, but like every other minority government prior to him, including Conservative leaders Joe Clark in 1979 and John Deifenbaker in 1963, he acceded to the wishes of Parliament. Former Governor-General Ed Schreyer cited those previous instances when warning that granting a wish for prorogation at this point would be an evasion of the process to Parliament and set a dangerous precedent for the future.

What is the great emergency, he asked, that necessitates the closure of the House Of Commons? According to Mr. Schreyer with the new Parliament having just opened only a genuine emergency should be grounds for prorogation. Allowing Steven Harper to suspend the sitting so his government can survive can't be constituted as an emergency, and for the Governor-General to allow the Prime Minister to do so for such an obviously political reason would damage the political neutrality of her office.

However, as a constitutional monarchy, the Queen, or in this case her representative, is only a figurehead, and can never be seen to gainsay a request from parliament. Steven Harper asking Michaelle Jean permission to suspend Parliament is only a formality and she really has no choice in the matter. It would be an even more dangerous precedent for a Governor-General to refuse the request of a Prime Minister, then for her to allow Mr. Harper to suspend the House of Commons. In a constitutional monarchy the crown can never be seen as dictating to parliament, or the whole system is compromised.

For those of you wondering why Steven Harper waited until almost the last minute before calling everything off, was that he and his Conservative Party needed the week to paint as negative a picture of the opposition as possible for the Canadian public. So he has spent the week saying the last thing Canada needs is a separatist government during a financial crises. In fact he and his party have resorted to telling outright lies by saying things like the Bloc Quebecois would have Cabinet posts in the coalition government as they attempt to do anything to shore up their own image. He has seems to have conveniently forgotten how willing he was when in opposition to try and woo the same separatist party in his attempts to overthrow the Liberal government.

You see, even now, Harper is only grudgingly admitting that perhaps as a minority government he and his Conservatives are going to have to work with the other members of the House of Commons. For the two years prior to the election last October 14th he and his party had been able to control parliament with a minority government because the Liberal Party, the main opposition party, didn't have a leader and weren't about to call an election. However, there is only so far you can push people, and so much you can get away with. The fiscal package he introduced that was supposed to prepare Canada for the upcoming financial crises was such a slap in the face for the opposition they refused to take it.

It was Conservative party arrogance that brought about the situation and unless that changes, chances are that when the House of Commons reconvenes in January we're not going to see much of a change in the attitudes of the opposition parties. All three parties still say they are prepared to bring down the government as they no longer have trust or confidence in their ability to rule. Liberal leadership candidate Bob Rae says that he is prepared to campaign across the country in support of the coalition in preparation for the recall of parliament and has all ready called the Harper government illegitimate and accused the Prime Minister of being a coward by asking for prorogation.

If the coalition can hold together over the next seven weeks and the opposition defeats the government as they say they will at the first chance they get when the House of Commons reconvenes Michaelle Jean will then have to make a decision as to whether she should allow Steven Harper to dissolve Parliament and call an election or allow the coalition to attempt to govern. While technically the House will still only be in its first sitting, sufficient time will have passed since the last election that Harper will try to make the case that he has the right to call an election.

However, in 1979 when Joe Clark's Conservative Party government lost a vote of confidence in the house after six months in power, then Governor-General Ed Schreyer, asked opposition Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau if he thought he could form a government before he agreed to dissolve the house and call an election. So if the coalition can stick out the next seven weeks and weather the storm of propaganda that the Conservative Party will rain down of them during that time, we will find ourselves back in the exact same situation we are in now. Steven Harper has been able to delay a vote in Parliament on his fitness to govern, but it looks like he will still have to face the music when the House reconvenes.

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