Harper set to pull plug on Parliament

PM should have a good look in the mirror - it was his fault

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The Gazette, Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Proroguing the House is the safer course for Stephen Harper, and the easier one for Michaëlle Jean. Which is why the first session of this Parliament will probably end as soon as today, pre-empting the non-confidence vote on the economic update scheduled for next Monday, when the minority government would be certain to fall.

By proroguing, the prime minister survives for at least another few months. He gets a cooling-off period, gets to regroup and present a new throne speech with a budget at the end of January. The dangerous part for Harper is that by losing a vote next Monday, the governor-general might decline his request for an election writ and invite the Coalition of the Willing to form a government.

Harper is already permanently damaged by this self-inflicted wound, but if he allowed the ouster of his government he would be finished as leader of the Conservative Party, which is incensed from the grassroots to the cabinet level at his reckless brinksmanship.

The easier course for the governor-general is that no one in her role has ever refused a prime minister's request to prorogue the House, but one has refused a request for a dissolution, Viscount Byng in 1926. One precedent weighs in favour of prorogation, the other argues against dissolution so soon after an election, especially since the three parties have answered the only question the G-G must consider - the confidence of the House.

One constitutional convention points to Jean refusing Harper's request for an election, and inviting the opposition parties to form a Liberal-NDP government, propped up by the Bloc Québécois. While in any banana republic, this would be a coup, in Canada it is perfectly within the bounds of constitutional custom. But the constitutional convention around prorogation weighs heavily in Harper's favour.

Quite apart from precedent, which is in and of itself a compelling reason for the G-G to sign on to proroguing the House, it is entirely clear in the Westminster tradition that the prime minister alone determines the agenda and timetable of the government in Parliament. This is his prerogative and his alone. Period.

Then there is a further precedent of a quick end to a session after an election, and a recent one at that. In 1988, after the free-trade election, Brian Mulroney recalled the House with a one-page throne speech to enact enabling legislation for the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. The session was prorogued after only 10 days.

Of course, Mulroney enjoyed the confidence of the House with a majority government, as Harper clearly does not in a minority House. The opposition can also argue that Harper is avoiding a confidence vote, and that the G-G should thus decline his request. He can say he is merely rescheduling, as is his right in determining the agenda. As in baseball, a tie goes to the runner.

And in the unlikely event Jean were to decline the easier course today or tomorrow, she will be faced with the harder one on the morrow of the confidence vote. So, to switch metaphors from baseball to football, Harper will punt, and she will kick it right back to him.

Problem solved? Crisis over? Not exactly. Not for Harper, who will never again have a stranglehold over the House or his own party. The schoolyard bully has been called out, and no one will ever be afraid of him again. Well, maybe in his own entourage, but that's his problem - he is surrounded by sycophants and right-wing ideologues in the Prime Minister's Office, a place desperately in need of adult supervision. If they had shred of honour, after this unprecedented disaster, they would all resign. That starts with his chief of staff, Guy Giorno. The first rule is to protect the king. The staff's job is to take the bullet.

But before any heads roll in the PMO, Harper should have a good look in the mirror. The problem is within himself. He is usually the smartest guy in the room, but sometimes he can be all tactics, which brings out the worst in him. Giorno, a hard-core partisan from the Mike Harris era at Queen's Park, only reinforces Harper's worst instincts. There is no one around Harper to stand up to him, no one to say, "Sir, that's a very bad idea."

Ending party financing as part of the economic statement was one very bad idea in a minority House. Harper put the opposition parties up against the wall at gunpoint, and stole their money. Of course they want to take him down. Banning the right to strike in the public sector for three years, when trade unions are core constituencies for the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, was another bad idea.

Where did these really stupid ideas come from? From Harper and the PMO, which ordered them into the economic update last Wednesday, without consulting cabinet or caucus. It's a total breakdown of cabinet government and breach of party solidarity, with the disastrous consequences that have rained down on Harper since last weekend.

It is not enough for Harper to roll on this, he needs to recant. In the event he makes a TV address to the nation to explain this mess of his own creation, he should express the hope that cooler heads prevail over the holidays, and that everyone can learn from this, beginning with himself.

As for the opposition parties, they have serious problems of their own. Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe made a big mistake in staging a formal signing of their coalition pact on Monday. In comedic terms, they looked, as colleague Greg Weston observed yesterday, like the Three Stooges. In political terms, they looked like the coup plotters in Moscow in August 1991. The Liberals and the NDP are both taking a terrible risk in climbing into bed with the separatists.

And Dion has another problem. His reappearance on the scene this week as the putative prime minister after Canadians thought they had got rid of him has only reminded voters of why they were glad to see the back of him.

In the House yesterday, he was emotionally unhinged, practically spitting his questions across the floor. Clearly, the man is temperamentally unfit to be prime minister. If nothing else, proroguing will save the country such an unwanted and dangerous outcome.

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