Harper's only option: Prorogue the House

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National Post, Tuesday, December 2, 2008

To prorogue or not to prorogue, that it is the question for Stephen Harper, because it has quickly become his only path to survival.

If it doesn't prorogue the House at the end of this week, the Harper government will be defeated on a confidence motion next week. This political crisis is entirely of Harper's making, and entirely his fault. For $15-million of cultural cuts in Quebec, he lost a majority in the election. For talk of eliminating $27-million of taxpayer subsidies to political parties, he stands to lose the government. So much for Harper's reputation as a tactical genius.

Harper put a knife to the throat of the opposition parties, stole their money and expected them to do nothing. Or, what about banning strikes in the public service for three years? How politically insensitive was that in a minority House when the NDP and the Bloc rely on the trade unions?

The opposition pact between the Liberals and the NDP, to forge a coalition government with the support of the Bloc Quebecois, will seal the Conservatives' fate if a confidence motion on the government's economic statement comes to a vote on Monday.

The Governor-General would have only two options, to issue an election writ or invite the opposition to try to form a government. For her, the only constitutional question is the confidence of the House, and the Liberal-NDP alliance promises the possibility of stable government. Thus, it is by no means clear that she would accede to Harper's presumed wish for another election.

The Liberals and the NDP are already, as Brian Mulroney once put it, like "the boys cutting up the cash." They've agreed that Stephane Dion would be prime minister, that the NDP would have six portfolios in a 24-member Cabinet, with Jack Layton as environment minister. They've got a Throne Speech drafted and a $30-billion stimulus package ready to go. They dressed it all up in a letter to the Governor-General and tied a red ribbon of a signing ceremony around it.

And so Dion, who less than two months ago was rejected by three-quarters of Canadian voters, his 26% share of the popular vote the worst by a Liberal leader in history, would overturn the result of the election and overthrow the government.

A coup. A very Canadian coup. A perfectly constitutional coup, endorsed by the Westminster tradition. A leader rejected by the voters and repudiated by his own party is about to strike a governance bargain with the socialists with whom he said he would never seek a coalition, aided and abetted by the separatists he went to Ottawa to fight. All that for the pleasure of spending one Christmas at 24 Sussex.

Apparently no one has considered the consequences for the country. And no one in the Liberal party has considered the consequences of a coup in Western Canada, where the Liberals have only seven out of 93 seats, and came second in only 24 ridings. If you thought the National Energy Program left a legacy of bitterness in the West, wait till this happens.

There's a question of political legitimacy around appointing a prime minister this way, but it's within constitutional bounds. Well, if the opposition can invoke constitutional convention to overthrow the government, the government can invoke the same constitutional convention to survive.

All Harper has to do is prorogue the House. In the Westminster tradition, managing the government's agenda and timetable is the exclusive preserve of the prime minister. No governor-general has ever refused to sign an order-in-council to prorogue the House and bring it back with a new Throne Speech.

And there is a recent precedent for such a short session after an election. In 1988, after the free trade election, Brian Mulroney brought the House back in December with a Throne Speech accompanied by implementing legislation. The Throne Speech and bill were passed in 10 days and the session prorogued.

Harper has already caved on the party financing and public union issues. He has nothing more to lose by pulling the confidence vote and resetting the clock.

For him, this is a question of survival. And a prime minister's first job is to assure his government's hold on power, and avoid defeat in the House.

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