Recalling the coalition crisis

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National Post, Friday, December 4, 2009

It is a year to the day since Michaelle Jean prorogued the House of Commons to end the threat of the newly re-elected Harper government being overthrown by the Three Stooges Coalition.

In doing so, she not only saved the Conservatives from a self-inflicted mortal wound, she also saved the Liberals from an experiment that would have ruined their brand in English-speaking Canada.

The coalition passed constitutional muster on the only technical question for the Governor-General's consideration: Its leaders had the confidence of the House, provided they could get to a vote. But that vote was never going to happen. For one thing, the Governor-General didn't want a King-Byng crisis. Nor did she want to refuse a prime minister's request for a dissolution, and thereby force a change of government.

For another, in the Westminster tradition, the PM determines the schedule of the House, and precedent supported prorogation. In 1988, for instance, Brian Mulroney brought the House back with a one-page throne speech implementing free-trade legislation, and prorogued within 10 days.

While the 2008 opposition coalition was constitutionally legal, it was politically illegitimate. The Three Stooges -- Stephane Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe -- made a fatal error in staging a signing ceremony to seal their deal. They looked like the coup plotters in Moscow in 1991. Had they succeeded, Canada would have looked like a banana republic.

When the coalition collapsed, Dion's fate became that of all failed coup leaders: He was stood against a wall and shot, and Michael Ignatieff ascended to the Liberal leadership without a convention.

The failure of the coup saved the Liberal party irreparable damage to its storied brand. They would have been seen, in English-speaking Canada, as being in bed with the socialists and the separatists. And the eviction of Dion spared the Liberals the continuing embarrassment of an accidental leader whom the voters had just rejected.

In retrospect, Ignatieff would have benefited from a competitive convention with Bob Rae -- he would have had to earn the leadership rather than having the crown handed to him. And he would have learned how to take his political game to a higher level than what we've seen this Fall, which was marked by his near-fatal misstep of trying to force an election in which he would have got killed.

But the real story of the last year is how Stephen Harper recovered. The Parliamentary crisis was precipitated by the PM alone, when his tactical instincts got the better of him in a budget-update bid to end public subsidies of political parties. The infuriated opposition response sent Harper into a tailspin over the last weekend of November, when he was inclined to allow the opposition to call a confidence vote he would have lost.

It took a Cabinet revolt to persuade Harper that his first duty as prime minister was to assure the survival of his government.

What we've seen in 2009 is quite a remarkable turnaround story, beginning with the January budget, of a prime minister leading the country through recession to recovery. A successful visit by Barack Obama in February was followed by the GM bailout, a deal that sealed the partnership between the two leaders. On a succession of international summits, Harper has looked very much at home on the world stage, as he does this week in China. And in the House, he has stared down Ignatieff's electoral brinkmanship in June and again in September, to Harper's benefit and Iggy's detriment.

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