Has Harper done anything more than buy himself time?

Has Harper done anything more than buy himself time?

Will Canada’s Conservative PM still be in office next spring?

It’s less than eight weeks ago that I (and in contrast to the US election night, probably few fellow Brits) had an “all-nighter” to watch the Canadian election results come through live. With the exceptions of Quebec and Newfoundland, the Conservatives performed strongly, turning three-figure majorities into five-figure ones, while the Liberals had a disastrous night under the hapless Dion and the NDP made progress.

But now, although Harper’s Conservatives secured a stronger minority government than in January 2006, Canada is probably ahead of Greece (where the Karamanlis government has a one-seat majority, in addition to the riots) as currently the most unstable of the established democracies. In many ways, Canada is probably closer to the UK in its setup (federalism aside) than anywhere else, with FPTP, a small number of parties winning seats, and a supersized version of the SNP in the shape of the Bloc Quebecois. The current situation in Ottawa may thus be of interest should the next UK election produce a hung parliament.

My feeling (and that of pundits on Canadian TV on election night) was that Harper would probably be safe for at least another year or so – no election until autumn 2009 as the Liberals licked their wounds after their massive defeat, with a new leader expected to be in place by May. However, as elsewhere around the world, the economic crisis has reshuffled the deck of cards, and so opposed were the Liberals and NDP to the economic proposals presented by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that they put together an government-in-waiting which would be led by the Liberals but would also see the NDP taking cabinet seats. This agreement would last until mid-2011, and crucially, in terms of the Commons arithmetic, the BQ would be on board until mid-2010, supporting the putative coalition (a novelty in Canadian politics) in confidence votes without actually entering the government.

Despite the government dropping some proposals (notably that on party funding), this was not enough to placate the opposition parties, who held firmly to their plans to topple Harper, with a confidence vote originally scheduled for tomorrow. However, the Prime Minister visited the Governor-General Michelle Jaen, and she granted his request for parliament to be suspended until 26th January, for a prorogation period of almost two months – this is the first time in Canada that a PM has prorogued Parliament in order to avoid a confidence vote.

The government is thus safe for a few weeks now, with a vote on the Budget expected once Parliament returns. Polls suggest that if this crisis were to result in another election, the Conservatives would improve on their October performance, with a showing putting them into majority territory. Meanwhile, the Liberals are for now stuck with Dion, who proved to be an extremely unpopular leader. He was originally due to step down in the spring, but having someone who led their party to a huge defeat is not the ideal choice to lead a coalition government. It’s currently looking as though Dion will be gone early in the new year.

It remains to be seen what will happen at the end of January, but if the “coalition” can hold together, perhaps with Rae or Ignatieff at the helm of the Liberals, and defeat the government in a confidence vote, all eyes will then be on the Governor-General. Will she ask the Liberals and NDP to from a new government, or could she really dissolve Parliament for a new election less than six months since the previous one – an election which the Tories might win with a majority?

Double Carpet

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