The spotlight is on Governor General Michaëlle Jean. What will her advisers tell her? Photo: Bela Szandelszky/ CP Photo
It's the tone, stupid. Sure, staving off economic devastation across the land is the sole focus of the new Liberal-NDP coalition hatched this week on the overheated carcass of the Harper Conservatives.
But it was Stephen Harper's tone that pushed the Libs and the NDP into bed together, and it will be the tone of the coalition that will determine whether, as Jack Layton put it at the end of Monday's surreal press conference, we can "do politics differently" in Canada.
I say, stick to that positive tone, Jack, especially as the Tory propaganda shitstorm builds. It resonates in either official language, because Canadians want to do politics differently.
So even if Governor General Michaëlle Jean decides to listen to her first minister and prorogue Parliament until the new year or dissolve it and trigger an election, nothing will be the same again in federal politics. That's because we now know political opponents can sit down and work together to get things done.
But will this new moment be just that - a moment? Don't doubt Harperites for a second when they say they will do anything within the law (and, as evidenced by the tape recording handed out Sunday by the PMO of a private conference call between NDP leader Jack Layton and his MPs, perhaps slightly outside it) to stay in power.
And, folks, lying, except under oath, is not breaking any law. So beware big ones like this from Harper right out of the gate: that Stéphane Dion has no right to be prime minister without an election. "They want to take power, not earn it," he said in the foyer of the House.
"That comment disturbed me more than anything else," says Stephen Scott, professor emeritus of McGill University's faculty of law. "It was a crude partisan distortion. The fate of the government in a parliamentary minority is determined by the House of Commons. Many people might be taken in by this."
In fact, Scott and other constitutional experts are concerned that a crisis may erupt due to the intentional misleading of the public over the rules of the game.
"This part of our constitution [what happens when a government loses the confidence of the House] is not written down," says U of T constitutional guru Peter Russell. "Most Canadians don't know about how it works."
Russell, whose latest book is Two Cheers For Minority Government, says that what's written on the subject could fill several libraries - but don't go looking for it in our constitution. The system, he says, evolved over a couple of hundred years as the British system moved from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.
"The big break came in Canada in the 1800s when the British Crown said it would only act on the advice of the group that had the confidence of the elected legislature," he says.
Most experts agree that the Governor General is more or less bound to follow the advice of the PM, as Jean did when Harper asked her to disregard the spirit of his own fixed election date law and dissolve Parliament, triggering the last election.
"A Governor General is extremely reluctant to refuse the advice of the prime minister," says Scott.
So if Harper goes to Rideau Hall and seeks a prorogation, the GG may be hard pressed to refuse his advice, even though such a move would be unprecedented. (Prorogation typically happens near the end of a parliamentary session, when, for example, the government finds that it has fulfilled its legislative agenda ahead of schedule.)
But here the experts disagree. "Maybe her advisers would say, ‘No, she's got a letter [from the Liberals and the NDP]'" giving her another option, says U of T political science prof Nelson Wiseman. "If this Parliament were eight or nine months old and Harper asked to prorogue, she would be bound to listen to him even if the Opposition had put together a coalition. But this is different. The fact that this Parliament has lasted only eight or nine days is very significant."
As the anti-coalition chorus cranks it up, another question of tone concerns constitution-watchers: Harper's relentless attacks on the Bloc Quebecois, the third wheel of the coalition.
"For all intents and purposes, the secessionist movement is dead in Quebec. Politically, the Bloc has walked away from it," says Quebec-Ottawa specialist Michael Behiels of U of Ottawa. "The Reform part of the Conservatives hates Quebec with a passion, and Harper has unleashed the dogs of venom."
He says Harper's outrageous plan to strip parties of their election subsidy was aimed not at killing the Liberals but the Bloc. "He'd courted Quebec heavily and risked angering his base. But Quebecers took a good look at him and voted for the Bloc instead," he says. "To attack the coalition because it has brought the Bloc inside the tent is disastrous. It is not playing very well at all in Quebec."
Most progressives in English Canada who have watched Gilles Duceppe in the many leaders' debates have found, notwithstanding secession, a fellow traveller. And today we aren't talking separation. We're talking desperation in the economy.
So it makes great sense for Layton, in the now-famed tape, to tell his caucus, "Nothing could be better for our country than to have the 50 members out of 75 in Quebec actually helping to make Canada a better place."
That's the right tone, Jack. Stick with it.