Friday, April 22, 2011


As the Prime Minister of a long-established, if complacent, democracy, Stephen Harper is supposed to say that for him the will of the people is paramount. He is supposed to declare that whatever House of Commons Canadians establish through their votes, he will accept it and work with it. He is supposed to say that he is the servant of the people.

Remarkably, Harper says none of these things. He insists that the only House of Commons he can work with after the election is one in which his party has a majority of seats. Should his party end up with the largest number of seats in a minority Parliament, he has declared that he cannot work with the other parties.

He will not alter a single jot or tittle in the budget he presented in March in a bid to win the support of one or more of the opposition parties. Quite simply, he does not recognize the legitimacy of the members of the other parties in the House of Commons, even though their presence in the House is the result of the expression of the will of the people. He is not required, he is saying, to heed the voices, the wisdom or the ideas of other Parliamentarians.

As a politician in a democracy, even if you secretly have nothing but loathing for the views of others, you are not supposed to make that contempt obvious. You are supposed to claim that you recognize the legitimacy of others.

That is the conventional thing to do.

The conventional is often dull, pretentious and ceremonial. But it is also an essential form of shorthand. It lets us know whether we can trust someone at first glance. We recoil, for instance, when a man bites a dog.

Not only does Stephen Harper refuse to acknowledge the will of the people and the legitimacy of parties that are not his own, he calls into question the essential principle of the Westminster system of parliamentary government. The principle is that a ministry must enjoy the confidence of the majority of the members of the House of Commons. Furthermore, if one ministry does not enjoy the confidence of the House, it is appropriate for the Governor General to seek to form an alternative ministry that does enjoy the confidence of the House.

I can’t help wondering if Stephen Harper doesn’t know what happened to the Stuarts, missed the Glorious Revolution of 1688, or spent so much time at Reform Party gatherings that he had no time to read Locke.

Canada is one of the few democracies in which there is no formal sharing of power among political parties in the governing of the country. Even in the United States, the country Harper wishes he led, the President of the United States has to share power with the Congress. Consider the plight of Barack Obama having to deal with John Boehner in the House of Representatives. No one imagines that he loves it. But it does it. He does not call into question the constitutional authority of the House to pass money bills.

When one party controls the Presidency while another party controls the legislature or national assembly, the French call it co-habitation, something with which they are familiar.

In the democratic world, Stephen Harper alone wraps himself in the cloak of: “Sans moi, le deluge.”


Anonymous said...

Prof. James:
We may yet get Emperor Stephen whether we like it or not, thanks to Jack Layton. Layton told the Star that the NDP no longer supports the Clarity Act. The NDP leader says that 50% + 1 is enough for Quebec to secede. Watch the PM warn of the dangers of a coalition with the PQ waiting to form a government in Quebec City. Watch the move to the right, especially out West and maybe Ontario. Don't underestimate the anti-separatist feeling in English Canada. In the past, NDP strategy has helped the Conservatives. It may do so again.

Anne-Marie said...

The man’s arrogance really is breathtaking, isn’t it? His statements this week make the G-G’s responsibility clear. If the Conservatives win a minority, he must ask whichever party has the most seats, other than the Conservatives, to try to form a government, since the Conservatives have made explicit their complete intransigence with respect to working with Parliament.

DavidHeap said...

I think it is time call everyone's bluff about the "separatist" bogeyman: pro-independence parties in Catalonia regularly support national governments in Madrid (right or centre-left), and Spain has yet to come apart at the seams. Grow up, folks: coalitions, including support from regional parties, are pretty normal in many democracies.
Might voting NDP "help" the CONtempt party? In a few places, perhaps, sometimes. Then again, voting Liberal anywhere has helped the CONtempt party rule for five years...

Bill Bell said...

I would observe that Mr Harper has been biting dogs for several years now. I point that out because so few Canadians seem to take that into consideration when they vote.

farwestie said...

The point to emphasize in this article is that our preposterous PM thinks the opposition parties are to blame for his problem with Parliament.
But, of course, he is his own problem. Did not the man swear an oath on taking office, e.g. that he would work within the system for the good of all? If he did, let's hear more about it. Also, we need to know on what grounds he could be removed from office for refusing--or failing-- to fulfill his sworn duty to Parliament and the people of Canada.