The political meltdown in Canada, at first, looks like a power grab by the Conservative Party and its leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. A closer look reveals that the parliamentary crisis came about because minority parties tried to undermine Mr. Harper just weeks after his party gained seats in Ottawa.
More so than in the United States, Canadian political parties must work together to have a functional government. Although it picked up additional seats in the October election, the Conservative Party did not gain a majority, meaning it must form a coalition with other parties to pass laws, etc.
In late November, Prime Minister Harper presented an economic update that did not include stimulus measures that other parties favored. Mr. Harper argued that Canada’s economy is stronger than most others and that the country should avoid deficits. Further, he said, he’d present a full budget in January.
He then insulted the minority parties by cutting off public financing for political parties. The Conservatives don’t need this money because they are well-financed, but the smaller parties rely on the $1.95 per vote received in the previous election. Mr. Harper dropped this provision, but the damage was done.
Leaders from the Liberal and New Democratic Party teamed up with the Bloc Quebecois to form a coalition and threatened a no-confidence vote in Prime Minister Harper.
He then consulted with the Queen of England’s representatives, Gov. General Michaelle Jean, and got permission to dissolve Parliament until late January. If the request had been denied, Mr. Harper would have faced a no-confidence vote this week if he did not step down.
“The political atmosphere in Ottawa has become ‘poisonous’ from excessive partisanship,” says Howard Cody, a professor of Canadian studies at the University of Maine. He blames Prime Minister Harper’s rigidity for setting an uncooperative tone.
But, he calls the Liberal-New Democrat-Quebecois coalition “preposterous-looking,” especially because the other two rarely work with the Bloc-Quebecois, because their separatist agenda is “radioactive.” This group planned to promote Liberal leader Stephane Dion as prime minister, even though he is unpopular across Canada and his party had a poor showing in the recent elections. He may now be on the outs, to be replaced by Michael Ignatieff, a more formidable figure.
In Mr. Harper’s defense, polls show that Canadians view him as the best choice for prime minister and the Conservatives as best able to manage the economy.
Plus, Parliament was about to adjourn for the holiday anyway and some economic help can come without legislative input.
The tougher question is how the parties will work together once Parliament resumes on Jan. 26. Mr. Harper has said he is ready to work with the other parties; they say they don’t trust him.
For now, Prime Minister Harper holds the cards.