OTTAWA – To save his job and his government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to suspend Parliament this week while his party blitzes the country with a public-relations campaign aimed at discrediting the notion of a Liberal-led coalition government propped up by the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
The Conservative party began airing radio ads Tuesday while ministers and other Tory representatives were appearing on as many all-news television channels and talk-radio programs as they could to push their party’s message that they will not, in the words of one of Harper’s senior advisers, “allow a new radical government without the people’s consent.”
The key attack line from the Tories is that the Liberals are betraying their federalist principles by agreeing to demands from the Bloc Quebecois.
“This deal that the leader of the Liberal party has made with the separatists is a betrayal of the voters of this country, a betrayal of the best interests of our economy, a betrayal of the best interests of our country, and we will fight it with every means we have,” Harper said in the House of Commons. “The highest principle of Canadian democracy is that if one wants to be prime minister, one gets one’s mandate from the Canadian people and not from Quebec separatists.”
But NDP Leader Jack Layton shot back that Harper himself was prepared to align himself with Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Quebecois in 2004 when he was the opposition leader trying to bring down the government of Paul Martin.
“I didn’t hear any of this high and mighty language and moral indignation from the prime minister when he signed a document along with myself and Mr. (Bloc Leader Gilles) Duceppe a few years ago,” Layton said.
The Liberals challenged Harper to call a confidence vote.
“Every member of the House has received a mandate from the Canadian people to deliver a government that will face the economic crisis. The prime minister has failed. The prime minister does not have the support of the House any more,” Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said. “Will he allow a vote to test if he has really the confidence of the House as it must be in a parliamentary democracy?”
Dion and Harper engaged in a heated, even explosive, exchange. At one point, Harper accused Dion of removing the Canadian flags from the room before signing the deal with Layton and Duceppe. News organizations, including Canwest News Service, took several photographs which clearly showed there were two Canadian flags, as well as the flags from all the provinces, directly behind the leaders as they read their statements – along with a third separate Canadian flag behind the table where they signed the agreement.
Harper’s defiant demeanour in the House on Tuesday was in marked contrast to the previous day, when he and many other Conservative MPs seemed resigned to losing power.
But sources in the Prime Minister’s Office say he regained his fight while watching the signing Monday of the tri-partite accord. They say Harper was particularly incensed at Layton’s comments at the news conference that followed, during which he called on Harper to accept his fate with dignity and accept his new role as leader of the opposition. According to those close to the prime minister, Harper said he felt Layton and the other leaders failed to show him any respect.
During question period Tuesday, the Conservatives leaped to their feet on several occasions to give the prime minister standing ovations. Insults flew from both sides of the Commons, with the Tories labeling Dion a “traitor” and the Liberals shouting at Harper, “You are not the president.” After question period, the Conservatives showered the prime minister with chants of “Harper! Harper!” in the government lobby before breaking out into the national anthem.
The bare-knuckles politicking followed the unveiling Monday of the historic accord between the Liberals and the NDP to unseat Harper’s minority government and replace it with a coalition supported by the Bloc Quebecois. The new coalition government would be led by Dion until May 2, his previously announced resignation date, when the new leader of the Liberal party would take over as prime minister. Layton and five of his NDP MPs would get seats in the 24-person coalition cabinet.
But several Liberal MPs, asking for anonymity, said that while the deal had the unanimous support of caucus, it was the best of a bad set of choices facing their party, and they privately hoped another way out of this political showdown might be found.
For Harper, it’s the fight of his political career. Many in his caucus are already grumbling that he’s responsible for goading the opposition with unnecessary and incendiary initiatives in last week’s economic and fiscal statement. In that document, the government proposed eliminating taxpayer subsidies for political parties and rolling back wages for public-sector unions while taking away their right to strike. Both those measures were hastily withdrawn over the weekend, but not before they had galvanized the opposition to begin the talks that would eventually lead to the coalition accord.
The Conservative party also launched a new website at canadians4democracy.ca and was trying to organize various anti-coalition rallies across the country. Conservative activists are also being encouraged to call Liberal and NDP MPs to convince them to reconsider.
Meanwhile, Gov. Gen Michaelle Jean, who will play a key role in breaking the parliamentary logjam, is cutting short a state visit to Europe to return to Canada on Wednesday.
The government has the authority to suspend Parliament indefinitely, a process known as “proroguing.” However, the prime minister must ask the Governor General for approval before doing so.
Typically, the Governor General grants the request as a matter of course at the end of a long Parliament, but Jean will be facing unprecedented circumstances, namely, the prospect of a government trying to suspend Parliament in the face of certain defeat.
If Parliament is prorogued, it would most likely reconvene just before the Conservatives table a budget on Jan. 27, giving the Tories nearly two months to conduct their anti-coalition campaign for nearly two months.
Many Liberal and NDP MPs said Tuesday they fully expect Harper to prorogue. Conservative officials were non-committal when asked, saying only the prime minister would use “any legal means necessary” to secure his position. The prime minister is expected to make a televised address if and when he decides to prorogue.
Prorogation could happen as early as Wednesday, although Liberals and Conservatives are betting Harper will wait until the end of the week while his party’s public-relations campaign builds some steam.
If Harper does seek a prorogation – or suspension of the current session of Parliament – and if the Governor General refuses his request, the government would face its first and likely last confidence vote in the House of Commons on Monday. Although Jean could choose to call a new general election, should the government lose a confidence motion, constitutional experts and many Conservatives themselves believe that, given how little time has elapsed since the Oct. 14 general election, she would simply invite Dion to form a government and become the country’s 23rd prime minister.
Jean said in a TV interview in Prague that she has received the letter Dion sent Monday on behalf of the coalition that has formed to replace the Conservatives.
“I received his letter, and the message in the letter is clear,” Jean said. “I think that my presence is required in the country, so I will be leaving tomorrow.”
Asked what she would do if Harper asks for a prorogation, Jean replied that her door is open when she returns.
“Before I can answer this question, I have to see what the prime minister has to say to me, and what he is actually thinking of doing. I don’t know exactly anything about his intentions yet.”