As Senior Columnist for Maclean’s magazine, Paul Wells is one of Canada’s foremost political commentators. Fresh, funny and authoritative, Wells speaks in both official languages on all of the matters of the day, from Canada’s position in the global economy, to the inside scoop on what’s really happening inside the Parliament buildings. Wells has just published his second book, The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, 2006-, and we’re pleased to share this excerpt:
After Stephen Harper got his prorogation and the coalition fell apart, it would become fashionable to criticize the Canadian people for letting Harper get away with a swindle against parliamentary convention. Peter Russell and Lorne Sossin, two constitutional scholars, wrote a book called Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis, in which all the right people lamented the decline of Canadian wisdom about the rightness of the Dion-Layton démarche. “Widespread public uncertainty and confusion about the principles of government evident during the crisis revealed a grave lack of understanding about the mechanics and legalities of parliamentary democracy on the part of Canadians,” they wrote.
These analyses forgive nothing Harper did and everything his opponents had done. But the notion that democratic legitimacy boils down to an arithmetic majority in a vote in the Commons is pretty sterile. We have not often heard it argued since the 2008 confrontation; the Harper Conservatives have won dozens of confidence votes as a minority government and, since 2011, as a majority government. If Commons voting arithmetic is the only test of legitimacy in our democracy, then this will be a short book because, under this peculiar theory, no criticism of most of what Harper has done is possible. Nor was it a notion the coalition partners thought to share with voters during the 2008 campaign. Nobody, not even Jack Layton, campaigned on a promise to form a government with other parties if they found their own party outnumbered. Dion explicitly rejected the idea three times: first, as a hypothetical question, when reporters put it to him on the campaign trail; second, on the phone with Layton once the results were in; and finally, when he announced he would resign from politics after winning the lowest share of the popular vote in Liberal Party history.
If the Liberals had won nearly as many seats as the Conservatives, Dion could have made a better case of it. Or if the Liberals and New Democrats had together outnumbered the Conservatives.
Or again if the Liberals and New Democrats had needed only a few Bloc MPs to complete their hand. But to pull a coalition off, Dion would have needed essentially the entire Bloc caucus to prop his government up, so Liberal MPs would be a minority, not just in the Commons, but in their own government’s caucus support.
It was a mess, and the opposition parties would not even have attempted it if they had not been interested, first of all, in saving their own hides. But even then Canadians might have backed the coalition in numbers sufficient to give heart to the plotters, if they had been angry enough at Harper, if they judged his misstep on the economic update sufficiently damning.
Pollsters already in the field were starting to hear otherwise. But the main players in this drama still had a chance to make their case directly to Canadians. On Wednesday morning, December 3, Harper announced that he had asked for network broadcast time that evening. The networks offered reply time to the opposition leaders.
Dion waited until late that afternoon to record his statement. He had it done by a Liberal staffer who did not have professional equipment and whose video camera, as luck would have it, had a busted autofocus. There was no time to fix the lousy footage. The Liberals had to rush the recording to the parliamentary press gallery for broadcast. Unfortunately, they neglected to check where it was supposed to go, and the delivery crew took it to the wrong address first. So, a half-hour late and comically out of focus, Dion delivered his pitch. On the substance of their messages, nobody had anything new to say. Harper said the people’s will was being thwarted; the others said Parliament’s will must be expressed and respected.
The first decision would be made by Michaëlle Jean. On Thursday morning just before 9:30 a.m., Harper’s motorcade drove the short distance from 24 Sussex Drive to Rideau Hall, taking care to sweep right past the nest of reporters in front of the main entrance so that Harper could use a smaller entrance where no cameras waited.
Two hours later, Harper came out. The governor general had granted his request to prorogue, he announced. Parliament would meet again on January 26. Parliament had always been scheduled to meet on January 26; all that was changing was that it would stop sitting immediately instead of on December 12. There would be no confidence vote until the New Year.
What on earth took him so long in there? What could they have talked about? Not much, it turns out. “He spent very little time with her,” Guy Giorno said in an interview. “And then she left and returned after a delay.” So she made him cool his heels alone for almost the entire two hours? “She can speak for herself,” Giorno said, then added, “Well, she ought not, as a matter of constitutional convention.”
Another Harper advisor suspects the delay was a way of asserting a power Jean had no intention of using. Still, the decision was hers, and she left the meeting room to press that point home, then returned and granted what the prime minister had requested. The overwhelming weight of the constitutional advice the PMO had gathered in the days leading up to the meeting had suggested she would do just that.
What if Jean had said no? What if she had let Parliament keep sitting despite his request? In his 2010 book Harperland, Lawrence Martin quotes Teneycke on other options Harper might have had. “Well, among them, the Queen,” Teneycke said.
Could Harper really have asked the Queen to countermand the governor general? Giorno argues that the question is simply meaningless because what Harper was asking for was not something any governor general would have refused. “I don’t want to contradict my good friend, my very good friend,” Giorno says now, referring to Teneycke, “but I can only believe that Lawrence took Kory down a path where Kory was wildly speculating. Because that’s not, I’m sorry, that’s … how do I say it? Not only did it not happen that way. There’s no conceivable reality from which one could conceivably come to that conclusion.”
Giorno isn’t even sure what “going to the Queen” would entail. “Ask the Queen to come over and rule the country directly? Fire the governor general? I don’t think it works.”
In the end, simply by acceding to Harper’s wishes, Jean concocted an exquisitely simple stress test for the Dion-led coalition. If this was indeed a durable realignment of forces within the four walls of the House of Commons, proroguing wouldn’t change it. A confidence vote that didn’t end Harper’s career on December 8 could do so on January 30 or in February. All the opposition parties had to do was stick together.
That didn’t happen. Michael Ignatieff, Dion’s likely successor as Liberal leader, had stayed mum throughout the crisis. But in a Liberal caucus meeting that began minutes after Harper’s Rideau Hall media statement ended, Ignatieff said there was nothing to gain by pushing the coalition now. The government’s defeat could lead to two outcomes: Michaëlle Jean handing power to an untested new Liberal-led government — or an election. He did not think an election would go well for the Liberals.
As the poll numbers began arriving, they bore out Ignatieff’s hunch. Boy, did they ever. Polling on December 2 and 3, EKOS asked: “If a federal election were held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?” Nationally 44 percent said they would vote Conservative, to 24.1 percent for the Liberals and 14.5 percent for the NDP. EKOS also asked which option respondents preferred as a solution to the impasse. A plurality, 37 percent, favoured “Parliament taking a break for a month or so to see whether the Conservatives can get the confidence of parliament when it comes back into session.” Fewer, 28 percent, wanted to give the coalition a chance to govern. Only 19 percent wanted an election.
Strategic Counsel, on December 5: Conservatives 45 percent, Liberals 24 percent, NDP 14 percent.
Ipsos Reid, same day: Conservatives 46 percent, Liberals 23 percent, NDP 13 percent.
All three polls put the Conservatives in majority-government territory, with support nearly one-fifth higher than in the election only a month earlier. There were important regional variations, of course: the coalition was far more popular in Quebec than elsewhere, for instance. But the implication was obvious. The reaction of the opposition parties had succeeded in producing the clear referendum Harper had sought and failed to obtain in the election campaign. Canadians were realizing the available choices came down to a government composed of Conservatives and led by Harper, or a government composed of Liberals and New Democrats, supported by the Bloc, and led in the next several weeks of a global economic crisis by Stéphane Dion. In the main they supported Harper. If forced to vote, they appeared ready to do so in a way that would put his job out of reach of the combined opposition. It was over.
On Monday, December 8, Dion announced he would resign as Liberal leader as soon as his caucus could find an interim leader. It didn’t take long. On Wednesday, Michael Ignatieff became the new interim Liberal leader. There was no suspense to what followed. On CTV’s Question Period on December 7, speaking even before Dion had announced his resignation, Ignatieff had left Harper all kinds of room to avoid a further confidence-vote showdown. “Coalition if necessary but not necessarily coalition,” he told CTV. “I think it’s very important for Canadians to have the coalition option so that if Mr. Harper presents a budget which is not in the national interest we can present to Canadians a coalition alternative to spare us a national election.” This was fantasy: if the opposition had not been able to take power while avoiding an election at the beginning of December, they would not have more luck at the end of January. The first choice facing the new Liberal leader-of-sorts would be whether to submit the coalition notion for the voters’ approval in a winter election. And thanks to the polls, Ignatieff already knew how they’d respond. “Public opinion was crucially important,” Mark Cameron, Harper’s former policy advisor, said later. “You know, there were protests and counter-protests going on. I think if public opinion polls had shown that 60 percent of the population thought that Harper was on the wrong track and the coalition was a good idea, and if only they’d put Bob Rae there instead of Dion, then people would embrace it, the result would have been different. I don’t think Harper would have been able to do what he did if public opinion wasn’t behind it. Because I’m sure the governor general was looking at public opinion polls too.”
This thought led directly to another, more surprising one. “In some ways, the events of that two-week period were the real election campaign of 2008,” Cameron said. “The election was kind of a bland issueless election, despite the fact that you had this economic crisis going on all around you. In some ways, the real election was the swings in public opinion of that two-week period.”
This short second election of 2008 was a watershed moment for Harper. He could never be sure before now that a working plurality of Canadians would prefer him to the alternative in a direct comparison. Suddenly and quite against his wishes, circumstances had conspired to produce such a direct, binary choice. And more Canadians had preferred Harper to the alternative. He knew that, when it came to it, the country would have his back.
The lesson was not lost on Harper. After Christmas he sat down with Ken Whyte, the editor of Maclean’s magazine, for an interview. The opposition coalition, at least theoretically still a menace hanging over his government, was much on his mind. “Obviously, if we had an election today somebody will have a majority,” he said, “because it will be either Canada’s Conservative government or the coalition.”
Whyte was plainly surprised by the notion. “So you think they’d actually run as a coalition?”
“I don’t think they have any choice: if they defeat us as a coalition they have to run as a coalition, and I think those will be the real choices before the electorate. The electorate will know that if you’re not electing the Conservative government you’re going to be electing a coalition that will include the NDP and the separatists.”
The election Harper was thinking about was the one that still loomed as a possible consequence of the 2009 budget, now only weeks away. In the event, Ignatieff would back away from a confrontation, a manoeuvre with which he would soon become wearyingly familiar, and Harper would live to fight another day. But Harper would hang on to his plan to run the next election as a clear choice between a Conservative majority and an opposition coalition. He would make no secret of it, repeating that line dozens of times, until eventually senior ministers repeated it too. The opposition parties had more than two years’ advance notice of Harper’s strategy for the next
election. Surely with that much warning they could confound him. Surely.