Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Clinging to power

Following up on this post, it's worth asking just how far Stephen Harper plans to try to push the envelope in order to stay in the PMO, as the outcome of the impending federal election would seem to have potential to give rise to a serious constitutional crisis.

Here's what Harper said in demanding the chance to form government again even if a majority coalition is lined up against him:
That didn't answer the more complex question of what would happen if Harper formed a minority government, but the three left-wing opposition parties band together to defeat him on a quick vote of confidence - such as the throne speech opening a new Parliament.

Under constitutional convention, the Governor General would almost certainly let the opposition try its hand at forming a government.

Harper, however, dismissed that scenario as anti-democratic.

"Whoever wins the election will have a mandate to govern," he told a news conference.

"I think it will be incumbent upon the opposition parties - at least for a period of time - to respect that mandate. I think they would not do so at their peril."
Now, Harper's dividing line for the moment appears to be the question of which party wins the most seats in the House of Commons. Which is of course likely the one which gives the Cons the best chance of retaining power (if one with no foundation in Canadian precedent). But the question of which party wins the most seats doesn't seem to make all that much difference either in constitution or in principle.

Constitutionally, based on the concept of continuity of government, the Cons are still technically in office now - and will continue to be so until such time as somebody is sworn in to replace them. Which means that if Harper is determined to hold onto power as long as possible even if the election goes sour, then his best bet is probably to muddy the waters as much as possible to keep anybody else from replacing him.

In that respect, Harper's shot across the bow appears to be aimed to preventing two possibilities: either the opposition parties voting him down in the House of Commons, or the Governor General selecting somebody other than Harper to lead the government based on a publicly-known coalition in the absence of a vote.

But with Harper effectively declaring that he considers himself entitled to hold onto power even if a majority coalition is prepared to vote down his party and assume government, is it much of a leap to think he might try to put off the organization of a new Parliament in order to impose as much of the Cons' agenda as he can by executive fiat before any confidence votes take place? And if Harper is willing to claim that he should be able to maintain power based on a single-party seat total which obviously bears no relation to actual confidence within the House, is it much of a stretch to think he might change his tune and claim the ability to do so based on continuity of government if the party standings turn against him?

All of which is to say that Harper's statement yesterday may amount to a declaration that the only way he's leaving 24 Sussex is if Canadians drag him out by his sweater. And the fact that Harper is so desperate to cling to power should make Canadians question whether or not he's fit to exercise it.

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