Thursday, 4 December 2008

Oh Canada!

TRY this little thought experiment for me. Imagine that somewhere out there in the big wide world there’s a country a whole lot like ours. It’s ruled by the same Queen, most of its people speak the our language, it’s democratic traditions are of roughly the same vintage, and, along with New Zealand, it has recently come through a general election.


Now imagine that this country is in the grip of a constitutional crisis. Imagine that the government of the day, having lost the confidence of the legislature, is seeking to have Parliament prorogued by the Governor-General in order to avoid a Confidence Motion it knows it’s bound to lose. Imagine, too, that the Governor-General has hurried back from an overseas trip to be present in the capital as the crisis unfolds. Imagine the governing party of that country launching radio attack ads against its parliamentary rivals; calling upon its supporters to flood the Governor-General’s office with letters and e-mails; and even proposing a mass pro-Government demonstration outside her official residence. Imagine the country’s trade union leaders responding by calling protest rallies of their own to condemn the Government’s "unconstitutional" intentions.


Now answer me this question: "Don’t you think these events warrant a reasonable amount of space in our newspapers? And a reasonable amount of time on our radio and television news broadcasts?"

After all, we are talking about Canada.

I first learned of the crisis engulfing Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party Government here, at the World Socialist Web Site. But, for a more balanced view of the unfolding crisis, I would also recommend this link to the Globe & Mail – Canada’s leading daily newspaper.

Stephen Harper, along with the UK Conservative leader, David Cameron, and our very own, newly-elected National Party Prime Minister, John Key, belongs to the "new" generation of English-speaking conservative leaders. Young, telegenic, and studiously non-threatening, this group already controls two out of the four old "White" Commonwealth countries – Canada and New Zealand – and Cameron seems poised to make it three out of four the moment UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, gives him the opportunity. (Cynics might say that if you count Australia’s small "c" conservative Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, it will soon be four out of four!)

What’s interesting about Harper’s reaction to the coming together of his parliamentary enemies, and his potential ouster from power, is its extraordinary and reckless aggression. For the Canadian voter it has been a real shock to see the hitherto mild-mannered, non-threatening Harper suddenly transformed into someone hell-bent on clinging to power at almost any cost – up to and including undermining the constitutional integrity of the Queen’s representative.

It makes me wonder what sort of John Key might have emerged in the days following our own General Election if the numbers had turned out even slightly more favourably for Labour and NZ First. If a Labour, Progressive, Green and NZ First combination had ended up controlling three or four more seats than National, ACT and the Maori Party, what would his reaction have been?

I pose this question because there is an unnerving similarity in the constitutional misrepresentation that went on here in New Zealand over the issue of whether the party winning the largest number of seats had a "moral mandate" to govern, and Harper’s insistence that there is something constitutionally suspect about the Liberal, NDP and Le Bloc Quebecois decision to support a No-Confidence Motion against his government in the Canadian House of Commons.

In both cases, the Right has wilfully misconstrued the essence of the Westminster System prevailing in both countries: that general elections are held to elect parliaments – not governments.

A government is what is formed when a political party, or group of parties, enjoys the "confidence" (i.e. the support of more than half the members) of the legislature. In neither Canada nor New Zealand do the electors choose a prime minister, they choose a member of Parliament and/or a political party to represent their locality and/or themselves. It is these representatives who ultimately decide who the PM will be.

Fortunately, the NZ electorate, by voting in a decisive fashion, was able to avoid the potential constitutional confrontation inherent in the "moral mandate" position. The Canadians have not been so fortunate.

It is frankly scandalous that the New Zealand public has not been permitted to learn about the situation in Canada. The dilemma in which the relatively new and inexperienced Governor General, Michaelle Jean, has been placed is one which could easily be replicated in New Zealand. What is unfolding in Ottawa should be the subject of lively debate among all those New Zealanders with a interest in both understanding and defending their country’s democratic traditions.

The almost total media blackout on this story reflects the entrenched notion in practically all our newsrooms that the English-speaking nations of the world constitute the bench-mark of political normality and stability, and that it is, therefore, quite impossible for them to experience anything as abnormal and destabilising as a constitutional crisis. Our news editors simply ignore (or are ignorant of) the many historical precedents – from the dismissal of Lang and Whitlam in Australia, to the judicial theft of the 2000 US presidential election.

Apparently, constitutional crises only happen in hot countries – like Thailand – and are newsworthy only to the extent that they seriously inconvenience the travelling public.

Worried Canadians on the snow-covered streets of Ottawa might beg to differ.

UPDATE: Dateline Friday, 5th December 2008.

The Canadian Governor-General, Michaelle Jean, yesterday (our time) acceeded to Prime Minister, Stephen Harper's, request that Canada's Parliament be prorogued until January 26th 2009. This link will take you to the Globe & Mail's coverage of the unfolding crisis.


Anonymous said...

It makes me wonder what sort of John Key might have emerged...

....or may yet emerge: something that's niggled ever since this "PM" from Central Casting arrived on the scene.
Having endured more than my share of these young, telegenic, and studiously non-threatening types in my time, the common experience has been a honeymoon period lasting as long as the limelight shines, followed by hyper-sensitivity and raging tantrums at the slightest hint of criticism.

Of course all men are just boys, but when you start with a boy.....

Anonymous said...

I read about this the other day and was amazed to see the lenghts the Canadian PM was going to to stay in power. I find this incredibly interesting and look forward to seeing what happens.

Obviously the right need to understand the system that they were elected under....

Anonymous said...

Food for thought - I think the same thing would have happened here without a clear decision in the election. It was a close run thing and 40,000 votes going the other way could have precipitated a similar situation here with civil strife rendering the country ungovernable.
Perhaps a fully inclusive constitutional convention could address this along with the Treaty, whether NZ becomes a republic, the Maori seats, the abrogation of citizenship rights in the Foreshore and Seabed legislation, a better PR system [anything would be better than MMP which gives too much power to political parties] etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

norightturn has a good post on this subject too. I can't believe that the Canadian GG acceded to PM Harper's request to prorogue Parliament though.

Anonymous said...

Well ak, I suspect I saw the start of tantrum politics when The Key was pissed off that the airforce planes were not 'available to him' (as minister of tourism? as p.m?) to play rescue with stranded passengers in Thailand.

Anonymous said...

I guess the main problem with the Westminster system is the lack of an entrenched or comprehensive constitution. Although in the world their remains only 2 states without a codified constitution (us and Israel), in Westminster states the constitution lacks the importance of that in say, the USA.

This makes things doubly dicey as if you say Chris, we some day have a government that lacks a clear mandate or loses the confidence of the house. In essence, their is nothing to stop the government of the day ignoring convention and tradition, for that is all our constitutional arrangements are.

Although wouldn't the actions of Muldoon in the aftermath of the 1984 election count as a precedent for this sort of crisis in New Zealand?