Canada is a country founded on principles of “peace, order and good government.” Lately, it has seemed to possess none of the above. In the two months since Canadians re-elected the Conservative Party to power in a federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has dramatically misinterpreted his mandate to govern. After three years of exploiting an enfeebled opposition, he now finds himself fighting for his political life.
On December 1, Canada’s three opposition parties presented a plan to topple Harper’s minority government at a press conference in Ottawa. The leaders of the center-left Liberal Party, the social democratic New Democratic Party and the separatist Bloc Québécois publicly signed a coalition accord and informed Governor-General Michaëlle Jean that their parties have lost confidence in the Conservatives’ capacity to govern. Harper is now struggling to fend off the opposition’s bid to form a Liberal-New Democrat coalition government with the support of the Bloc caucus.
Harper has only himself to blame for his current predicament. The Conservatives were re-elected in October with a mandate to stabilize the country’s increasingly vulnerable economy, but returned to Parliament without a stimulus package. Instead, they unveiled a series of vehemently partisan proposals. These included a two-year ban on strikes by public-service unions and a plan to eliminate public subsidies for political parties, a cut that would disproportionately affect their parliamentary rivals. Faced with the prospect of functional bankruptcy, the opposition parties “realized that there was no way work to work with Harper, that he was bent on their destruction,” says Richard Mahoney, former president of the Ontario Liberal Party and a longtime Liberal strategist.
Just as Harper has been flummoxed by the forcefulness of the opposition’s response, the Canadian public has been taken aback by the chaos engulfing its normally steady political system. Rarely has a government failed to win the confidence of Parliament so soon after an election, or faced such a bold alternative to replace it. The country has not had a coalition government on the federal level since 1917, during the dislocations of World War I.
But the concept of coalition government has gained increasing currency in progressive circles in recent years. Despite sharp divisions between the Conservatives and the opposition parties on subjects like the environment, aboriginal issues and the economy, excessive partisanship on the center-left has allowed Harper to impose his agenda on Parliament. In an indication of the progressive momentum generated by the current multiparty alliance, Canada’s largest union federation, the Canadian Labour Congress, has launched a radio ad campaign promoting pro-coalition rallies all across the country. Their message is clear: Harper has failed to make Parliament work or address the country’s economic needs.
Armed with a well-funded political machine, Harper is pulling no punches in his efforts to discredit his progressive challengers. Speaking before the House of Commons on December 2, he accused the Liberals and New Democrats of a “betrayal of the best interests of our country” for proposing to govern with the support of the Bloc Québécois, a progressive party that advocates for Quebec’s sovereignty. While this strategy plays well with Harper’s base in Western Canada, “pitting one region of Canada against the next is a dangerous thing,” notes Jodi White, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum and former chief of staff to Conservative Prime Minister Kim Campbell. “There’s a great deal of concern that [the government] is playing politics with the danger of separatism.”