Speculation swirls around the hypothetical constitutional crisis that would be laid in the lap of our Governor-General if the Conservative government, elected with a significantly increased number of seats only six weeks ago, were to fall on a confidence vote over last week's economic and fiscal update. The opposition parties maintain that the document failed to provide the economic stimulus needed to kick-start Canada's economy.
But who said that this update was supposed to contain the formal response to the coming downturn? Not the government. The Conservatives merely presented a report card indicating that, given the best forecasts available and using reasonable assumptions, Canada will skate by with a razor-thin surplus in each of the next five years. The country was entitled to know this starting point because the issue of a possible deficit had been widely discussed in the recent campaign. The measures were focused on Ottawa itself: Cap compensation for MPs, senators and public servants, increase transfers to the provinces at the economy's rate of growth, ask political parties to raise their own funds to pay for operations.
Stimulus is necessary, indeed inevitable. But is it a matter of confidence that it does not come in the first days of a parliamentary sitting? The U.S. package for the general economy awaits the inauguration of president-elect Barack Obama. There are many Canadian industries in which any proposed assistance would have to be co-ordinated with our trading partners. The auto industry is a perfect example. The government should offer help to preserve manufacturing jobs in proportion to the size of our industry, and bargain guarantees that layoffs and plant closures would not disproportionately disadvantage Canada.
So what is the real reason for the race to arrange a coalition as an alternative to dissolution? Everyone knows that the real grounds for the political heartburn now engulfing Ottawa is the proposed measure for funding political parties.
The opposition's ox has been gored. These parties do not want to have to make the effort to solicit funds from their support base instead of relying on taxpayer subsidies.
In the recent U.S. election, even the candidate of the left, of the less economically advantaged, of the working class, raised a record amount through direct mail and the Internet. Mr. Obama elected to decline public funds and the spending limits that would have otherwise applied.
The Conservatives were once broke too, but have managed to generate an ample war chest to fight their political campaigns. They have done this not with large contributions from well-heeled fat cats - ironically, that used to be the preserve of the Liberals before the sponsorship scandal forced Jean Chrétien to close off that source of funding - but by thousands of donations from supporters averaging about $200 each. It is unreasonable to assume that the Liberals, the NDP, the Bloc and the Greens cannot do the same. Before we conclude that our current way is the only way to fund the democratic system, we should look at alternatives.
To defeat the government on the pretext that the stimulus package can't wait until January (while the whole country knows the real reason) is one thing. To leap to the conclusion that this should open the door to a government formed by the Liberals (who received their lowest percentage of the vote since Confederation), the New Democrats (with whom the Liberals said they would never form a coalition) and the Bloc (whose raison d'être is the separation of Quebec) is bizarre. This is not so much a coalition as a putsch, an attempt to claim power without consulting the people.
Because historical precedents abound on both sides, the Governor-General and her legal officers will have a dilemma if the coalition option is presented to her after a lost confidence motion. On the one hand, the "King-Byng" affair and the subsequent 1926 election repudiated the governor-general of the day for declining prime minister Mackenzie King's advice. Lord Byng left Canada under a cloud. In 1985, Liberal David Peterson became premier of Ontario when he entered into an agreement with the NDP's Bob Rae (the same man who now seeks the federal Liberal leadership). So the head of state will be influenced by the stability of the proposed coalition and by Canadian opinion on whether there is a real issue of confidence here.
Neither Mr. Rae nor Michael Ignatieff should be pleased to see Stéphane Dion anointed as prime minister mere weeks after his humiliation at the polls. What if he decides he likes the job and postpones the planned leadership convention? What policy price would the leadership candidates have to pay by associating themselves with the NDP and the Bloc? What would Trudeau loyalists do when asked to cozy up with those who would destroy Canada? What about those Liberals who are centre-right supporters of our market system, now thrust into liaison with the NDP?
This would be a parody of democracy. To do it on the false pretext that stimulus can't wait when the real motive is far more self-interested, would be asking Her Excellency to participate in a mockery of our system of government.
Stanley H. Hartt is a former deputy finance minister and chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney.