"An odd (!) understanding" of how Parliament works

As I did yesterday, I turn to Prof. Don Desserud, the University of New Brunswick expert on our parliamentary system, for insights into what is being said by Stephen Harper about that much-debated episode in 2004—you know, back when he was cooperating, but not coalition-conniving, with Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe.

This time, I asked Desserud about the prime minister’s fuller explanation today of what exactly he had in mind when he signed that joint letter to the governor-general with the NDP’s Layton and the Bloc’s Duceppe.

The three of them hoped to stop then-prime-minister Paul Martin from forcing an election. On that they agree. But Layton and Duceppe say the plan was for Harper to become prime minister with their cooperation, although not in a formal coalition. Harper insists this is false—that he never intended to head a government without first winning an election.

But then why write to Adrienne Clarkson, the GG at the time, to ask her to consider “options,” should Martin seek an election? What options? Today, Harper finally offered some clarity about what he meant, on his third day facing questions about it.

“As opposition leader I was seeking to put pressure on the government to influence its agenda without bringing it down. Without defeating it and replacing it,” he told reporters at a campaign stop on Vancouver Island.

And he elaborated: “My position was… the governor-general should come to us and I would have told the governor-general, ‘We in fact are not trying to bring the government down. All Mr. Martin has to do is sit down and talk to us and I’m sure we will find a resolution’.”

Interesting. But would the range of options open to a governor-general include, as Harper now suggests, refusing a prime minister’s advice to dissolve Parliament for an election, and accepting instead an opposition leader’s advice to urge that PM to find a way to work with his rivals in the House?

Desserud says that’s not the way it works. In an email, he says Harper has “an odd (!) understanding of the GG’s role and what would have happened.”

Here’s what Desserud flaty says would have transpired: “First, had Martin requested an election in 2004, he would have been granted his wish.” But what if—and this is unlikely—Clarkson thought an election premature, as her predecessor Lord Byng did in the famous King-Byng affair? In that case, Desserud says she would have asked Harper if he was able to form a government.

“At that point, we are supposed to believe Harper would have said, ‘No, I can’t—I just want the PM to cooperate more.’ Then the GG would have said, ‘Okay, since there is no viable alternative, I hereby grant Martin’s request’.”

In other words, Dessurud doesn’t see Harper’s scenario—the governor-general exerting pressure on a sitting PM to accommodate himself to the opposition—as being in the cards at all.

That leaves two possibilities. Either Harper was poorly advised in 2004 on his real tactical options, or he did envision, as Layton and Duceppe claim, the possibility of forming a government with their support without an intervening election.

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