Is Harper prepared to do a King-Byng?

Harper’s dogmatic opposition to coalitions raises a few questions

Up to now, I think most of us have assumed Stephen Harper’s unwillingness to concede the right of the opposition parties to form a government in the event his government were immediately defeated on a confidence vote, or fell before governing for very long (say, within six months), was just sort of messing with the electorate’s head.

By his repeated attempts to impugn this perfectly normal constitutional procedure as “illegitimate,” we assumed, he was simply trying to demonize the opposition as power-hungry conspirators, hoping to scare the electorate into giving him the majority he seeks. It was so clearly contrary to all established constitutional doctrine, not to mention his own public statements and private actions over the years, that he couldn’t possibly be serious. It was just cheap, dishonest demagoguery, playing upon the public’s ignorance of constitutional conventions.

At that, there was a small shred of truth in it. If, that is, the opposition parties had only a bare majority between them, and if the votes and seats were so divided between them that no one of them could claim even half the Tories’ numbers — if, say, the distribution of seats in the House were 153-65-50-40 — they might well themselves shrink from trying, for fear that the public would find they had over-reached. Or the Governor General might deem the contraption too unstable — to say nothing of the questions surrounding the Bloc’s role — and refuse to call upon it, sending the whole mess back to the people to sort out. But that’s a very different matter than the unconditional ex cathedra edicts we have been hearing from Harper.

Indeed, so unyielding and dogmatic have his statements become, against the views of every constitutional scholar, that I have to wonder whether there is something else going on. That is, I wonder whether he is preparing the ground, not just to prevent the opposition from electing enough members to be in a position to bring his government down, but to thwart them should they make the attempt.

What he may have in mind is this: that after losing a vote of non-confidence, he would advise the Governor General to dissolve the House and call new elections, rather than call upon someone else to form a government. He would then dare the Governor General to overrule his first minister’s advice, something that Governors General are quite properly extremely reluctant to do.

He would, in short, be doing another King-Byng, provoking a constitutional crisis rather than yield power, hoping to intimidate the Governor General and/or rally public opinion to his side. If so this would be extremely disturbing, though not alas unprecedented.

Indeed, there is some evidence the government was prepared to do something similar in December 2008, had the then Governor General not acceded to his demands she prorogue. But at least in that case he had not yet been defeated in the House, and could with greater justice insist that she yield. To do so after having lost a confidence vote is surely unthinkable. Even King, let us recall, had not yet been defeated on a formal confidence motion.

So I think someone — the opposition, the media — should call Harper to answer: If he were to be defeated on a confidence motion within six months of the House’s return, would he advise the Governor General to call new elections? And if the Governor General were to refuse his advice, what would he do then?