Opinion

Bill C-9 and the Coalition Imperative

Britain's new leaders have paved the way for what Ignatieff must do now.

By Murray Dobbin 30 May 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Murray Dobbin's "State of the Nation" column runs every other Monday in The Tyee and on Rabble, and he also publishes articles on his blog.

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Ignatieff: His caucus said to want a coalition.

Can the opposition parties, primarily the NDP and the Liberals, actually get their act together and save the country from more destruction by the Harper Conservatives? 

There is evidence that there is at least some talking behind the scenes about the formation of a coalition government. Widely reported remarks by Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert suggest that Jean Chretien and Ed Broadbent are talking. Bob Rae blogged last week on the 25th anniversary of the Ontario NDP/Liberal coalition government he was part of and ridiculed the Conservatives fear-mongering about the renewed "coalition threat."

Reports that members of the Liberal caucus are eager for such a move are also being strategically leaked to the media.

The formation of a coalition government in Britain, bringing together two parties at serious odds on many policies, has helped break what remains of the taboo manufactured by the Harper propaganda machine.

But secret, indirect talking is a painfully slow process when it seems so obvious to so many that a coalition is not just the only way to get rid of Harper but the only way to save the Liberal Party under Michael Ignatieff from further decline. Almost no one believes that Ignatieff has what it takes to win an election and the party has no obvious successor in the wings.

But a coalition coming to power following the defeat of the Harper government would give the Liberals the time they desperately need. It is assumed that the NDP would support a coalition and Jack Layton has said as much.

The best and most legitimate opportunity for such a defeat is, unfortunately, rapidly disappearing. That opportunity is Bill C-9, the omnibus bill that Harper introduced to implement the budget passed by the House in March. It has come in for severe criticism not just from the opposition parties but from parliamentary experts and commentators.

The omnibus bill has been characterized as the "dumpster bill" by which Harper can insert some of his favourite legislative goals into a budget bill, thus protecting them both from any parliamentary debate but most importantly from any separate votes and almost certain defeat.

Vote against C-9 because of one of these stealth items and the conventional wisdom is that this represents a question of confidence and automatically triggers an election.

One solution was an NDP effort to break up the Bill to separate these items, but the Liberals are so terrified of an election they let it pass through committee stage by making sure one of its MPs was absent. That allowed them to vote against it but ensure that it passed.

Our parliamentary system works as it should, most of the time, so long as everyone involved obeys the letter and spirit of the many regulations, laws and conventions that characterize the institution. But all it takes to subvert parliament and democratic governance is a prime minister ruthless enough and with enough contempt for the process to take power. This is a system, like most systems, that assumes everyone accepts the rules and plays by them.

Harper's distortions of democracy

It has been clear for at least two years, since Stephen Harper's phony prorogation to avoid defeat, that the man in charge of the country neither accepts the rules nor plays by them. Among Harper's many violations of democracy, two stand out.

First is his open contempt for the institution itself:

The handbook on disrupting the work of committees;

The refusal to recognize parliamentary supremacy in refusing to hand over Afghan torture documents (he's up to it again this week, breaking the agreement reached just weeks ago);

The deliberate sabotage of Access to Information; two unprecedented examples of abuse of prorogation; the muzzling of several watchdog agencies and more.  

The second category of abuse of democracy is Harper's willingness to use executive spending powers to eliminate things he does not like, with no reference to the House of Commons and no public debate:

A dramatic shift in Middle East policy tilting towards Israel;

A continuous assault on women's rights;

Diminishing the role of science in the economy;

Attacks on the cultural sector;

Eliminating the funding for advocacy organizations which criticize the government.

The omnibus bill represents another order of abuse, one copied directly from the corrupted legislative system in the U.S. If you want a piece of legislation passed but don't have the votes, add it on to a popular piece of legislation that Congress will not want to defeat. The Omnibus Bill does just that. It would allow Harper and his cabinet to change pension rules, waive environmental assessment of projects like tars sands expansion and oil pipelines, and privatize parts of Canada Post.

A crisis and an opportunity

This is how Stephen Harper intends to continue seizing the power of a majority government when Canadians have not given it to him. If this is not the signal for the opposition to end this dictatorial rule then it hard to imagine what would move them. The trigger for a vote of non-confidence is the loss of confidence of a majority of the House of Commons. That condition now prevails.

There truly is in this ongoing crisis an opportunity -- for a coalition government that represents a majority of Canadians. And, following that, the reform that will guarantee majority rule in the future: proportional representation.  

If the Liberals cannot overcome their fear of losing and put the country first, they will continue their decline and bear the sole responsibility for future assaults on the nation by Stephen Harper.  [Tyee]

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