2008–2009 Canadian parliamentary dispute: Wikis


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The Centre Block on Parliament Hill, containing the houses of the Canadian parliament.

The 2008–2009 Canadian parliamentary dispute was a political dispute in the 40th Canadian Parliament. It was triggered by the intention of opposition parties in the House of Commons to defeat, by a motion of non-confidence, the minority government formed by the Conservative Party six weeks after the 40th general election on October 14, 2008.

This was a result of the government's fiscal update presented to the Commons on November 27, 2008, which included several provisions that none of the opposition parties would accept. Though the government later withdrew several of its contentious proposals, the Liberal Party and New Democratic Party reached an accord to form a minority coalition government, with the Bloc Québécois agreeing to provide support on confidence issues and, therefore, enabling a majority in the Commons. On December 4, 2008, Governor General Michaëlle Jean (the vice-regal representative of Queen Elizabeth II, the country's head of state) granted the request of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (the head of government) to prorogue Parliament until January 26, 2009, ending the first session of the 40th parliament and thereby delaying a possible change in government.[1]

After the prorogation, the Liberals underwent a change in leadership and distanced themselves from the coalition, while the NDP and Bloc remained committed to the agreement to bring down the government. The Conservative government's budget, unveiled on January 27, 2009, largely met the demands of the Liberals who agreed to support it with an amendment to the budget motion.[2]


The 39th Canadian Parliament was led by a Conservative minority government headed by Stephen Harper, and lasted for two years with the support or abstention of opposition parties,[3] until, on September 7, 2008, the Prime Minister requested, and was granted, a dissolution of parliament, triggering a snap election. Prime Minister Harper claimed that Parliament had become dysfunctional and that he needed a renewed mandate. During the election campaign, publicity for strategic voting came from the Liberals, the Green Party, and the Anything But Conservative (ABC) campaign, foreshadowing the political divide that would become official weeks after the federal election, held on October 14.[4][5][6] The final tally saw an increase in the Conservative seat count from 127 to 143, a plurality but not a majority, while the Liberals, led by Stéphane Dion, returned as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, with 77 seats down from 103 seats. Two other parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP), with 37 seats up from 29 seats, and the Bloc Québécois, with 49 seats down from 51 seats, together with two independent members of parliament, rounded out the House of Commons.[7]

The dispute


Catalyst: November 2008 fiscal update

On November 27, 2008, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty provided the House of Commons with his fiscal update, within which were plans to cut government spending, suspend the ability of civil servants to strike until 2011, sell off some Crown assets to raise capital, and eliminate the existing political party subsidies of 1.95 CAD for each vote the party wins.[8] Since all money bills are traditionally confidence motions,[9] the opposition was forced to consider whether to accept the motion or bring down the government over it. The opposition rejected the motion, purportedly on the grounds that it lacked any fiscal stimulus during the ongoing economic crisis,[10][11] for its suspension of federal civil servants' ability to strike, for suspending the right for women to seek recourse from the courts for pay equity issues, and a change in election financing rules.[12]

Formation of a coalition

Coalition partners
Former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion Jack Layton, leader of the NDP
Stéphane Dion Jack Layton
Coalition supporters
Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Québécois Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party (not elected but supported a coalition government)
Gilles Duceppe Elizabeth May

Just after the Conservative government announced its plans, NDP leader Jack Layton asked his predecessor, Ed Broadbent, to contact former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien to discuss the idea of a coalition to oust the Conservatives from power, and the plan became public almost immediately.[13] Labeling the absence of any economic stimulus plan as irresponsible and the removal of public funding to parties as an attack against democracy, the opposition threatened to topple the weeks-old government: they would vote against the fiscal update, the defeat of which would be considered a vote of non-confidence in the newly formed Conservative minority government, leading to the ministry being brought down. The opposition parties counted on the probability that Governor General Michaëlle Jean would invite a Liberal-NDP coalition to form the government, instead of dissolving parliament less than two months after the previous election.

The agreement between the Liberals and NDP would be until June 30, 2011. The proposed coalition would have a cabinet of 24 ministers, with a Liberal prime minister, 17 other Liberal ministers (including the minister of finance), and six New Democratic ministers. If the Prime Minister chose a larger cabinet, the NDP proportion would be maintained. The Leader of the Liberal Party, whoever that might be, would be Prime Minister. As the outgoing leader of the Liberal Party and its caucus, Dion would become the interim prime minister until stepping down, perhaps not until the leadership convention in May 2009. Further, Liberal party elders Frank McKenna, Paul Martin, John Manley, and former NDP premier Roy Romanow, were reported to have been asked to form an economic advisory body to the coalition if needed,[14][15] though both McKenna and Manley declined to take part.[16]

The Bloc Québécois, which holds the balance of power in the 40th parliament, signed a policy accord with the other opposition parties and agreed to support the proposed coalition on confidence matters until at least June 30, 2010, in return for a consultation mechanism for the duration of the agreement, but would not be a direct participant in the coalition, as it would receive no cabinet positions and would be free to vote as it wished on other matters.[17] Independent MP Bill Casey announced he would join in voting non-confidence in Harper's government.[18][19] It has been speculated that Layton and Duceppe had formed an agreement prior to the Conservatives' fiscal update, and then persuaded Dion to sign on.[20][21][22]

Green Party role and coalition support

In December 2008, during the 2008–2009 Canadian parliamentary dispute, Elizabeth May announced the Green Party would support, from outside parliament, the proposed coalition between the Liberals and the NDP (with the parliamentary support of the Bloc Québécois), which was then attempting to displace the incumbent Conservative government. Liberal leader Stéphane Dion indicated that the Green Party would be given input, but not a veto, over coalition policy, and also left open the possibility of appointing May to the Senate if he were to become Prime Minister. Ultimately, however, the coalition fell apart after Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued parliament to avoid a non-confidence vote, Liberal leader Dion resigned and was replaced by Michael Ignatieff, and when parliament finally resumed in January 2009, the Liberal Party decided to support the Conservative government's new proposed budget. While parliament was prorogued, Harper also announced his intention to fill all current and upcoming Senate vacancies with Conservative appointees to establish his party's control over that chamber. Given the collapse of the coalition, the departure of Dion as Liberal leader, and Harper's announced intentions with respect to any forthcoming senate vacancies, the likelihood of a Senate appointment for May (or any other Green Party member) appears to have receded, at least for the time being.

Government response

On November 28, 2008, Stephen Harper referred to the accord between the Liberals and NDP as undemocratic backroom dealing, stating that the opposition parties were "overturning the results of an election a few weeks later in order to form a coalition that nobody voted for",[23] even though a majority of Canadians did in fact vote against Harper by electing Liberal, New Democrat or Bloc candidates. Transport Minister John Baird announced that two proposals that were opposed by the other parties — the elimination of political party subsidies, and a ban on strikes by public servants — would be dropped.[24] In response to the opposition's demands for an economic stimulus package, the Conservatives changed their plan to one in which a federal budget would be presented on January 27, 2009, instead of late February or early March. Despite the Conservatives' concessions, the Liberals still indicated that they intended to present their motion of non-confidence on December 8.[25]

The government then cancelled its initial opposition day, which was originally to be held on December 1, to avert the threatened vote of non-confidence,[26] meaning the earliest the coalition could then possibly take office would be following a vote on a Liberal motion of non-confidence or on a supply motion put forth by the 28th ministry, both scheduled for December 8, 2008.[27] On November 30, the Conservatives then released a secretly-recorded private NDP conference call, in which Jack Layton indicated that the groundwork for assuring the Bloc's participation "was done a long time ago."[20] Following the release of the recording, the NDP said that they would consider pressing criminal charges,[21] and alleged that Conservative MP John Duncan received the invitation to participate by mistake, in place of NDP MP Linda Duncan, who had "a similar email address."[28] However, it does not constitute a wiretap crime under the Criminal Code of Canada if someone is invited to participate in a conference call and then releases the recording publicly.[29]

The possible change of government was debated during Question Period,[30] and the Conservatives aired radio and TV ads contending that "a leader whose party captured just 25% of the vote in the October 14 election doesn't have a legitimate mandate to govern."[31] In anticipation of the Prime Minister's visit to the Governor General, Harper's office also organised protests outside of the viceroy's residence, while John Baird said that "Conservatives would go over the head of Parliament and of the Governor-General."[32]

The National Revenue Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn said "It's a kind of coup d'etat,"[33] while Environment Minister Jim Prentice declared the coalition to be "Irresponsible and it is undemocratic."[33] Echoing Prentice's sentiment Harper insisted that the government "... will use all legal means to resist this undemocratic seizure of power."[33]

The role of the Governor General

Governor General Michaëlle Jean stated that "what is happening right now is part of the possibilities in our democratic system and I think that people can be reassured that, as I turn to what is happening, I am myself looking at my constitutional duties."[34] Jean had three possible actions to pursue during her meeting with the Prime Minister on December 4, 2008: dissolve parliament, prorogue parliament, or ask him to resign and invite the opposition parties to form a government.

Dissolution of parliament

Peter H. Russell, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, suggested that if Harper were to seek a dissolution, the Governor General would have to consider carefully the reasonability of the request. The viceroy's primary concern is to protect parliamentary democracy; a dissolution of parliament would have necessitated an election only two months after the preceding one, and repeated short term elections, in Russell's view, would not be healthy for the system. In such a case, with a reasonably viable coalition available, Jean might then refuse Harper's request for dissolution (requiring Harper to resign under constitutional precedent), and commission Dion to form a government.[35] Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson wrote in her memoirs, Heart Matters, that she would have allowed the then prime minister, Paul Martin, a dissolution of parliament only after at least six months following the 2004 election. "To put the Canadian people through an election before six months would have been irresponsible," she wrote, especially having received a letter co-signed by then opposition leader Stephen Harper, NDP leader Jack Layton, and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, asking her to consider letting them attempt to form a government without an election if the Liberal government should fall.[36][37]

Maclean's columnist Andrew Coyne noted that, while a coalition government is neither unconstitutional nor illegitimate, there are several concerns that the Governor General must address in considering installing such a government. As a coalition is inherently volatile, its permanence or lack thereof would be a factor, as well as the possibility of creating a prolonged period of instability and uncertainty. Coyne also noted that the opposition parties' plan is an extreme application of the traditional parliamentary prerogative to choose a government – that is, defeating an established government so soon after its re-election, and replacing it with a likely unstable one.[38]

Prorogation of parliament

The option of prorogation, or discontinuing the session of parliament without dissolving it,[39][40] presented various possible scenarios: One was a long-term prorogation, lasting up to a legal maximum of one year,[41] while another was a short prorogation period lasting a few weeks to a few months. Each would delay any parliamentary activity, including the registering of a motion of non-confidence, and the Conservative government would therefore continue. Prime Minister Harper's requested prorogation would suspend Parliament until January 26, 2009, with his government scheduled to present the budget the following day. On December 3, Dion wrote to the Governor General with his opinion that she must refuse to grant a prorogation as, in his opinion, it would be an abuse of power denying the right of the legislature to give or withhold its confidence in the government. He also suggested that the government had already, in effect, lost the confidence of the house, and that she could therefore no longer accept Harper's advice as her prime minister.[42]

Constitutional scholar C.E.S. (Ned) Franks of Queen's University suggested that the Governor General could agree to prorogue parliament, though on the condition that the government only manage day-to-day affairs until parliament was reconvened; the Governor General would not approve orders-in-council requiring cabinet decisions, meaning that the government could not undertake any major policy initiatives, much like the way governments govern during an election campaign. However, a prime minister asking for prorogation when facing an imminent confidence vote, as well a governor general refusing or implementing conditions on such a request, would all be unprecedented in Canadian history.[43] "There is no precedent whatsoever in Canada and probably in the Commonwealth," he stated.[44] Constitutional scholar and former advisor to governors general Ted McWhinney said that the Governor General would have no choice but to follow the Prime Minister's advice if asked for a prorogation, though the prime minister would have to explain to the electorate why he had advised this particular course.[45]

Former governor general and NDP politician Edward Schreyer stated that if the Conservative government were to fail a vote of confidence, Michaëlle Jean would have no choice but to offer the coalition the opportunity to govern. He also said that prorogation would be a difficult judgement call, and said that a short prorogation might be reasonable as long as it wasn't "used in the longer term as a means of evading, avoiding and thwarting the expression of the parliamentary will" by avoiding a confidence vote.[46]

Leadup to the Governor General's decision

Leaders' addresses to the nation on December 3

Both Harper and Dion addressed the nation on December 3, 2008, with televised statements broadcast on Canada's major television networks. Harper's five minute pre-recorded statement, televised nationally in English and French at 7 p.m. ET,[47] outlined the steps the government had taken to address the economic crisis, while also attacking the Liberals for forming a coalition with the separatist Bloc Québécois. Harper said: "at a time of global economic instability, Canada's government must stand unequivocally for keeping the country together. At a time like this, a coalition with the separatists cannot help Canada. And the opposition does not have the democratic right to impose a coalition with the separatists they promised voters would never happen."[48] The press noted that while he used the word sovereigntist in the French version of his speech, Harper used separatist in English.[49]

The networks also agreed to air a response from Dion, which aired around 7:30 ET,[47] and attacked the Conservatives, stating they did not have a plan to weather the economic crisis, and stating that Canadians did not want another election, instead preferring that parliament work together during this time. "Within one week, a new direction will be established, a tone and focus will be set. We will gather with leaders of industry and labour to work, unlike the Conservatives, in a collaborative, but urgent manner to protect jobs."[50] This statement, intended to air immediately following Harper's, was late in arriving to the networks, and was of low video quality, prompting the party to apologize; The Globe and Mail reported on December 5 that Dion's chief of staff had bypassed the normal in-house Liberal shop, instead retaining an outside consultant to produce the video on short notice. CBC Television stayed on the air past 7:30 p.m. to show Dion's statement, cutting into its regularly-scheduled programming, and network anchorman Peter Mansbridge, speaking later that night on the newscast The National, compared the quality of Dion's video to YouTube. CTV, which had already signed off its special broadcast before Dion's statement arrived, was met with complaints both that the network had ignored the Liberals, and that Dion had snubbed the network. CTV commentator Robert Fife stated that the New Democrats and Bloc Québécois were "angry" with the quality of Dion's address, elaborating that it had undermined the credibility of the coalition.[51] Public statements also came from the Bloc and NDP leaders: Layton unsuccessfully requested his own airtime and had to share with Dion, although he later addressed Canadians live on the national news channels where he said "Tonight, only one party stands in the way of a government that actually works for Canadians... Instead of acting on these ideas... Mr. Harper delivered a partisan attack."[52] Duceppe said "Stephen Harper showed a serious and worrisome lack of judgment by putting his party's ideology before the economy."[52]

Immediate reaction

In the nine primarily English-speaking provinces, polls showed the idea of a coalition was unpopular in some areas of Canada, while popular in others. The strongest opposition to the coalition was in Alberta, (while the more stronger support was on the east coast of Canada) where fear was expressed at being politically marginalized by its eastern-based leaders.[53][54] It is speculated that if the coalition did take power from the Conservatives, it would revive western alienation, with some suggestions on the formation of a western-based separation party to counter the Bloc Québécois.[53] Anti-coalition rally organizers, however, emphasized that their opposition was to the Bloc's associations with the coalition, not Quebecers in general (despite the fact that the Bloc's would be a 'supporter' of coalition, not necessary a partner along with NDP or Liberal).[55] On December 2, 2008, the day after the three opposition parties signed the accord, the Canadian dollar dropped slightly. There were some speculation that markets would react negatively to the potential instability of a coalition government that required the support of a separatist party.[56]

At the same time, the Conservatives' attacks on the coalition may have cost the party support in Quebec, as Quebecers "tend to view the sovereignist parties as legitimate political formations";[57] Antonia Maioni, head of the Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University, stated that "[Harper] is portraying not only the Bloc Québécois but Quebecers in general as being a threat to national unity in Canada."[58] Dion defended the coalition accord, saying that "fellow Quebecers who believe in separation are more likely to be reconciled with Canada if we work with them than if we marginalize them".[59] Kelly Parland criticized Dion, a staunch federalist and the author of the Clarity Act, for having gone against his principles by taking part in negotiations with the Bloc.[60][61]

Other reactions

Statements regarding the upset in Ottawa came from provincial premiers, both past and present: Danny Williams, Progressive Conservative (PCPNL) Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, who originally started the ABC campaign, stated that he would remain neutral on this issue and that he would work with whomever was prime minister;[62] British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell spoke out against the coalition, stating that if their gamble fails, Canada's economic worries will become significantly worse as a result;[63] Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach urged federal party leaders to take a time out and hold off the non-confidence vote until the new year so a federal budget can be introduced;[64] and former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau told Le Journal de Montréal that the deal was an "impressive victory", showing how powerful the Bloc Québécois is in federal politics.[65]

Quebec Premier Jean Charest, a federalist and former leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party, condemned the "anti-sovereigntist rhetoric" of the prime minister,[65] emphasizing that the Bloc MPs had been legitimately elected by Quebecers, and stating: "I live in a society in which people can be sovereigntists or federalists, but they respect each other. The same thing should prevail in the federal parliament."[66] He also accused Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois of using the ensuing discussion about the coalition to attempt to build sovereigntist momentum.[65]

Political satirist and commentator Rick Mercer critiqued the entire affair as "embarrassing", and denounced the Conservatives' claims about affronts to democracy and coups as wilful lies.[32]

The Governor General prorogues parliament

Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor General of Canada, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with Queen Elizabeth II's representative, Michaëlle Jean, on December 4, 2008.

On December 2, it was announced that Harper's plan was to ask the Governor General to prorogue parliament, thereby delaying the possible defeat of the government until the new year.[67] The coalition leadership then sent a letter to Jean – who, at the time, was abroad on a state visit to various European countries – informing her of the events, upon the receipt of which, Jean announced that she would cut her trip short and head back to Ottawa "in light of the current political situation in Canada."[31] The day following her return, Harper visited the Governor General at Rideau Hall, at approximately 9:30 am ET, on December 4. After consulting with the Prime Minister for more than two hours, Jean granted Harper's request[68][69] and parliament was prorogued until January 26, 2009, with the Conservatives scheduled to announce the budget the following day.[70][71]

Most scholars indicated that the privacy of the meeting between Harper and Jean follows "the tradition of regal discretion [going] back centuries, to the era when Britain's Parliament was only a minor branch of government."[72] Lorne Sossin, professor at the University of Toronto and a constitutional law expert, offered a counter-opinion, stating that "it is simply not acceptable to have a closed door at Rideau Hall at moments like this,"[73] citing that transparency is a necessity in democracy. Joe Comartin, NDP MP for Windsor-Tecumseh, suggested that such decisions should be made by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada after a hearing in open court.[73] The Chief Justice stands in for the Governor General when he or she is out of the country or incapacitated.

Andrew Dreschel of the Hamilton Spectator has stated that proroguing parliament was the right move, imposing a "cooling-off period on the sweaty rhetoric and dank distortions that have been steaming up the political spectrum," and MP Bruce Stanton said that the suspension of parliament until late January "was perhaps the last tool in our basket to be able to allow parliamentarians to take a step back."[74][75][76] There was some concern that Jean's decision may have set a precedent in which a prime minister may seek prorogation or dissolution when confronting a potential vote of non-confidence.[77] Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said that the following of Harper's advice "has been a blow to parliamentary democracy in Canada,"[77] while Margaret Wente, at the Globe and Mail, opined that the Governor General was the only person who emerged from the situation with any gained respect.[78]


On December 4, 2008, after the prorogation, Dion hinted that the Liberals could support the Conservative budget, but only if it represented a "monumental change". Layton and Duceppe remained committed to their proposed coalition and toppling the Harper government,[79] with Layton demanding that the Conservatives provide affordable housing and childcare programs, alongside subsidies for struggling industries.[80][81] Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis said that the coalition would not survive when parliament resumed, while others in his party suggested working with the Conservatives on the economy.[82]

Liberal party reaction

After the Governor General suspended parliament, there were questions within the Liberal Party regarding the future of Dion's leadership and the coalition. In a caucus meeting held the same day of the prorogation, Dion was criticized for sacrificing the party's federalist principles; for disallowing dissent once the coalition accord was presented to caucus; and for the amateur, out-of-focus video of his address to the nation which undermined public support for the coalition.[83][84] Former deputy prime minister John Manley asked that Dion resign immediately, saying it was incomprehensible that the public would accept Dion as prime minister after rejecting him a few weeks earlier in the general election. Manley also said that a leader was needed "whose first job is to rebuild the Liberal party rather than leading a coalition with the NDP."

Several other insiders advocated moving up the date of the party leadership vote, rather than have Dion remain leader for either a potential election or coalition, while leadership contenders Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae both agreed that Dion had to quit immediately.[82] Dion initially scheduled his resignation for the party's leadership convention in May 2009, but on December 8, 2008, he announced that he would step down upon the selection of his successor.[85]

Bob Rae, who helped to persuade the Liberal caucus of the power-sharing deal,[86] took over as the coalition's spokesman and planned to travel throughout the country to promote the coalition. By contrast, Michael Ignatieff, the frontrunner to succeed Dion, was said to be uncomfortable with the idea of sharing power with the NDP and receiving committed support from the Bloc Québécois. Ignatieff said that there would be a "coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition," noting that the coalition served a useful purpose by keeping the Conservatives in check,[87] but warned that the Liberals should look over the budget before deciding.[88][89][90][91] After the withdrawal of his two rivals,[92][93] Ignatieff was left as the sole declared leadership candidate, so he was appointed interim leader, and his position is was ratified at the May 2009 convention.[94]


On December 12, Ignatieff met with Prime Minister Harper to discuss the budget, with their spokesmen describing it as a "cordial" meeting.[95]

Layton and Duceppe remained committed to ousting the Harper government,[96][97] pledging that the NDP would vote against the Conservative budget regardless of what it contained.[98] Layton urged Ignatieff's Liberals to topple the Conservatives before the shelf life of the coalition expired; constitutional experts said that four months after the last election, if the government fell, the Governor General would likely grant the Prime Minister's request to dissolve parliament instead of inviting the coalition.[99]

On January 28, 2009, the Liberals agreed to support the budget as long as it included regular accountability reports, and the Conservatives accepted this amendment. This ended the possibility of the coalition, so Layton said "Today we have learned that you can't trust Mr. Ignatieff to oppose Mr. Harper. If you oppose Mr. Harper and you want a new government, I urge you to support the NDP".[2]

Public response


This anti-coalition rally in Calgary was one of several demonstrations held across Canada both in support of and opposition to the coalition's attempts at gaining control of parliament.
The pro-coalition rally in Toronto was held in Nathan Phillips Square, at the foot of Toronto City Hall, and featured Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton as speakers.

An Angus Reid Strategies poll on this subject conducted on December 1 and 2, 2008, consisting of online interviews with 1,012 Canadian adults, and with a reported margin of error of 3.1%, showed that 40% of respondents agreed with the statement "The Conservative party does not deserve to continue in government," while 35% agreed with "The Conservative party deserves to continue in government," and 25% were "not sure." On the question "Should the opposition parties get together and topple the Conservative minority government headed by Stephen Harper?", 41% responded No, 36% Yes, and 23% not sure. If the government was defeated in a no-confidence vote, 37% of respondents would support a coalition of opposition parties taking power, 32% favoured holding a new election, 7% favoured an accord rather than a coalition among opposition parties, and 24% were not sure.[100]

A Léger Marketing poll of 2,226 people, conducted on behalf of Sun Media and released on December 4, showed a regional split on what should happen if the Harper government fell. Nationally, 43% of respondents preferred a new election be held, compared to 40% who favoured allowing the coalition to govern. In Western Canada, however, respondents were sharply opposed to the coalition, led by Albertans, who responded 71% in favour of new elections. Quebec showed the highest level of support for the coalition, with 58% preferring it to a new election. Ontario was split, with 43% preferring an election compared to 39% supporting the coalition.[101] This poll also showed that 60% of Canadians were concerned that the Bloc Québécois would hold the balance of power in a coalition, compared to 35% that were not concerned, with the majority of respondants in every region, excluding Quebec, expressing concern. 34% of those polled argued that the Conservatives were best able to handle the economic crisis, compared to 18% for the coalition. 14% felt the Liberals individually were best prepared, 7% felt the NDP individually were the best choice, and 2% felt the Bloc Québécois were best.[102]

An EKOS Research Associates poll of 2,536 people, conducted on behalf of CBC and released on December 4, showed that if an election were held the next day, the Conservatives would have received 44% of the vote, up from 37.6%; the Liberals 24%, down from 26%; the New Democrats 14.5%, down from 18.2%; the Bloc 9%, down from 10.5%; and the Green Party 8%, up from 4.5%. 37% of respondents (including the majority of Conservative voters) expressed support in proroguing parliament, while 28% (including a majority of Liberal and Bloc voters, and a near majority of NDP voters) supported the proposed coalition taking power within the next few weeks, with 19% supporting an election. Additionally, 47% of respondents thought that Harper's Conservative government would better manage the financial crunch, versus 34% in support of the Dion-led coalition. Furthermore, 48% of respondents (including the majority of Liberal, NDP, and Green voters, but only 41% of Conservative voters) expressed confidence in the Governor General's ability to make decisions regarding the impasse.[103]

An Ipsos-Reid poll suggested that if an election had been held on December 5, the Conservatives would have received 46% of the vote, enough to have easily formed a majority government. The poll also showed Liberal support had dropped to 23% from the 26.2% they received in the election, and New Democrat support fell to 13% from 18.2%. Also telling was that 56% of those polled said they would rather go to another election, rather than let the coalition govern.[104]


Public rallies, both in favour of and against the coalition, continued to be held a number of days after the prorogation, particularly on the afternoon of December 6. Besides the aforementioned that was attended by both Dion and Layton, other gatherings included one in Halifax, with Conservative MP Gerald Keddy attending;[105] one in Calgary, at which Conservative MP Jason Kenney addressed the crowd;[106] and at Queen's Park in Toronto, where Conservative MP Peter Kent spoke alongside John Tory, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. The rallies, all together, attracted over ten thousand, with the largest assembly being in Ottawa, with an estimated attendance of 4,000. Calgary had an estimated 2,500 and Toronto an estimated 1500.

Online activity

Web users across the political spectrum came out in force,[107][108] leaving thousands of posts on news websites, blogs, and news articles;[109] on December 1, The Globe and Mail website had over 4,500 comments posted on its articles related to the political dispute.[110] This motion was in addition to the multiple specialized websites that were launched during the upset,[111] and using the Internet to promote rallies and protests in the hopes of voicing their opinion.[112]


Reserve powers of the Governor General

The reserve powers of the Governor General have been used twice in respect to declining the advice of the prime minister. The first took place in 1896, when Charles Tupper refused to resign as prime minister following his party's loss in the election of that year, and Governor General Lord Aberdeen refused to make several appointments, forcing Tupper to relinquish office. The second instance was in 1926, during the King-Byng Affair, when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, already in minority government and having lost two votes that suggested he was likely to lose a third vote – one on a confidence question – asked Governor General Lord Byng of Vimy to dissolve parliament. Byng refused, as constitutional convention leaned to the view that parliament should sit for a reasonable period before a new election may be called, and then only if members of parliament are demonstrably unable to work together to form a majority government. More importantly, however, Byng also refused King's request that he consult the British government, as Byng believed that Canadian constitutional questions should be settled in Ottawa, not London – a position that was thereafter adopted throughout the Empire, as it began to transition into the Commonwealth of Nations. One view would hold that in applying the constitutional conventions relied upon by Byng to the matters in 2008, Jean would have been obliged to deny a request to dissolve parliament within less than six months of the previous election, unless Harper had a valid reason consistent with Commonwealth constitutional history. However, the situation in 2008 is not identical that which pertained in 1926, and so the precedent may not be directly applicable. In the 1925 election, Arthur Meighen had emerged as the plurality seat winner, and the Liberals had suffered an electoral rebuff, with King losing his own parliamentary riding, although the King government struggled on with Progressive Party support, even though Byng had suggested he resign immediately[113]. In 2008 the Tories were in the electoral ascendant while the Liberals suffered one of their heaviest defeats. In addition, former Governor-General of New Zealand Sir Michael Hardie Boys expressed the opinion that Byng had been in error in not re-appointing King as prime minister on the defeat of Meighen in the vote of confidence.[114]

The 1931 Statute of Westminster clarified the independence of the Dominions (then, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa, and the Irish Free State) from the United Kingdom (UK), and also clarified the role of a governor general as one advised by the relevant Dominion government, not the British government, notwithstanding that the Dominions and the UK all had the same monarch. The historic "indivisibility of the crown" was transformed into an abstract concept, in which the crown is not a literal person or a thing, but an idea represented by a person, thus enabling the one monarch, and his/her governors, to serve each different country according to its own national traditions.

Similar prorogation requests

In 1873, during the 2nd Canadian parliament, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald asked Governor General Lord Dufferin to prorogue parliament in order to stop the work of a committee investigating MacDonald's involvement in the Pacific Scandal. While the governor general did reluctantly prorogue parliament, he limited it to a period of ten weeks; when parliament returned, Macdonald was censured and had to resign.[115]

Previous Canadian coalitions

Federal coalitions

Canada was federated in 1867 under a coalition government, called the Great Coalition, and led by John A. Macdonald. Since that time, there have been no formal coalition governments, though, the Unionist Party was quickly formed after a coalition was proposed in response to the Conscription Crisis of 1917, and, in 2000, the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives were allegedly secretly considering forming a coalition government with the Bloc Québécois if, together, their three parties had won a majority of the seats in the 2000 election.[116] Four years following, Stephen Harper sent a letter to then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, suggesting that, if the Liberal minority government fell, the Conservatives would be willing to form a government with the support of the Bloc Québécois and NDP,[117] and, during a subsequent press conference, said "...in a minority parliament, if the government is defeated... the governor general should first consult widely before accepting any advice to dissolve parliament. So I would not want the prime minister to think that he can simply fail in the House of Commons as a route to a general election – that's not the way our system works."[118]

Provincial coalitions

Unlike in the federal sphere, there have been examples of coalition governments in the Canadian provinces.

In Manitoba, there was a coalition between the provincial Liberal Party and the Progressives, following the 1932 election. The two parties subsequently merged, and also led a coalition government with several other parties through the 1940s.[119]

At approximately the same time, British Columbia was governed by a Liberal-Conservative coalition, formed to keep the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) from power.[119]

In Ontario, the Progressive Conservative party under Frank Miller won a plurality (but not a majority) of seats in the 1985 provincial election. Afterwards, both the Conservatives and Liberals entered into negotiations with the third-place New Democrats, then led by Bob Rae, which held the balance of power. An accord was reached between the Liberals and the New Democrats, and Miller's government was defeated on a no-confidence motion over the Speech from the Throne of the newly elected legislature. The Liberals, led by David Peterson, were then appointed to government by the Lieutenant Governor, with the NDP pledging to support the Liberals on confidence motions for a period of two years. It was not a formal coalition, as the NDP had no cabinet posts.[119] Rae had personally supported a full coalition, but did not strongly argue this case with other members of the NDP. Peterson later indicated that he would not have accepted a coalition in any event.[120][121]

The most recent coalition was seen in Saskatchewan, when, in 1999, the New Democratic Party formed such an arrangement with two Saskatchewan Liberal Party MLAs.[119]

Other Westminster system democracies

Canada is one of many nations that use the Westminster system of government, a democratic parliamentary system modelled after the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The most recent major constitutional crisis in a country using the Westminster system of government was in Australia in 1975,[122] when Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dismissed by Governor-General Sir John Kerr. It had been described as the greatest political and constitutional crisis in Australia's history.[123][124][125]

See also


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