Canada: Political crisis postponed

VANCOUVER, B.C. — A political standoff between the rightwing Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the opposition that would have seen the Liberal Party and center-left New Democratic Party (NDP) form a coalition government to replace the Conservatives, has been narrowly averted. Governor-General Michaelle Jean has granted the Conservatives a short reprieve by closing Parliament until Jan. 26.

Harper caused the political crisis when his government announced in late November that it would, among other things, terminate public funding for political parties and ban government workers from striking for three years. Harper also offered no plan to confront the growing economic crisis.

Canada’s economy is spiraling into a deep recession. The opposition Liberal Party, NDP and Bloc Quebecois, which hold a majority of seats in Parliament, planned to hold a non-confidence vote Dec. 8 that would have defeated the minority Conservative government. The opposition has 163 seats to the Conservatives’ 143. The Liberals and NDP would have then formed a coalition government, with the Liberals holding 18 cabinet posts and the New Democrats six. The Bloc, which is working for Quebec’s separation from Canada, agreed to back the coalition government for 18 months.

The Liberal-NDP coalition promises investment in infrastructure and social housing, aid to struggling industries, greater support for unemployed workers and funding for retraining.

But on Dec. 4, Harper asked Jean to close Parliament to head off the planned non-confidence vote and save his government from defeat. Jean agreed to give Harper breathing space and ordered Parliament shut down until Jan. 26.

Harper has backed down on his plan to end public funding of parties and ban public sector strikes and has promised to work with opposition parties and implement a stimulus program to counter the country’s deepening economic recession.

Both the Liberals and New Democrats have vowed to pursue a coalition government when Parliament reconvenes Jan. 27. The Liberals and NDP have launched an internet, TV and radio campaign to sell Canadians on the idea of a coalition government. Both parties are organizing rallies across the country. The Canadian Labour Congress is also supporting a coalition government, organizing rallies and launching its own media advertising campaign.

The Green and Communist Parties have launched campaigns to support a Liberal-NDP coalition government. Green Leader Elizabeth May met with the Liberal, NDP and Bloc leaders, vowing her party’s support.

According to the Communist Party of Canada, a coalition government between the Liberals and NDP would offer opportunities for progressive change. “A new coalition government would be highly susceptible to public pressure, and would open new doors to win pro-people policies,” the Party’s Central Executive said.

The Conservatives have launched their own media campaign to discredit such a coalition. Harper has chided the Liberals for working with leftists and separatists, saying his government’s fate should not be decided until it has presented an economic stimulus package on Jan. 27.

If a coalition government comes to power in January, it will be the first time the Social Democrats have achieved power at the federal level. The NDP, able to win power in certain provinces, has always sat in opposition federally. Because the NDP would be a key player in the coalition, it would be in a position to force the Liberals to implement progressive measures.

The Liberal Party always campaigns from the left during elections while it governs from the right when in power. Previous Liberal Party governments have, among other things, gutted the country’s unemployment insurance program, introduced the North American Free Trade Act and worked with the U.S. and France to overthrow the elected Haitian government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Some Liberal Members of Parliament publicly oppose forming a coalition with the NDP, and instead advocate cooperation with the Harper Conservatives. A Liberal caucus insider told the Globe and Mail newspaper that “there is growing unease in the party with the accord reached between the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois.”

NDP leader Jack Layton promises that a coalition government would “create jobs, protect pensions and retirement, and lay the foundation for the green economy of tomorrow.”

If the opposition holds a non-confidence vote when Parliament reconvenes, the Governor-General has the option to hand power to a Liberal-NDP coalition government or call new elections.

tpelzer @shaw.ca