The Harper Index

Minority government – Harper shows contempt for compromise by changing the rules

Brinksmanship intended to contrast Dion's indecision with image of tough leadership.

Stephen Harper, shown at the APEC conference, dared Liberal leader Dion to trigger an election - PMOOTTAWA, October 4, 2007: Stephen Harper has declared his own unique vision of minority government. As his snap Parliament Hill news conference - called with 45 minutes' notice - here yesterday indicates, the PM intends to seize upon what he clearly sees as an opportunity, with two opposition parties in panic mode.

Harper essentially dared Liberal leader Stéphane Dion to trigger an election by declaring that voting in support of next week's Throne Speech would commit any opposition party to backing all government legislation. Otherwise, he said, every such government bill will be a confidence vote.

With next Tuesday's Throne speech, he said "We're going to ask Parliament for a mandate. Once we have that mandate, we're going to consider that basically gives us the right to consider those matters confidence going forward and to get results and get things done."

While he said an election is "not my preferred course of action," his warning contradicts his statement. "It's not a matter of threats. They have to fish or cut bait," he said.

Threat or not, Harper's statement has been called a sharp break from how minority governments have traditionally behaved. In fact, it is part of a pattern for him. In most minorities, the governing party is forced, through the committee process as well as through "old-fashioned horse-trading" to compromise on legislation in order to get the support of other parties and continue governing. Elections usually come either when things come to an impasse, usually over a budget, but sometimes over other key issues. Often they happen when one of the parties feels it can win - or that things will only get worse for it.

Harper has signalled for some time that he has little interest in the usual process by which minorities run. Parliamentary committee work has met with obstruction. A number of key pieces of legislation that were shaped and moderated by committees died on the order paper when Harper prorogued Parliament last month. He never accepted that his government should ever pass legislation he did not approve or that he did not author himself. With yesterday's declarations, he merely confirmed his intent to govern as if he had a majority.

What is new is the political landscape. After the Quebec by-elections, Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, whose party had until then been supporting the government on confidence votes, decided he needed to distance his party from the Conservatives. His announced conditions for support of the Throne speech are nearly impossible for Harper to accept. This places the divided and troubled Liberals in a quandary, which Harper is driving to exploit and exacerbate with his new threat.

He says he expects the outcome could be another minority government. "The math for somebody to win a majority is not very easy," he said. This was the second time in two weeks he has referred publicly to the likelihood that no party can win a majority in the next election.

Some observers suggest this may be Harper's repeated predictions of another minority may be to make him appear more conciliatory. Yesterday's news conference casts that view into doubt. Stephen Harper wants to contrast himself with Stéphane Dion by showing that he is a tough leader.

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Posted: October 04, 2007

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