Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The elusive will of the people in a Canadian election

With just over a week of campaigning left, fog has settled over the Canadian election. The leaders' planes should be grounded until it clears.
Thanks to civic lessons on the “Westminster model,” profiles on the Governor General, hypothetical questions and hypothetical answers about what combination of politicians should form the next government, Canadian voters have been put on notice: your vote is important, in a way; what you do on Election Day will be taken into account but we’ll decide how you’re governed.
Canada is in the midst of a $300 million election that was billed as necessary to renew our democracy and bring accountability back to government. Yet, according to today’s polls, we’ll be electing a Parliament even freer than the last to interpret and re-arrange the will of the people. Indeed, the constitutional experts don’t even want to go public because they want to be free to give their advice to the Governor General when it counts.
Stephen Harper’s case for a Parliamentary majority has been stretched unnecessarily by his recent argument that he and the opposition will not be able to compromise on his budget. This belies the man. He’s already the most successful compromiser to lead a minority Canadian Parliament. Nevertheless, at least, he’s campaigning for a concrete idea: give me a majority and I’ll implement my platform and manage a growing list of issues waiting on my desk. The Liberals have caste this as a grab for “absolute power.” The voters are free to imagine it as a return to a more stable past or a reckless leap of faith.
Michael Ignatieff is anything but straightforward. To his credit, he has allowed that hypothetical questions about the new Parliament are legitimate. However, he can’t give a straight answer with a straight face because the Liberal Party hasn't done its homework.
Consequently, the opposition leader—the insurgent, small l-liberal intellectual—is caught lecturing the electorate on the prerogatives of Parliament and the recently appointed Governor General, without any reference to the electorates role in the process.
Arguing that “discussions” and “informal arrangements” and “watering the wine” to make the Leader of the Opposition the next Prime Minister is the proper “Westminster” way to make a minority parliament work is incomplete and, as likely, dishonest.
The principal advisor to the Governor General is not the wise men of the University of Toronto’s Law School. It’s the Prime Minister. Only once in modern history has a Governor General unilaterally determined what’s best for the country. And that decision to invite the Leader of the Opposition Arthur Meighen to form a cabinet of “acting” ministers was soundly rejected by the electorate in the election of 1926.
There is, ironically, one scenario that could lead to the Prime Ministership for Michael Ignatieff even if he doesn’t get the most seats in the election. If the Liberals and the NDP together win at least as many seats as the Conservatives they could make a compelling case to the Prime Minister and the GG that they should be given a chance to form a stable coalition government. This proposal would be immeasurably strengthened if Ignatieff was honest with the electorate now.
He has no alternative to protect by being coy. It’s utterly delusional to imagine that New Democrats could support him in any other arrangement. Without any meaningful representation across Western Canada, the home of half the NDP, it’s unimaginable that the Liberals could form a cabinet without strong cabinet representation by New Democrats.

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