Thursday, February 07, 2008

On motions, unconstitutional and speculation, wild and unlikely

Reading the news and blog reaction tonight on a rather interesting motion the Conservatives say they plan to introduce, a few amusing thoughts come to mind. But first, the motion:

The Harper government will introduce an unusual confidence motion as early as Monday demanding that the Senate pass the Conservative's crime bill by March 1.

The motion, which puts the Opposition Liberals in an awkward and potentially embarrassing situation, could trigger an election if it fails in the House of Commons.

An unusual confidence motion, yes indeed, as the Globe notes:

Since the House has already passed the bill, and by law has no power to compel the Senate to do anything, the gesture was baldly political.

Quite possibly making the whole motion unconstitutional, out of order, and so on and so forth. Which raises the question, how should the opposition parties respond?

Should they ask the speaker for a ruling? That’s one option, and if ruled out of order, would leave the Conservatives to have to fall back to one of the 306 other confidence motions they have in the works.

The opposition could also opt to let the motion go ahead, and just abstain to demonstrate what a politically-motivated farce it is. The motion would pass and…nothing would happen, since constitutionally the House of Commons can’t direct the Senate where the bathroom is. Heck, you can’t even say the word “Senate” in the House of Commons. You need to call it “the other place.”

It’s the third possibility that I find amusing to wildly speculate about. Let’s say the opposition decide to let the motion go forward, and they decide to vote it down, saying this motion is unconstitutional and we’re voting it down, but we don’t accept that a hair-brained, unconstitutional motion is a legitimate confidence motion.

I’m reminded of these comments by Stephen Harper on motions of confidence when he was the opposition leader. It’s with the CBC’s Evan Solomon. This was a time when Harper worried the Liberals would try to engineer a snap election, and he was fighting to have confidence motions defined as narrowly as possible. I believe something like “Paul Martin can’t just call anything he wants a confidence motion” was once said.

Solomon: So why did you write that letter to the Governor-General with Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton saying in the event of a confidence vote situation do not call a snap election - are we to assume that therefore you're working to form a coalition?

There seems to be an attitude in the Liberal government - that they can go in, be deliberately defeated and call an election - that's not how our constitutional system works. The government has a minority - it has an obligation to demonstrate to Canadians that it can govern. That it can form a majority in the House of Commons. If it can't form a majority, we look at other options, we don't just concede to the government's request to make it dysfunctional. I know for a fact that Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton and the people who work for them want this Parliament to work and I know if is in all of our interests to work. The government has got to face the fact it has a minority, it has to work with other people.

Alrighty then, so back to our near future hypothetical scenario. Harper’s alleged confidence motion fails. He goes to the GG and asks her to dissolve parliament and call an election. She could say sure, you got it Steve. Or might she say to her advisers hey, this motion he came in to see me on looks rather wonky. Should I tell him to go back and try it again? Or, maybe should I call in the leader of the opposition and consult him? After all, that’s what Harper asked for back in 2004.

So she calls in Stephane Dion, and she says, Harper says he has lost the confidence of the house, would you like to give it a try? Sure, he says, I’ll give it a shot. So he puts together a cabinet, Iggy as DPM and maybe DND, and let’s say he goes even further and makes Bob Rae minister of foreign affairs, and puts Gerard Kennedy and Martha-Hall Findlay in cabinet too. Why not? They’re already running in by-elections, the precedent is sound, and we could just say Michael Fortier… David Emerson will ask for a job, but we’ll politely decline.

So, Dion gets sworn in as Prime Minister, maybe has a Throne Speech all about Liberal priorities, maybe not, but anyway he tests the house, promptly loses, and then we get an election campaign with Dion campaigning as Prime Minister, a la Arthur Meighan.

Or, let’s say between now and this Senate motion Dion gets together with Layton and Duceppe and they work out a deal. We vote down this motion, and if Harper insists its confidence we call shenanigans and insist she consult the opposition. Either a coalition or Liberal minority is formed, and the BQ, Libs and NDP agree to pass some pre-agreed to legislation. Like, say, a real economic aid package. Or maybe they find common agreement on Afghanistan, pass a motion and pull the troops out of combat. Then, after they’ve passed their common legislation, the government falls and all three can campaign on its accomplishments and fight it out, having actually gotten something done for Canadians.

Do I think any of this could ever actually happen? Not really. Not a chance. But it is fun to speculate, isn’t it? And as long as this government is going to behave wildly, I'm going to wildly speculate.

Anyway, seems one way or another we’ll be in an election mighty soon. I'd guess on the budget. But then again, we’ve said that before too, haven't we? Time will tell.

Let’s just try to get it done before baseball season starts, I plan on seeing a lot of Jays games this year.

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Mushroom said...

You raised a good point. Demonstrates that Dion has been playing defence for too long. He should at least be threatening to defeat Harper's government and trying to form a coalition government that seeks to last until 2009. Better to run the next election as PM rather than as Leader of the Official Opposition.

Loraine Lamontagne said...

It is time for the Opposition to take control of the House - they do control it after all - and table a motion ahead of the Conservatives' stating that it will defeat the governemenht unless Tom Lukiwski ends his filibuster at Committee. Canadians need to know if their governement gained power through illegal means, in which case it would have no moral authority to govern.

Gayle said...

Since this is all a farce anyway, Dion should submit a motion calling upon the government to stop submitting silly motions.

RuralSandi said...

We have a Constitution - Harper chooses not to adhere to the rules of it.

There are rules about getting a buddy to write an expensive speech for Flaherty/Budget Speech

Harper breaks promises, live by his own rules it seems.

So, Harper is there for those who work hard, pay their taxes and play by the rules...... ANOTHER LIE it seems.

When Harper decides to live by the rules, we might, I say might, take him seriously.

Parila said...

That is one convoluted scenario. I don't think Madame Jean would be justified in letting Dion test the support in the House after a minority government that has lasted 2 years - longer than the norm in Canada - falls. To do so would be contrary to precdent, and therefore, arguably contrary to our constitutional conventions. So that is a nice intellectual diversion but with zero chance of success.

So my question is whether any Libs will cross the floor over the Afghanistan bill if the vote is whipped?

Gayle said...

parila - it is not without precedent (King/Byng), though I agree she will not do it.

A BCer in Toronto said...

That is one convoluted scenario.

Actually it's several different convoluted scenarios.

arguably contrary to our constitutional conventions.

Speaking of contrary to constitutional conventions, what about a HoC bill trying to direct the Senate to do something? That's contrary to constitutional conventions. What would the GG do if Harper asked her to dissolve parliament on the basis of such a motion?