In 2008, when the opposition attempted to bring down the Harper government on a vote of no-confidence, because he refused to present a budget providing stimulus, it created a constitutional crisis.
Not because what they were doing was wrong, but because Stephen Harper realized that the only way to save his job was to convince the Canadian people, that what they were doing was wrong.
And not just wrong, but dangerous and illegal. A coup d'état. An overthrow.
But his fear was not based on a perceived clashing of swords, but on the fact that he knew that what the opposition was doing was legal and a well defined process in our Parliamentary system. And he knew this because he himself had engineered just such a coalition to "overthrow" the Martin government.
The only difference was that his 2004 attempt included the "full support of the Bloc" (Tom Flanagan, Harpers Team), where the 2008 coalition was only an agreement whereby the Bloc would support confidence motions for up to 18 months.
But Harper counted on our ignorance of Parliamentary law and we didn't disappoint. And as he piled one lie on top of another lie, he was able to create a "constitutional crisis" where none should have existed.
According to the 2009 book Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis:
The near collapse of a minority government is not a significant event. The circumstances that surround this near collapse, however, signal that there may be further serious repercussions arising from the events of December 2008 to January 2009 ... these events reflect a pattern of disregard by Harper of a number of deeply embedded constitutional principles and practices. Each individual element poses cause for concern. The accumulation suggests that Harper is capable of precipitating a serious constitutional crisis to avert responsibility for his own mistakes and miscalculations and to stay in power. (1)News around the world was that Canada was under some kind of attack from within. Few knew the details but played is as a separatist uprising.
The rhetoric and overcharged campaign launched by the Conservatives, caused Dennis Pilon, a political scientist at the University of Victoria, to state that : "the actions of this prime minister are coming dangerously close to inciting mob rule." (2)
What did come out of it, was an attempted history and civics lesson, though given the fact that Harper is still playing the coalition card, he's hoping that most of us missed the class. He could be right.
So what happens if he fails to get a majority this time? Will he leave gracefully if he is unable to earn the confidence of the House, his only legitimacy as prime minister?
There are many who believe that he may once again attempt a fabricated crisis. You get a real sense of this when you read comments by his base, or heaven forbid try to challenge them on it. They still refuse to believe that Harper had tried to become prime minister in 2004, in a coalition, despite the mounting evidence.
Instead they continue to raise the "alarm".
The perceived knock out of Ignatieff this week, through clever poll and headline manipulation, has now become a battle between Harper "Here for Canada" and a "socialist" who will grab power with the help of a "separatist". Another classic battle.
At the beginning of the campaign it was an "Ignatieff led" coalition, but he was losing that battle. Time to change gears, split the vote and create confusion.
But what if that doesn't work?
Andrew Coyne says of Harper's strategy:
...his repeated attempts to impugn this perfectly normal constitutional procedure as “illegitimate,” we assumed, he was simply trying to demonize the opposition as power-hungry conspirators, hoping to scare the electorate into giving him the majority he seeks. It was so clearly contrary to all established constitutional doctrine, not to mention his own public statements and private actions over the years, that he couldn’t possibly be serious. It was just cheap, dishonest demagoguery, playing upon the public’s ignorance of constitutional conventions.Coyne, however, sees another possibility that might explain Harper's bizarre behaviour.
What he may have in mind is this: that after losing a vote of non-confidence, he would advise the Governor General to dissolve the House and call new elections, rather than call upon someone else to form a government. He would then dare the Governor General to overrule his first minister’s advice, something that Governors General are quite properly extremely reluctant to do. He would, in short, be doing another King-Byng, provoking a constitutional crisis rather than yield power, hoping to intimidate the Governor General and/or rally public opinion to his side. If so this would be extremely disturbing.And remember he already set the precedent for this in 2008.
It may take more than an election to wrest power from this man's hands. Reducing him to a minority will probably not be enough.
Let's hope the experts are right, that polls should be viewed as mere entertainment, not to be taken seriously. After all, the so-call surge of the NDP, especially in Quebec, had a margin of error at 6.4%, though the headlines never reflected that (seat projection for the NDP remains at 36).
Harper and his media accomplices are getting desperate. Our only hope may be Canada's youth. Because with them, in this election, the possibilities are endless.
1. Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis, Edited by Peter H. Russell and Lorne Sossin, University of Toronto Press, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-4426-1014-9. 2, Pg. 65-68
2. Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and Crisis in Canadians Democracy, By Elizabeth May, McClelland & Stewart, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-7710-5760-1, Pg. 226