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Harper plays chicken

As a democracy, Canada can be best described as a work in progress. While government should be collaborative, an active debate and compromise between ideas and ideologies, we’re also learning that our political system can’t function properly unless one party wields absolute power. That’s just not very democratic.

Minority governments do not survive in Canada, mainly because every single piece of major legislation that passes through Parliament can be considered a confidence vote — if a vote fails because the ruling party does not have a majority of seats, Parliament is instantly dissolved and an election date is set. The only exception is for open votes, which are so rare in Parliament they can only be classified as endangered. The budget is a confidence vote. The vote whether to accept the throne speech is a confidence vote. And if that isn’t enough ways to kill a government, we can also have separate non-confidence votes.

In history, it’s been rare for a minority government to last more than two years — William Lyon Mackenzie King and Lester B. Pearson were the only minority governments to accomplish that feat, and they only succeeded by forming ironclad alliances with other political parties.

As for the rest:

Arthur Meighen lasted 88 days. John Deifenbaker served two terms as minority prime minister, lasting 294 days and 304 days respectively. Pierre Trudeau presided over one minority government that lasted a year and a half. Joe Clark was given the boot after 273 days. Paul Martin lasted 490 days.

Now Stephen Harper is our minority prime minister, a position he’s held for 615 days through a rather daring mix of scheming and bravado. Since elected he has openly dared the other parties to unseat him, knowing full well that the Canadian public is in no mood for another federal election and that any new election would probably result in another minority government.

In Tuesday’s annual speech from the throne, Harper outlined a list of legislative priorities he knew would be unpalatable to the other parties, including legislation that formally withdraws Canada from the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The NDP and Bloc Quebecois already plan to reject elements of the throne speech, and the Liberals are under pressure to do the same. Harper is playing chicken — if the Liberals don’t swerve and the throne speech is rejected this week, there will be a federal election this fall.

This would be our third federal election since Paul Martin took over the reigns of the Liberal Party in 2004. It’s an election that nobody wants and nobody needs right now, and that will accomplish nothing more than making the opposition parties look petty. It’s politics, simple and dirty, nothing more.

And it’s all made possible by a system that is flawed in favour of endless elections, and that none of the parties have a plan to fix.

I understand what Harper is doing with his throne speech, but I don’t like it. I want my taxes to pay for good government, which can only be defined as the capable administration of public affairs. I don’t like the idea of my tax dollars being used to provide an arena for partisan political bickering.

There’s no question that the tone of government has changed under Harper, who has embraced the American-style “politics of personal destruction” more than any other party leader in recent history. It might win a few votes from angry white men, but I don’t think it will ever fly in a country where up to four major political parties have to work together to get even the most basic things done.

It really wouldn’t be that hard to fix Canada’s Parliamentary system. First, we need to get rid of confidence votes completely — Canadians should expect the people they elect to serve a full term in government. If there is a scandal so bad that we can’t let it slip, then create a vehicle for recalls or impeachment. Don’t hold an entire party responsible for the incompetence or corruption of a few.

Second, we need to set elections to every four or five years instead of leaving it up to the ruling party to declare an election the moment it looks like they have the edge in the polls. This would also discourage parties from pandering to the public with favourable legislation like new tax breaks before elections — Canadians can put two and two together and will recognize a shameless ploy to get re-elected.

These two seemingly simple measures are all it would take to force political parties to get down to business, focusing less time on elections and more time on running the country.

I really don’t want to go through another federal election until the time is up for the current caretaker — unless one of the political parties puts forward a platform that abolishes non-confidence votes and sets regular elections. But if I have to go to the polls two or three years early for a third time to get more of the same, I’m going to be pissed.

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