From Thursday's Globe and Mail
The heat is on Governor-General Michaëlle Jean – and it's coming from a former governor-general.
Ed Schreyer said in an interview yesterday that granting a wish for the prorogation of Parliament at this point would constitute an evasion of the process of Parliament and should not be done.
“I'll put it this way and I will make this a plain-spoken sentence. Nothing should be done to aid and abet the evasion of submitting to the will of Parliament. I think one can stop there. It's about as basic as that.”
With a new Parliament having just opened, the only circumstances to justify prorogation, Mr. Schreyer said, would be a genuine emergency. “The only emergency seems to be a desire [of the Harper government] to avoid facing Parliament. That is not an emergency.”
Ms. Jean is under no obligation to listen to Mr. Schreyer, but his observations go to the heart of a problem she faces. No governor-general should be seen to be in the business of closing down Parliament for the crassly political reason of saving a government from almost certain defeat on a confidence motion.
The driving imperative of the Harper government's adjournment request is survival. Ms. Jean knows that last Friday the Prime Minister stood in the House of Commons foyer and announced that the opposition would be allowed a confidence vote on Dec. 8. She knows that his reason for wanting to renege on that vow is that he is likely to lose that vote. To grant prorogation could make her look complicit in the Prime Minister's political power play.
That's the type of thing, Mr. Schreyer said, that has to be avoided. Speaking of political neutrality, he said: “I regard that as the
sine qua non of the office. … What the Governor-General must not do is start canvassing because that too quickly comes to destroy respectful neutrality, political neutrality.”
She must also consider the danger of setting an unacceptable precedent. Granting prorogation in dire circumstances for a government is tantamount to saying it should be granted at any time – that the governor-general should be a rubber stamp in the process. That means any time a minority Parliament is in trouble, facing a confidence vote, the prime minister could simply prorogue to head off the crisis.
Paul Martin could have done so in the fall of 2005 and avoided losing an election campaign that extended over Christmas. John Diefenbaker could have tried it in the early 1960s. Joe Clark could have tried it in 1979, though Mr. Schreyer said he's not sure he would have granted it.
Those leaders may have had second thoughts, realizing that the governor-general of the day might have turned them down. But with the precedent of a go-ahead for Mr. Harper, why would any future PM hesitate?
Mr. Schreyer, who served as NDP premier of Manitoba, was appointed governor-general by Pierre Trudeau in 1979. He later campaigned for the NDP in the 1999 Manitoba election. While his political bias is clear, he said he was speaking from the point of view of his experience at Rideau Hall. He said he didn't want to get into giving advice to Ms. Jean, but his strong views will certainly be interpreted as such.
In an earlier interview with the CBC, Mr. Schreyer, who favours the Liberal-NDP coalition being allowed to form a government, would not give his view on prorogation, saying he hadn't yet thought it through. But that has become the critical issue. Many are talking as though the die is cast, that the Governor-General is very likely to accept the Prime Minister's request to adjourn Parliament. The prevailing sentiment appears to be that Ms. Jean will, indeed, grant prorogation, that a timeout is needed, that cooler heads should prevail – until late January.
This could well be the solution for the Harper Conservatives. By then, with the Prime Minister outfoxing the opposition at every turn, they might be able to put this crisis to bed. The Conservatives have gained ground over the past two days with an impressive blitzkrieg of demagoguery, painting the opposition deal as a separatist coalition. Mr. Harper, whose Conservatives have had many close ties to the Bloc Québécois, went so far yesterday as to label the opposition pact “a plan to destroy Canada.”
The Liberals, meantime, have been woefully inadequate in Question Period, steamrollered by the Tory onslaught. They've missed a golden opportunity to paint Mr. Harper as a coward running away from his promise of a confidence vote.
Given a few weeks time, the Conservatives will be able to flesh out an economic plan while bombarding the airwaves with their propaganda machine. The coalition will see its support fritter away. Their only chance is to strike now. They had better hope Michaëlle Jean listens to Ed Schreyer.