I apologize if this seems a bit arcane to those accustomed to fixed election dates, two-year campaigns and three-month transitions. But what’s happening in Canada is shaping up as the biggest constitutional crisis in the country’s history. Remember when Jim Jeffords flipped control of the Senate to the Dems because he wasn’t invited to the Vermont Teacher Of The Year reception? This is the nuclear version of that.
To recap: the soft left (Liberals), hard left (NDP) and secessionist left (the Bloc Quebecois) have entered into a backroom agreement signed in blood (and with many billions of dollars and Senate seats changing hands) and are leaning on the Governor-General to fire the Conservative Prime Minister and replace the present government with a ”coalition” – a misbegotten pantomime horse comprised of three rear ends. The Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is contemplating ways to avoid defenestration and will be addressing the nation (I use the term loosely) this evening.
I disagree with David Frum’s interpretation of the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis and of his characterization of the Queen’s view of it. But he’s right that this is the relevant precedent. Three decades ago, the Australian Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, fired the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Whitlam’s first words on being told the news were supposedly: “I must call the Palace.” He meant that, if he got through to the Queen in London, he could fire Kerr before Kerr could fire him. Sir John told him it was too late: He’d already spoken to Her Majesty. But Whitlam captured the hard-power reality: It was a question of who got through to Buckingham Palace first – the Governor-General to say he’d fired the Prime Minister, or the Prime Minister to demand the Queen fire the Governor-General.
In Canada, Stephen Harper is said to be considering doing for real what only belatedly occurred to Gough Whitlam – having the Queen fire Mme Jean, Canada’s vicereine, and replace her with somebody who’d tell the pantomime horse to get lost.
If they’re the choices – a constitutional coup by the opposition parties or Harper’s proposed solution – serious and lasting damage will be inflicted on Canada’s institutions either way. The best way to avoid either option would be if the Liberal leader-in-waiting Michael Ignatieff (former Harvard prof, former BBC talkshow host and former Iraq war supporter) were to decline to support the coup and bring enough fellow Libs along with him.
Otherwise, whatever happens, it’s going to be ugly. The “checks and balances” of most free societies operate on a kind of honor system. In the Westminster form of parliamentary monarchy, the important stuff isn’t written down: it depends on codes and conventions agreed over the ages. All very gentlemanly – until some thug decides he doesn’t care about gentlemen’s agreements and drives a truck over the conventions. That’s what the three-reared horse is proposing to do.