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Canada: Parliament Suspended Until End of January 2009

(Dec. 15, 2008) On October 14, 2008, Canada held a general election that gave the governing Conservative Party 143 out of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. (Parliament of Canada, House of Commons: Party Standings, (last visited Dec. 8, 2008.) Although this was an increase in their number of Members of Parliament, it still left the Conservatives short of a majority. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appeared to have a strong minority government that was assured of remaining in power at least until its main rival, the Liberal Party, could replace Stephane Dion as its leader. Dion had announced his intention to resign shortly after the October election, and the Liberals are expected to hold their leadership convention in the spring of 2009. Because almost all new opposition leaders wait some time before trying to force even a minority government to call a general election, most analysts expected that the opposition parties would not be willing to defeat the government and force an election for at least several years.

However, on December 1, 2008, a very unexpected event occurred. The leaders of the Liberal and New Democratic Parties signed an agreement to form a coalition government, and the Bloc Quebecois, which advocates independence for Quebec, agreed to support that coalition for 18 months. A vote of no-confidence was scheduled for December 8, 2008. (Liberals, NDP, Bloc Sign Deal on Proposed Coalition, CBC, Dec. 1, 2008, available at Had this vote been held, the government would have been defeated and the coalition could have asked the Governor General to summon the leader of the Liberal Party to form a government without holding a general election. However, this would have put the Queen's representative in Canada in a difficult position. It is well settled that even though coalitions have been extremely rare in Canadian history, two or more parties can unite behind a single leader and the Governor General can ask the leader of the opposition to form a government if he or she believes that leader will have the support of the majority of the members of the House of Commons. (Peter Hogg, CONSTITUTIONAL LAW OF CANADA 9-20 (4th ed. 2005).) This is most likely to occur when a ruling party suffers defections or the balance in the House shifts through interim elections. What makes the proposed Liberal-New Democratic coalition unique, however, is that its combined membership would have been less than that of the Conservatives. This coalition could have only governed with the support of the Bloc Quebecois and, for political reasons, the Liberals and New Democrats could not ask Quebec's separatist party to formally join its ranks.

The Prime Minister could have allowed the vote of no-confidence to occur and then urged the Governor General to call a general election. However, the Prime Minister's response to the opposition's surprise agreement was to ask the Governor General to prorogue or suspend Parliament until it could present a budget at the end of January 2009. After two hours of crisis talks, the Governor General agreed to take this unprecedented action, rather than waiting for the vote of no-confidence to occur and then deciding whether to call a new general election or ask Dion to form a new government. (Michel Comte, CrisisHit Canadian PM Fends Off Opposition Revolt, AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, Dec. 4, 2008, LEXIS/NEXIS, News Library, Most Recent 90 Days File.)

The Governor General's unprecedented decision has given Prime Minister Harper time to listen to opposition proposals on the economy and other matters, but it has not ensured that a vote of no-confidence will not be held shortly after Parliament resumes sitting in January of 2009. However, public opinion polls have shown that support for the current government has risen dramatically since the agreement between the Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois was announced. The Prime Minister has accused the Liberals of forming an alliance with “socialists and sovereigntists.” (Tom Flanagan, This Coalition Changes Everything: If Harper's Fragile Government Falls, the Governor-General Must Let Canadians Have Their Say at the Polls, THE GLOBE AND MAIL, Dec. 8, 2008, at A15, LEXIS/NEXIS, News Library, Most Recent 90 Days File.) Most Canadians do not believe that a soon-to-be former leader of a party that holds only 77 seats in the House of Commons should become Prime Minister. Most analysts also believe that if the coalition forces a general election, the Conservatives are very likely to obtain the majority that just eluded them in October even though it has made some of its own political mistakes over the past two months. (Id.)