Two Minority Scenarios: Another election or an NDP-Liberal Agreement?

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Some people still think Stephen Harper could govern with a minority. While I doubt this, I believe he might try to get the Governor General to call another election—and he could succeed. If the NDP and Liberals are wise they will start preparing for this scenario. Let's take these points one at a time.1. How Harper might try to surviveStephen Harper recently told CBC's Peter Mansbridge that in a Westminster democracy like ours, the party with the most seats gets to govern. Harper surely knows this is wrong, so why did he say it? I think he was laying the ground for a possible post-election strategy.Suppose he wins 15 - 20 seats more than the party in second place, but less than the 170 needed for a majority. As I argued in an earlier column, neither the Liberals nor the NDP will prop up his government. They will vote to bring him down at the first opportunity: the Throne Speech.A persistent reply is that if Harper promised to resign, he might persuade one of the opposition parties to support him. This is not going to happen. Two-thirds of Canadians want the man gone, many of them, passionately. Neither the NDP nor the Liberals will risk alienating these supporters by propping up a Harper government, even if he insists he will be leaving shortly.Nevertheless, if Harper is ahead by 15 – 20 seats on October 20th; and if there is a way to hang on to power, I believe he will fight to do so. He loves the job too much; he has nothing better to do; and, so far, he has no legacy for the history books.These circumstances, however, suggest a way by which he not only might hang onto office, but win another majority and earn a place in history as one of Canada's wiliest prime ministers—a political chess master. The scenario has three steps.First, he would wait till February or March before recalling Parliament for a Throne Speech. He would use this time to promote the view that the party with the most seats has the right to govern; and to try to whip up public anger against the NDP and Liberals who, he would say, are conspiring to bring down his duly elected government.This is the same strategy Harper used in 2008 to get the Governor General to prorogue Parliament so he, Harper, could avoid a confidence vote that would have toppled his government and handed power to a coalition led by Stephane Dion.Second, once the NDP and Liberals voted against the Throne Speech, Harper would assess whether he has provoked enough public outrage. If he feels he has, he would visit the GG and ask him to dissolve Parliament and call an election. Canadians, he would say, should be the ones to declare who they want to govern them, not an appointed official. He would remind the Governor General that no GG has refused a PM's request since the famous King-Byng crisis of 1920.Finally, if the GG acceded, the Conservatives would be the only party with the money to mount another campaign. Harper would use it to fill the airwaves with moral outrage over the NDP and Liberals' scheme to bring down his government and seize power. He could win big.But would the GG agree to call an election?2. How the NDP and Liberals could work together for 18 monthsThe main view among commentators is that, if the party with the most seats failed to gain the confidence of the House, before calling an election, the GG would turn to the other leaders to see if one of them could govern.Under the circumstances, I think it would be a mistake to take this for granted. It is not a clearly established rule. Moreover, if Harper has successfully mobilized public opinion in his direction—as he did in 2008—the GG may feel cornered and agree that this question should be decided democratically.To avoid this, the NDP and Liberals should be ready in advance with a clear agreement for cooperation (not a coalition) on an 18 month legislative agenda.Such an agenda could be built around the shared goal of electoral reform. Both parties are committed to reforming the First-Past-the-Post electoral system before the next election. They may disagree on the best alternative, but this could be managed by establishing a public commission to ask Canadians what kind of process they want for the future.The electoral reform process could involve a year-long, national discussion in which both parties could maintain a high public profile, helping to ensure that neither one would be eclipsed by the other during the period of their agreement.At the same time, the initiative could consider other reforms to help ensure a fairer and more democratic electoral system, such as legislation to regulate the abuse of government advertising or reintroduction of public financing for political parties.In my view, the two parties would be wise to start building public support for such a proposal immediately after an election, thereby countering any effort by Harper to use the months between the election and a Throne Speech to build public support for the view that the Conservatives have the right to govern.As for the Conservatives, a new electoral system that more fairly matched seats with votes would change the electoral equation, once for all. Either the party would have to re-invent itself—possibly re-discovering its Red-Tory side—or risk being marginalized.In sum, the post-election period may be more exciting than the campaign. We could find ourselves thrown back into a ferocious election battle in a few months; or we could have a whole new election regime in a couple of years.I think I can guess which one Canadians would prefer.Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada's leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. His recent projects include chairing an expert group on citizen engagement for the UN and the OECD; and chairing the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan