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Political drama unfolds as economy batters Canada

For political drama, it's hard to beat Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his holiday sale of a U.S. Senate seat. But Canada is coming pretty close.

Our normally staid neighbor to the north is embroiled in a political crisis with its own colorful cast of characters — a glamorous Governor General appointed by the Queen of England, a Machiavellian prime minister often called Canada's Dick Cheney and a bumbling opposition leader who made a recent speech against a backdrop that included a book prominently titled "HOT AIR.''

All this comes when unemployment is rising, the loonie is worth just 81 U.S. cents and there are calls to bail out Canada's own auto industry, closely tied to Detroit's and facing just as much trouble.

Politically speaking, Canada is in "somewhat of a mess,'' says Lawrence Barker, head of the Canadian Snowbird Association, which represents traveling Canadians.

The crisis began last month when Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced an economic plan that would end public funding for political parties — in effect, neutering opposition to Harper's own Conservative Party.

That so enraged the Liberals and others in Parliament that they announced they would form a coalition that could topple Harper's government with a no-confidence vote. So, doing what no prime minster had done before, Harper went to Canada's governor general on Dec. 4 and got her okay to "prorogue'' or suspend Parliament until Jan. 26.

A bit of explanation: Depending on your point of view, one of the charmingly quaint or ridiculously anachronistic things about Canada is that the formal head of state is a governor general appointed by the British monarch. The current governor is Haitian-born Michaelle Jean, 51 a brilliant and stunning former broadcast journalist fluent in five languages.

That Jean and Harper met 2 1/2 hours before she finally approved his prorogue request dramatized exactly what a big deal this was.

"Our office of governor general is not democratically elected so in terms of legitimacy it's pretty weak,'' says Robert Bothwell, an historian at the University of Toronto. "But in the final analysis it's still (head of state) and Harper has really been pushing the envelope. What he's trying to do is unprecedented. You don't send Parliament away just because you think you're going to lose a vote of confidence.''

A shrewd politico from Calgary, Harper, 49, has been a close ally of the Bush Administration since he became prime minister in 2006. Critics see in him a Cheney-like disdain for the tools of government, and have compared his move to a "coup d'etat."

"The problem with Harper is ideological,'' Bothwell says. "He's a neocon and these guys tend to see the world in black and white, so he really does believe the opposition is evil. I think Harper will truly do anything to avoid losing power.''

But no matter what they think of Harper, many Canadians are unhappy at the prospect of a coalition government formed by political parties that had even less support than the Conservatives in October's national election.

"We're not a banana republic, we don't have coalitions,'' says Barker, who served in Ontario's provincial government before heading the Snowbird Association. "People are saying, 'I don't remember seeing the word coalition as one of the choices, so how dare you try to subvert my vote.' "

Putting Parliament on hold until late January gives Harper time to come up with an economic plan more palatable to opponents. If he doesn't, they could defeat it with a no-confidence vote, thereby forcing a new general election that could end Harper's tenure as prime minister.

"It really depends on how bad the economy is, and people are getting gloomier and gloomier every day,'' Bothwell says. "Until recently Harper has pretended there's no crisis. His propaganda machine is straight out of Karl Rove.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

Political drama unfolds as economy batters Canada 12/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 16, 2008 10:46am]
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