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Originally published Friday, December 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Canada's constitutional spat

The normally placid halls of Canada's Parliament were buzzing Thursday after Prime Minister Stephen Harper shut down the lawmaking body until Jan. 26, seeking to forestall a no-confidence vote he was sure to lose and, possibly, provoking a constitutional crisis.

Governor general? What's that?

Canada's parliamentary government is unfamiliar to a lot of Americans. But this crisis is a reminder that our neighbor is a constitutional monarchy — its head of state and the Queen of Canada is Queen Elizabeth II.

The queen's representative in Toronto is known as the governor general, currently Michaëlle Jean. She's basically the head of state in proxy. She gets regular briefings with the prime minister and other government leaders and has "the right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn," according to a government Web site.

Canada's Parliament has three parts: the House of Commons, the Senate — and the governor general. She has the right to summon Parliament. And based on Thursday's events, apparently also the power to shut it down.

The governor general also is commander-in-chief of Canada's armed forces.

Source: http://canada.gc.ca/home.html

OTTAWA — The normally placid halls of Canada's Parliament were buzzing Thursday after Prime Minister Stephen Harper shut down the lawmaking body until Jan. 26, seeking to forestall a no-confidence vote he was sure to lose and, possibly, provoking a constitutional crisis.

The opposition accused Harper of threatening the country's democracy by enlisting Governor General Michaëlle Jean, who represents Queen Elizabeth as the nation's head of state, to shut down the legislature and prevent it from voting to bring down his government.

"I frankly don't regard his government as legitimate any more," said Liberal Bob Rae, comparing the move to something more commonly expected from a Third World country. "His government is there because he avoided the will of Parliament."

That sentiment was echoed by constitutional scholars, who lamented that the governor general, a vestige of Canada's British heritage, might have created a mechanism that future prime ministers could use to bypass the legislature when it seemed convenient.

Analysts said a governor general has never been asked to suspend Parliament to delay an ouster vote when it was clear the government didn't have the confidence of a majority of legislators.

"This really has been a blow to parliamentary democracy in Canada," said Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. "It has lowered the status of the elected Parliament and raised the status of the unelected prime minister."

Thursday's events had their origins in October's hotly contested national parliamentary election, which Harper's Conservative Party won without achieving a majority, leaving it vulnerable to challenge.

In light of that and the growing economic turmoil, Harper had promised to work closely with the opposition in the Parliament. But when he presented a proposed budget last week, it had none of the stimulus programs that the opposition had sought to help Canada's sagging economy.

The final insult for the main opposition parties, the New Democrats and the Liberals, was a provision that would eliminate public financing for political parties. They considered it a deliberate slap because Harper's Conservative Party is currently far better-financed than they are.

With that, they began scrambling to put together a coalition with the backing of the separatist Bloc Québécois to displace Harper's government.

Harper said he suspended Parliament to allow time to put together a budget that he will introduce in January, and once again spoke in conciliatory terms, inviting the opposition to participate in the drafting.

Stephane Dion, who as the leader of the Liberals could become the coalition's prime minister, dismissed the idea of working with Harper and said the Conservatives' budget was unlikely to satisfy the opposition's economic demands.

In contrast to the relative indifference to the elections two months ago, the current situation has provoked a passionate debate in the country online, in public and through radio call-in shows.

The issue has also inflamed old regional tensions.

In Western Canada, the main base of support for the Conservatives, political commentators are arguing that the coalition is an attempt by more populous Ontario and Quebec to deny political influence to the West.

At the same time, many Quebecers, particularly French speakers, have been offended by Conservative suggestions that they have no interest in remaining a part of Canada.

Some Conservative members are suggesting that the coalition members are near-traitors.

"That is as close to treason and sedition as I can imagine," Bob Dechert, a Conservative member said Wednesday, echoing a refrain widely heard from callers to radio programs in Harper's home province of Alberta.

Infighting among the Liberals is casting doubt on whether the coalition will hold.

In addition, the opposition was embarrassed by Dion's televised response to Harper on Wednesday. Francophone Dion's English is awkward and his address was beset by technical woes.

It was delivered almost an hour late and the fuzzy quality of the production had Canadian Broadcasting Corp. anchor Peter Mansbridge cracking: "It kind of looked like they shot it with a cellphone."

Harper needs the support of 12 opposition lawmakers to avoid being toppled in a confidence vote next month and some lawmakers will consider breaking ranks with their party after hearing from angry constituents.

"The issue," Wiseman said, "is whether can the Liberals hang together."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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