Thursday, December 04, 2008

Canada's Conservative Government Wins Reprieve in Unprecedented Political Crisis

Canada's Governor-General, Representing the Queen, Invokes Rarely-Used Power to Temporarily Suspend Parliament, Saving PM Stephen Harper's Minority Government From No-Confidence Vote -- But Harper Remains in Danger of Being Toppled by a Coalition of Opposition Parties When Parliament Resumes in January

Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada looked cool, calm and collected as he delivered a rare televised speech to the nation from his Parliament Hill office in Ottawa on Wednesday night. And for good reason: Harper successfully headed off a no-confidence vote in Parliament that could have toppled his minority government just weeks after winning a second term in Canada's general election in October. A planned no-confidence vote pushed by opposition parties that was scheduled for next week was blocked by Governor-General Michaelle Jean, Queen Elizabeth II's representative as head of state, when she invoked her rarely-used authority to suspend Parliament until January 26. (Photo: Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Thursday, December 4, 2008)
(Updated 2:30 a.m. EST Friday, December 5, 2008)


Less than two months after Canadians went to the polls to hand Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party a second consecutive minority government, the country is in the grip of its worst political crisis in 13 years -- one that could see the Harper government fall as early as January to a coalition of opposition parties without the voters' blessing .

Harper's government, which won re-election in October but failed to win a majority in Parliament, could have fallen in a no-confidence vote that was scheduled for Monday. But Governor-General Michaelle Jean, Queen Elizabeth II's representative as head of state, exercised a rarely-used authority and suspended Parliament until January 26, when the 2009-10 federal budget is scheduled to be unveiled.

Jean had the option of either suspending Parliament, dismissing Harper outright and calling another election or allowing the opposition's no-confidence motion to be voted on and then ask opposition leader Stephane Dion to form a government in a rare coalition between the three opposition parties not seen in Ottawa since World War I.

The embattled prime minister delivered a rare televised address to the nation Wednesday night from his Parliament Hill office in Ottawa, in which he criticized the two opposition parties -- the Liberals and the New Democrats, backed by the pro-independence Bloc Quebecois -- for attempting to "thwart the will of the Canadian people" and form a coalition government just seven weeks after the October 14 general election.

The proposed coalition of the Liberals and the more left-leaning NDP "cannot help Canada," Harper said in his address, in which he made a direct appeal to Canadians to pressure the opposition to allow the Conservatives to stay in power, arguing that the opposition has no "democratic right" to form a government so soon after the election.

It is the worst political crisis to grip America's northern neighbor since the 1995 Quebec independence referendum that almost tore the country apart. Never before has a Canadian government faced ouster so soon after the ruling party won re-election.

The opposition's planned no-confidence vote in Parliament on Monday ironically would have fallen on the same day that Quebecers go to the polls in a hotly-contested early general election in the French-speaking province, where the minority Liberal Party government of Premier Jean Charest is also fighting to stay in power against the opposition conservative Parti Action Democratique and the more militantly pro-independence Parti Quebecois.


It is not unusual in parliamentary democracies elsewhere for the party that wins the greatest number of seats in a general election to fail to win an absolute majority in parliament and must form a coalition with other parties in order to govern.

But Canada has not experienced a coalition government at the federal level since World War I and at the provincial level since the early 1950s in British Columbia. Canadians had grown accustomed to elections in which if the largest party fails to win a majority, it forms a minority government and then must compromise with opposition parties to pass legislation.

Historically, minority governments in Canada last an average of 18 months, although Harper's Conservatives, which ousted the Liberals in 2006, survived for 21 months before calling an early election for October 14 in the hopes of winning a parliamentary majority. But those hopes were wiped out by the economic meltdown that rocked the world in September, resulting in yet another minority Conservative government, albeit with a slightly larger plurality.

The Conservatives currently hold 143 seats in the 308-seat House of Commons, 12 seats shy of the 155 needed for a majority. The opposition Liberals hold 77 seats, the Bloc 49 and the NDP 37, for a combined total of 163.


"At a time of global economic instability, Canada's government must stand unequivocally for keeping the country together. At a time like this, a coalition with the separatists cannot help Canada," he said, referring to the Bloc Quebecois.

"The opposition does not have the democratic right to impose a coalition with the separatists they promised voters would never happen," Harper continued, accusing the opposition of attempting to "impose" the coalition on Canadians "without your consent."

"This is no time for backroom deals with the separatists; it is the time for Canada's government to focus on the economy," he said, calling the parliamentary crisis a "a pivotal moment in our history." With his government's back against the wall, Harper repeated his vow to use "every legal means" to block the coalition "to protect Canada."

Harper also made a play for time, saying that the fiscal 2009-10 federal budget scheduled to be unveiled on January 27 will "contain additional measures to boost Canada's economy, while making sure we avoid a long-term structural deficit in Canada's finances."


The crisis was triggered by what the opposition parties say is the Harper government's lack of action in response to the worsening effects of the global economic crisis on the Canadian economy.

When their call for an economic stimulus package was ignored by the Conservatives, opposition leaders decided to forge an unprecedented coalition to oust the Harper government and form one of their own, with Dion as interim prime minister.

Dion resigned as Liberal leader following his party's loss in the October election, but would serve as prime minister in a Liberal-NDP coalition government until a new Liberal leader is chosen at a party convention in May.

In a taped rebuttal broadcast shortly after Harper's address, Dion defended the notion of a proposed coalition government "as normal and current practice in many parts of the world."

Moreover, the Conservatives — largely based on their reaction to Canada's financial crunch — have lost the confidence of the majority of members of the House of Commons and thus, "have lost the right to govern," Dion said.

Dion said he sent a letter to the governor-general on Wednesday, urging her to reject any attempt by Harper to suspend Parliament.

"If Mr. Harper wants to suspend Parliament, he must first face the vote of confidence," Dion said.
"In our Canada, the government is accountable for its decisions and actions in Parliament — your Parliament," he told Canadians.

NDP Leader Jack Layton said Canada is at "a crossroads in our collective history" where there is a coalition government waiting in the wings to take over from the sitting Conservative government, which he maintains has done little to help ordinary Canadians during these tough economic times.

"An economic storm unlike anything seen in a generation is upon us and Canada must have a strong and effective government that holds the confidence of Parliament. Tonight, we do not," Layton said. "A new kind of government, with a new kind of politics, is ready to serve, one that will put the economy and working families first."


For his part, Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe is not backing down from his decision to support the proposed coalition government -- which is having some impact on the campaign for Monday's provincial election in Quebec. "I ask Mr. Harper to let the House of Commons vote, that we are finished with his government," Duceppe said according to an advance copy of his speech delivered in response to the prime minister's address. "We can work to fight with all our strength the economic crisis that faces us."

Pauline Marois, leader of the Bloc's more hard-line pro-independence provincial cousin, the Parti Quebecois, is putting pressure on Premier Charest to take a side in the power struggle unfolding in Ottawa.

Marois accused Charest, leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, of letting the province down by refusing to take an official position on the ongoing federal parliamentary crisis. Marois also demanded Charest speak up about the advantage she said the Bloc secured for Quebec by supporting the Liberal-NDP coalition -- a highly unusual move, given the decades-long rivalry between the Bloc and the federal Liberals.

Charest said he won't get involved in the power struggle between the Conservatives and opposition parties because neutrality is the best path to lead Quebec.


Jean, whose post as governor-general representing the queen is largely ceremonial, nonetheless possesses extraordinary powers she has the authority to exercise in times of extreme crisis. The unprecedented nature of the political crisis gripping Ottawa made it apparent to the governor-general that she had to step in.

"Today's decision will give us an opportunity - I'm talking about all the parties - to focus on the economy and work together," the prime minister said outside the front door of Rideau Hall, the governor-general's official residence.

The decision also sets the stage for a fierce partisan battle for public support between Harper's Tories and a proposed opposition-party coalition over the coming weeks, during which Jean could, if necessary, intervene again by dismissing the government altogether and calling a new election.

No Canadian governor-general has ever actually dismissed a sitting prime minister. Indeed, throughout the worldwide Commonwealth of former British colonies that still recognize the British monarch as head of state, only once has a governor-general done so.

In 1975, Australia's governor-general, Sir John Kerr, ousted Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's government amid a constitutional power struggle between Australia's upper and lower houses of Parliament, which were controlled by different parties. Australia amended its constitution three years later to cut out any involvement of its governor-general in government. In 1999, a referendum on declaring Australia a republic with a ceremonial president as head of state failed.

Although the opposition Liberals hold a substantial majority in Canada's unelected upper chamber, the Senate, no such power struggle between the Senate and the Commons is expected, nor is Jean likely to dismiss Harper, although circumstances might force her to intervene in other ways.

The Haitian-born Jean, Canada's 27th governor-general, is the first person of African descent to hold the post. Ironically, Jean moved to Canada with her family as a little girl to flee the political violence that ripped apart her native country during the last days of the Duvalier dictatorship.


The power struggle -- unprecedented in a country with an international reputation for its politics being dull almost to the point of putting people to sleep -- has galvanized Canadians in a lively mixture of confusion, disbelief, anger and delight.

A random sampling of comments posted to the Web site of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation since news of the coalition emerged less than a week ago suggests Canadians are roiled as never before.

Many people writing to the CBC expressed anger over what they feel is an attempt to nullify the results of October's election, with many openly accusing the opposition parties of attempting the equivalent of a coup d'etat.

"Our country supposedly is a democracy, but the opposition is talking like any other country that just overthrows the government because of disagreements," one poster wrote. "Honestly, are we the same as other countries that act against what the people want?"

"Why should we even bother to vote if it no longer matters what the outcome? What a waste of the $30 million we spent on the recent election!" wrote another.

Others are going further than simply calling the opposition parties' moves undemocratic.

The attempt to defeat the government and form a coalition is "nothing more than a bloodless coup that does not in any way take into account the will or decisions made by the people in Canada," wrote a Toronto man. "Why have an election? Why make light of Iran and other countries' abuse of power?"

# # #
Volume III, Number 79
Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Monday, December 01, 2008

Obama's Cabinet Picks So Far Drawing Comparisons to Lincoln -- and to JFK

President-Elect's Cabinet Choices Shows His Intent to Follow Lincoln's Playbook of Assembling a 'Team of Rivals' and Surround Himself, Kennedy-Style, With the 'Best and Brightest' Domestic and Foreign-Policy Heavyweights -- But Can These Big Names With Big Intellects Keep Their Big Egos in Check?


President-elect Barack Obama introduces his team of economic advisers at his first news conference in Chicago following his election, flanked by Vice President-elect Joe Biden (left) and White House Chief of Staff-designate Rahm Emanuel (right). With the nation's economy rapidly worsening, Obama is assembling a Cabinet in keeping with both Abraham Lincoln's "team of rivals" and John F. Kennedy's "best and brightest" by surrounding himself with domestic and foreign-policy heavyweights -- including several big names associated with his opponents in the race for the Democratic nomination. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to be formally nominated Secretary of State today (Monday) and incumbent Defense Secretary Robert Gates will stay on -- the lone Republican among Obama's cabinet picks so far. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Monday, December 1, 2008)



Barack Obama’s picks for Cabinet and other senior posts are many things: Centrists, veterans, rivals. Most of all, though, they’re big: Big names, big intellects and big egos.

The president-elect’s national security and economic policy teams, inside the White House and out, will be led by power-politics veterans -- all but one of them older than the president-elect -- and all accustomed to being the most important voice in the room.

With the official announcement expected today (Monday) and pending Senate confirmations in early January, it appears that on national security decisions, Obama will have a team of heavyweights: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Vice President Joe Biden, retired four-star Marine General James Jones as his national security adviser and four-star Army General David Petraeus as chief of the U.S. Central Command.

His economic team is of similar stature: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will find his rival for the job, Larry Summers, in the White House, while former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker will also be in the mix as head of a new economic recovery advisory board.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel seems unlikely to be shy about his views in either arena.


The choices have been widely praised, with even critics such as Karl Rove and the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board saluting Obama for surrounding himself with some of the most talented and highly regarded figures in American public life -- much as another young, incoming president did nearly a half-century ago: John F. Kennedy.

Democrats have celebrated the sheer muscle Obama has assembled to push through his agenda.

Obama has encouraged comparisons between his governing team and Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet, which included several of his Republican rivals. But Obama’s is less a "team of rivals" than a "team of giants" -- and, much like JFK's, Obama's best and brightest will inevitably jostle up against one another, as some rise and others fall within an administration that has ambitious goals but, unlike Kennedy's, has limited resources.

Almost certainly, they’ll test the strength of a president brimming with confidence and with a self-described mandate.

"The challenge is to have strength in the center," said Paul Begala, the former Clinton aide. "There’s always risk that these giant planets go out on their own -- but if the sun is strong enough, they’ll stay in their orbits."


Many on the new team have known one another and the intimate world of Beltway politics for much longer than they’ve known the 47-year-old Obama, a relative newcomer to Washington -- a fact that already has drawn sharp criticism from some liberal bloggers as not being the change that Obama has promised to bring to Washington -- and most remained neutral in the Democratic primary.

Biden, a 35-year senator, and Gates, a former head of the CIA and deputy national security adviser under President George H.W. Bush, were mastering Washington power games when Obama was a law student. Only Geithner is younger than Obama; he was born just two weeks after the president-elect in August 1961.

"It’s not just that they’re big players -- he’s picking people with tremendous competency," said former Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Nebraska). "It comes from his own sense -- he’s very confident in himself. That’s an extremely valuable characteristic for a president."

Nonetheless, Obama had to persuade two of his picks -- Clinton and Gates -- to accept.


Veterans of Bill Clinton’s first term (1993-97) say the difference is dramatic. Back then, Clinton made Mack McClarty, an Arkansas confidant, his chief of staff and appointed as his secretaries of state and defense important figures, but not people of such stature that there could be any doubt that they would take the job.

One veteran Clinton aide recalled that the president and his aides discussed the risks of bringing big names and large egos into the White House in his second term, when internal debate focused on whether Richard Holbrooke should be named ambassador to the United Nations.

"Most of the foreign policy team was against it," the former Clinton aide recalled. "They thought he was too big an ego, too outsized a personality."

But White House staffers -- including Emanuel -- argued in favor of the pick, and Holbrooke got the job.

Counterbalancing possible tensions is the depth of the relationships among the principals and key deputies. On the economic policy team, Geithner and Summers have been friendly sparring partners since the 1990s.

On national security, the Democrats have been attending the same conferences and dinner parties for decades. Tom Donilon and Jim Steinberg, top deputies to Biden and Clinton, respectively, are old friends and allies.

"There is an insiders’ group of long-standing Democratic former officials who worked together in the Clinton years, who go to the same conferences, the same ideas festivals, many of whom worked together at places like the Brookings Institution, and [Obama’s] group comprises a certain number of them," said a Democratic national security hand.


If there’s an obvious gap, it’s between the civilian officials on one hand and Gates and the military men on the other: Gates and Petraeus are key allies, and Gates and Jones are said to be close.

"Those guys don’t have the same social and intellectual and political DNA," the Democrat said.

Politically, the rank and file of the men and women of the U.S. armed forces have been dominated by Republicans for more than 30 years. Exit polls of military personnel on Election Day show that John McCain won the military vote by a wide margin; only among African-American soldiers did Obama score a lead.

Any potential clashes of the titans, though, may be mitigated by the relationships among and between the groups. Clinton and Biden are old allies, but Clinton also wooed Jones during her campaign for president, before the retired general developed a relationship with Obama.

(To add another layer: During the campaign, Jones also advised John McCain, whom he has known since he was Marine liaison to the Senate and McCain was the Navy liaison in the late 1970s.)


Veterans of past White Houses said they anticipated clashes, and that one of Obama’s key challenges would be to manage the personalities.

"For some of the smallest offices in Washington, the West Wing has hosted some of the largest egos ever. That’s why the boss’s office is Oval -- no one can get pushed into the corner,” said Mike McCurry, a former Clinton White House press secretary.

He and other veterans of past White Houses, Democratic and Republican, praised Obama’s picks.

"You want to bring the brightest minds and most capable people to the table. They’re obviously going to have very different views about how you resolve an issue. In the end, the test is really up to president," said Leon Panetta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff.

"The president not only has to manage those large personalities but also make the decision," Panetta added. "And the decisions are not going to please everybody."

Mary Matalin, who served as a top aide to Vice President Cheney in President Bush’s first term, said there was much more upside in assembling a group of outsized egos.

"I can’t think of any president that I’ve worked for or read about that had any patience for a lily-willed personality," said Matalin, who also worked for the senior Bush -- and whose husband, James Carville, worked for Bill Clinton. “You want them to challenge you and each other.”

And Obama, she said, can limit infighting by doing what past presidents have done: taking elements of his advisers' differing ideas to formulate his own policy.

"It’s usually not A or B, but a synthesis," she said, recalling that the current president would often not uniformly take the advice of Cheney or former Secretary of State Colin Powell, but rather go "off the menu" and pick a third option.

Panetta, similarly, praised Bill Clinton’s ability to weave together input from his sometimes-fractious team to limit bruised egos.

"He took all these different ideas, he mixed them together and came up with an approach that combined different pieces from all his advisers," said Panetta. "They all got something."

Yet President Clinton was also known at times for voicing the view of the adviser who got to him last, right before a decision was made.

Reminded that Clinton’s desire to please had resulted in some mixed messaging and speeches that were almost cafeteria-like in their options, Panetta let out a knowing laugh.

"That’s part of the challenge of being president," he said.

# # #

Volume III, Number 78
Special Report Copyright 2008, Cspitol News Company, LLC.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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