A constitutional scholar who advised Michaëlle Jean during the 2008 parliamentary crisis says Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave the Governor General certain commitments ahead of her decision to grant his request for prorogation.
The revelation by Peter Russell comes amid a sea of praise for Jean as she departed Rideau Hall this week following a five-year term as Governor General. But at the time of the crisis, many questioned her decision to grant Harper a reprieve from a House of Commons confidence vote that his minority Conservative government would almost certainly have lost.
Russell was among several of Canada's foremost constitutional experts summoned to Rideau Hall on Dec. 4, 2008 to advise Jean on whether she should grant the prime minister's request to shut down Parliament, though he didn't sit in on her private meeting with Harper.
In an interview aired Saturday on CBC Radio’s The House, Russell said Harper made at least two important commitments: that Parliament would return soon, and that his government would then produce a budget that could pass.
The crisis was triggered after the government tabled a deeply divisive fiscal update that was light on economic remedies but included a move to end federal subsidies for political parties.
The Commons opposition was threatening to bring down the government and install a Liberal-NDP coalition, to be led by then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, with the support of the Bloc Québécois.
Russell, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, said the prime minister's promises had a large influence on Jean, and he cautioned Canadians against seeing her decision to grant Harper's request for prorogation as a rubber stamp.
"I think they were extremely important in her weighing all the factors on both sides of the question," Russell said.
"For instance, if Mr. Harper had made no pledge to meet Parliament early, if he said well, he thought his financial position, which had been so badly received in the House, was terrific and he wasn't going to make any changes, I think she would have probably had to make the decision the other way."
Jean’s decision to grant Harper’s government a reprieve led to Parliament's return on Jan. 24, a new throne speech and a budget that passed, and the collapse of the proposed coalition.
The Prime Minister's Office declined comment when asked about Russell's statements.
However, the commitments Russell cited match the pledges Harper made to the Canadian public when he emerged from the long wait at Rideau Hall.
"We certainly will try and find some consensus, as I think we ultimately have on a couple of other measures," the PM said. "Let's get on with actually working on a package. That's what I think Canadians want us to do, is work on the economy and work together on the interests of Canada."
Russell's revelation suggests the meeting that day was a negotiation in which the Governor General wielded considerable power.
"She made it clear these reserve powers of the Governor General may sometimes be used in ways that are contrary to the advice of an incumbent prime minister," Russell said.
"Because if the contrary was the case, any PM could, at any time, for any reason, not only dissolve Parliament, but prorogue it for any length of time for any reason. We wouldn't have parliamentary government. We would have prime ministerial government."
Jean 'not a clerk'
Russell said he believes Jean's legacy lies in the way she took her time and kept Harper waiting for hours at Rideau Hall while she made her decision.
"I think the length of time the Governor General spent discussing the matter with the prime minister indicated, as so many commentators have pointed out, that she was not a clerk who would just say, 'Yes, whatever you want I must give,'" Russell said.
Jean told The Canadian Press earlier this week she took the time to make the right decision and was using the delay to send a message to Canadians to become more involved in the political process.
Russell said he has organized a meeting of international experts to try to achieve a consensus about how a Governor General's powers should be used in future cases similar to the 2008 crisis.
He said the meeting, planned for February, will include government participation and will be supported by David Johnston, the new Governor General.