Naturally, there were groans when we boarded Stephen Harper's plane and found stuffed monkeys on our seats. For two days, the Twitter-world had been aflutter about the "coalition monkey" alleged to be attached to Michael Ignatieff's back by an over-excited reporter. (OK, I take full responsibility — but blame my staff.)
It turned out that, no, the Conservatives didn't have a wicked sense of humour. It was a welcome gift from Air Canada, and nothing to do with coalitions.
But we're still thinking about that overworked coalition monkey. Could its twin, perhaps, be attached to Stephen Harper's back, too?
By seizing this issue, Harper has, of course, invited scrutiny of his own record. And, if you take a careful look at what he and Ignatieff have said at different times, it is — surprise! — hard to see any daylight between them.
The question arose in 2004 when Paul Martin's shaky minority government was confronted by a "three amigos" revolt by Opposition Leader Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe. Together, they agreed to insist on greater opposition powers in Parliament. Harper also drafted a letter for the three to send to Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson, making clear that, if Martin lost the confidence of the House and sought a new election, the Governor General should not assume that's the only way out. Be advised, said the letter, that the three opposition parties stand ready to serve — without an election.
"We respectfully point out," said Harper's letter, "that the opposition parties, who together constitute a majority in the House, have been in close consultation. We believe that, should a request for dissolution arise this should give you cause, as constitutional practice has determined, to consult the opposition leaders and consider all of your options before exercising your constitutional authority."
Harper was even more explicit in his joint press conference with Layton and Duceppe on September 9th, 2004.
"There has been some informal chitter chatter around the Hill," he said, "that if a prime minister were weakened by his own party or defeated in the House that he could just automatically call an election. That’s not our understanding of how the constitutional system works, particularly in a minority Parliament."
Oh? No election needed, then?
Apparently not. "If the government is defeated," Harper went on, "because other opposition parties agree on some measures, or perhaps even members of the governing party agree on some of those measures, the Governor General should first consult widely before accepting any advice to dissolve Parliament. So I would not want the prime minister to think that he can simply fail in the House of Commons as a route to another general election. That’s not the way our system works."
Interesting! Fast forward to 2011, and consider Michael Ignatieff's statement in which he tries to shake off the exhausted coalition monkey.
"We will not enter a coalition with other federalist parties," he says. "In our system, coalitions are a legitimate constitutional option. However, I believe that issue-by-issue collaboration with other parties is the best way for minority Parliaments to function."
Next, he makes the much-delayed "ruling-out" statement: "We categorically rule out a coalition or formal arrangement with the Bloc Quebecois. If I am facing a minority Parliament, I will work like Liberal Prime Ministers Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau and Paul Martin did: to provide progressive government to our country, by building support issue-by-issue..."
Building support issue-by-issue? Could that be how Stephen Harper survived five years in a minority? How else was he able to move legislation and budgets? If he didn't have opposition support, he wouldn't have lasted long.
In a way, then, both leaders have the same monkey on their backs. The fact is that Harper not only played footsie with the Bloc and the NDP but claimed the right to govern without having won the most seats in the election — exactly the sin of which he now accuses Ignatieff. Now, says Harper, such a claim is "illegitimate" — when it's made by Ignatieff.
Or by Bibi Netanyahu? The Israeli Prime Minister lost the election to Tzipi Livni's Kadima party but cobbled together a government anyway. He had partners; she didn't. Is the Israeli government "illegitimate?" Let's not go there.
Still, Ignatieff's own monkey has hardly been hurled off into the bushes and forgotten. He affixed his signature to Stéphane Dion's ill-fated 2008 accord with Layton and Duceppe and, if Harper wants people to be horrified by that, hey, there's an election on.
But what about his own flirtation with Layton and Duceppe? Well, he says, 2004 was totally different! That wasn't a coalition!
So...what was it? Was it more like what Ignatieff is recommending today — issue-by-issue co-operation? If so, what, exactly, is the difference between Ignatieff's argument today, and Harper's in 2004?
More fundamentally: should the second, or third, of fourth-ranked parties be allowed to form a government when the winner stumbles and has no majority? If you think the answer's yes, well, both Harper and Ignatieff have made your case.
But, if you think the answer's no, that you have to have an election first, well ... we're having one! Monkeys and all!