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A Tory minority seems as inevitable as its demise

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable

Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

All talk of a RecklessCoalition© aside, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's assessment of the next Parliament appears to be bang-on: Canada's new government will either be a Tory majority or a Liberal minority.

Stack up these dominoes. The Conservatives have a comfortable lead in the polls, but - assuming that the Tories maintain that edge - it would only deliver a healthy plurality of seats, not a majority. Having secured a victory, Mr. Harper and his finance minister, Jim Flaherty, would reintroduce the budget that the opposition had already rejected in unison (though not formally in the House of Commons) before the writ was dropped. And now, as we enter the second week of the campaign, the Bloc Québécois, Liberals and NDP have all said that they would vote down that budget, given the chance.

Immovable government, meet the unstoppable opposition.

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Stack it all up, set events in motion, and they tumble toward a Tory minority government quickly falling and being replaced by a Liberal government propped up by at least the NDP. (Conservative partisans: Please note the lack of the word "coalition" in the preceding sentence. Liberal partisans: Please note that nothing your leader has promised rules out such a move.)

So, the only question is would this happen with "lightning speed" as Mr. Harper continually thunders, with a rejection of the Throne Speech, or might the opposition take a more leisurely approach?

It's clear that the opposition has a legitimate, constitutional right to defeat the government on either the Throne Speech or the budget. The issue is whether it would be wise - and which would be less politically poisonous

An immediate defeat of the government risks branding the opposition as undemocratic, using procedural manoeuvres to grab what could not be won at the ballot box, just as Mr. Harper currently charges. That risk rises with the size of the Tory plurality, but decreases over time. Giving the Conservatives a chance to govern, and then bringing them down on an unaltered budget - and an unwillingness to bend to the realities of a minority mandate - would be less perilous.

But Errol Mendes, professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa's faculty of law, says there will be no stay of execution: whatever the risks, the opposition will move immediately. The Tories are "doomed" in a minority situation, he says, since their behaviour prompted the opposition parties to pass the contempt-of-Parliament motion, rejecting the government's legitimacy.

Although he and Mr. Harper agree on the likely sequence of post-election events, they don't agree on much else. Prof. Mendes says a move to replace a Conservative minority with a Liberal minority is perfectly in keeping with Canada's constitutional tradition of responsible government.

He, and other constitutional law experts, reject outright Mr. Harper's contention that the only mechanism for replacing governments is through an election. Much to the contrary, the opposition has the obligation to act as a government in waiting, a point that Mr. Harper himself made as the Leader of the Opposition in a minority Parliament.

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And no, it would not take a coalition to turf the Tories. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff would simply need to convince the Governor-General that he could command the confidence of the House. A coalition, which Mr. Ignatieff has indeed ruled out, would do so. But so would other arrangements, including a version of the 1985 co-operation pact that brought the Ontario Liberals to power with the help of the NDP - then led by Bob Rae.

There are legalities, and then there is political reality. Any opposition move to displace Mr. Harper would need to overcome the hurdle of these two words: Elections matter.

However, Mr. Harper also has to clear that hurdle, and he may come to regret his own inflammatory rhetoric. For if the choice is, as he claims, between a Conservative majority, and a Liberal-led alternative, what principled objection can he possibly have if Canadians reject his plea and restrict him to a minority, and then as predicted the Liberals oust him?

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