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Michaëlle Jean feared ‘dreadful crisis’ when Harper sought prorogation: ex-adviser

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor-General Michaelle Jean chat before the Speech from the Throne in the Senate chamber on March 3, 2010.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

The woman who held Stephen Harper's career in her hands in December, 2008, was concerned that refusing the Conservative Leader's request to shutter the Commons would lead to a crisis of confidence in Canada's political system, a former adviser says.

Facing the prospect of losing his job in early December, 2008, the Prime Minister visited former governor-general Michaëlle Jean at Rideau Hall to ask her to prorogue – or temporarily shut down – Parliament. She consented.

Mr. Harper was seeking a reprieve from a Commons confidence vote that would have defeated the Conservative government – and seen it replaced by a Liberal-NDP coalition backed by the separatist Bloc Québécois.

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Mr. Harper proceeded to break up this opposition alliance with a 2009 stimulus budget that won Liberal support.

Constitutional scholar Peter Russell told OntarioNewsWatch.com this week that weighing on Ms. Jean's mind at the time was the likelihood the Tories – had they lost office – would have poisoned confidence in the coalition government through a PR campaign framing the change as an illegitimate transfer of power.

The Conservatives, he told the Ontario-based news website, "have a huge publicity machine" at their fingertips.

"If a 'no' had come out of Rideau Hall and an attack launched on a Dion-Layton coalition that said we've had a coup d'etat in Canada," he said, "we would have been there in the headlines of the world like Greece. [That's] not very good for the country in any which way."

As is already known, Ms. Jean also extracted pledges from Mr. Harper at the time: that he would bring back Parliament shortly and produce a budget to win sufficient support in the Commons.

Asked why she ultimately consented to Mr. Harper's request, Mr. Russell said: "I think her reasons were that parliamentary democracy is going to be protected sufficiently to avoid a dangerous and dreadful crisis by giving an affirmative answer to the Prime Minister."

Reached Monday by The Globe and Mail, Mr. Russell said he believes Ms. Jean was concerned about a Conservative backlash that could generate a crisis of confidence in Canada's political system. "My best guess was that she was," he said.

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"I can't say for sure," Mr. Russell said, adding that he, however, was worried about this. He wouldn't divulge what Ms. Jean told him during consultations.

Mr. Russell, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, said, however, that he does not believe this was an overriding factor that drove Ms. Jean to accede to Mr. Harper.

He rejects the notion she caved to the Prime Minister. "That's very unfair," he told The Globe and Mail, calling her a "courageous and brave woman" who had a major choice to make.

"She didn't cave. She made a tough, brave decision," he said. "There was no easy decision that day."

He said this concern was only one of many factors that Ms. Jean had to consider. "There's a number of items on each side. You're weighing things."

Peter Hogg, another former adviser to the previous governor-general, said Monday that he did not think this concern played a role in her decision.

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"That issue of the Tory propaganda machine did not figure in anything that I am aware of," said Mr. Hogg, a leading constitutional authority and scholar in residence at Blake, Cassels & Graydon. "I do not know exactly what moved her but I don't think that was one of the factors."

The late 2008 political crisis was triggered after the Harper Conservatives tabled a highly controversial November, 2008, fiscal update that offered little in the way of economic stimulus but proposed to end federal taxpayer subsidies for political parties.

Mr. Russell, said the Tories were deliberately misleading when they attacked the legitimacy of the NDP and the Liberals teaming up to supplant the Harper government – and when they suggested there was something wrong about drawing support for their governing alliance from the separatist Bloc.

Mr. Russell said the notion, spread by the Tories, that a multiparty government must be approved by voters beforehand is "absolutely B.S." He also criticized the Tories for maligning the Bloc as an illegitimate source of support for a Liberal-NDP coalition, saying their goal of an independent Quebec was no reason to dismiss their worth.

The constitutional scholar said it's hard to envision the governor-general not being worried about how Mr. Harper and the Conservative political machine would react if the PMO was handed to then Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.

"Can you imagine anyone sitting here thinking 'If I say 'no' to this man we'll just have a nice quiet time and swear in Mr. Dion and life will go on?' " he told The Globe and Mail.

Ms. Jean, who ended her term as governor-general in 2010, has been reluctant to speak in detail about her decision of December, 2008.

"I was in a position where I could have said no," she once told CBC's The Hour. "And the decision had really to, in my mind, to be in the best interests, really, of the country, looking at all of the circumstances. And I have no regrets."

A 2010 book said Mr. Harper contemplated appealing to the Queen in the event Ms. Jean refused to prorogue Parliament.

Kory Teneycke, a former director of communications to Mr. Harper, was quoted in Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin's book Harperland as saying that an appeal to Buckingham Palace was one option under consideration.

According to Harperland, Mr. Teneycke maintained, in an interview well after the event, that it would have been "just unheard of" for the governor-general to refuse a request for prorogation by a prime minister who had already survived a vote of confidence in the Commons.

When Mr. Teneycke was asked what other avenues the Prime Minister was exploring in case the decision had gone against them, he responded: "Well, among them, the Queen."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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