Page last updated at 01:58 GMT, Friday, 5 December 2008

Bitter week in Canadian politics

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper took an unprecedented step

By Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has managed to hang onto power by his fingernails, capping an extraordinary and unprecedented week in Canadian politics.

The country's governor general, Michaelle Jean, agreed to the prime minister's request to prorogue - or suspend - parliament until 26 January.

Prorogation was one of the few powers Mr Harper had at his disposal to stave off an opposition vote of non-confidence scheduled for Monday, 8 December.

His minority Conservative government would have almost certainly been toppled, just two months after Canadian voters went to the polls.

Standing under falling snow, on the steps of the governor general's official residence in Ottawa, Stephen Harper said he was willing to work with the opposition parties and listen to what they have to say as he prepares a budget, to be presented on 27 January as parliament resumes.

"Today's decision will give us the opportunity for all the parties to focus on the economy and work together," said Mr Harper.

But he did not admit to any errors of judgment and offered no new economic measures to satisfy the opposition.

Liberal leader Stephane Dion
Liberal Stephane Dion accused the PM of 'running away from parliament'.

It was the Conservative government's economic proposals, just a week before, that provoked the full-scale opposition rebellion in the first place.

Presenting his fiscal update, in the tradition of a government that has valued cautious, prudent spending over grand bailouts, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty offered only the most frugal stimulus package to boost the ailing Canadian economy.

Mr Flaherty also announced cuts to a public fund for political parties and even though the latter proposal was hastily withdrawn, it was regarded by some in the opposition as a red rag to a bull.

Angry response

Events moved very quickly and within three days, an opposition that had been widely regarded as cowed and divided, signed a coalition deal.

Two of the parties, the official opposition Liberals and the smaller, left-leaning New Democrats, said they could form a coalition government, with the voting support of the Quebec nationalist party the Bloc Quebecois, which controversially believes in the separation of French-speaking Quebec from the rest of Canada.

That left the governing Conservatives with only a few days to survive before being defeated in the 8 December vote.

Mr Harper's success in securing the suspension of Canada's parliament led to an angry response from Stephane Dion, the leader of the official Liberal opposition party and of the proposed coalition.

It's really been a dismal week for national unity

Rob Russo
Canadian Press news agency

"For the first time in the history of Canada, the prime minister of Canada is running away from parliament. He has created the question of confidence in his style of leadership which has placed partisan politics ahead of the interest of all Canadians," Mr Dion said.

But Mr Dion's own leadership qualities have been challenged to the point that his own Liberal party will be replacing him in a leadership review in May.

Among the many arguments levelled against the proposed coalition was the presumption that they could appoint Mr Dion as Canada's new prime minister, having just led his party to one of its worst electoral defeats.

Rob Russo is the Ottawa bureau chief for the Canadian Press news agency.

He says the opposition coalition is already crumbling as some Liberal MPs have started to question it.

"It was always hastily put together with binder twine and masking tape and you can see chunks of it falling away," says Mr Russo.

The prorogation of parliament ends a bitter week of finger-pointing and heightened rhetoric both inside and outside the House of Commons in Ottawa.

The Liberal-New Democrat coalition continuously blamed Mr Harper for triggering the crisis, insisting he had no right to govern even as some concessions were offered, whilst Mr Harper denounced the Liberals and New Democrats for having formed an alliance with the Bloc Quebecois.

The sudden political drama has also riveted Canadians, who have been glued to their TVs as heated conversations spill into bars and onto radio talk shows.

Polls showed the public extremely divided on whether the government should have been brought down.

There were also clear regional divisions, with western Canada and especially the oil-rich province of Alberta more likely to support the Conservatives position, whereas there was almost no support for the prime minister in the French-speaking province of Quebec.

Regional ructions

Mr Russo says that these regional divisions have come to the fore during this political crisis.

"I do believe that national unity has been damaged.

"What you have is scorched earth around Alberta for the Liberal party. Westerners, who were never favourably disposed to the Liberals will now say 'You tried to dislodge our government'," he says.

"There's also scorched earth for the prime minister around Quebec….he's told Quebeckers that their legitimate choice for representation in the Canadian parliament are in effect traitors, who have no business in the government of Canada.

"It's really been a dismal week for national unity."

There's no guarantee that this so-called "time-out" will be any less volatile.

It gives all the players an opportunity to take to the airwaves in what's expected to be an all-out propaganda media war.

It's not clear just how hard Prime Minister Harper will try to use the time to build up opposition and public confidence before his government presents a budget on 27 January.

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