PHOTOS: The São Bento Palace, home of the Assembly of the Republic, in Lisbon. Was it just the site of a constitutional coup with implications for Canada? You’d never know from the local media. Below: Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva; Portugal’s national flag.

Did you know a coalition of the left has been denied the traditional democratic right to replace Portugal’s Eurocentric right-wing austerity government by the country’s president, who fulfills the same constitutional parliamentary role as Canada’s governor general?

You’re forgiven if you didn’t. As far as I can tell, there’s been zero coverage by Canada’s mass media of the serious constitutional crisis now brewing in Portugal.

Nothing in the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star since the Portuguese national election that sparked the crisis on Oct. 4. Ditto for the CBC. Nothing at all in the National Post or any of Postmedia’s little Regional Posts in the same period.

This is a moot point now that our federal election has ended in a majority government, I guess, but it’s still more than passing strange when you consider Canada has just been going through a long campaign that could very well have ended up much the same way as did Portugal’s national election.

Don’t you think this would have been a worthwhile topic for discussion by Canadians as our country neared a close election in which the Conservatives could easily have emerged as a minority government?

After all, that’s just what happened in Portugal when the pro-austerity conservative governing party failed to win a majority. A coalition of parties on the left with an absolute majority and an agenda to get out of the austerity program established by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund tried to form a government. President Aníbal António Cavaco Silva told them to take a hike.

“He deemed it too risky to let the Left Bloc or the Communists come close to power, insisting that conservatives should soldier on as a minority in order to satisfy Brussels and appease foreign financial markets,” wrote Ambrose Evans-Pritchard Friday in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, which is covering the affair, as are a few U.S. papers.

The Telegraph summarized the president’s view as, “democracy must take second place to the higher imperative of Euro rules and membership.”

There’s a word for this: Coup. And at least some people in Europe, on both the left and right, are using it.

The Portuguese president, unlike the Canadian governor general, is an elected figure. Governor General David Johnston was appointed by outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, he of the autocratic instincts and seething contempt for Parliament.

But it’s still a fair question to ask what would have happened in Canada if the Oct. 19 election had ended in a Conservative minority but the Liberal, New Democratic and Green parties had been willing to work together to form a coalition government?

We can’t know. Mr. Johnston would probably have done his constitutional duty. He certainly can’t be blamed for the disgraceful and anti-democratic scheme cooked up by Mr. Harper and then-governor-general Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament rather than face a democratic confidence motion in the House of Commons in 2012. But it’s something to think about, isn’t it?

History tells us that neoliberal governments don’t give up power easily, or have much time for democracy when their primacy is threatened.

All this is being watched warily next door to Portugal in Spain, where another conservative government that has obeyed the austerity diktats of Brussels and the IMF faces what could be a close election on Dec. 20.

We should probably be careful of imagining conspiracies where garden-variety incompetence is the more likely explanation. Still, one thing is very clear: Canadians are no longer being very well served by our mainstream media when they fail to cover important and relevant stories like this.

You have to wonder: What else are they missing?

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  1. You nailed it: mainstream media can’t be trusted.
    Postmedia is owned by a US private equity group, FOX (Murdoch) and others.
    The CBC just regurgitates corporate spin from Canadian Newswire, another private company owned by a small handful of major media conglomerates.
    And the Globe is toast after its embarrassing endorsement of the Conservatives, but not Stephen Harper.
    I even read recently that National Geographic was bought by FOX, which comes as no surprise given some of their recent articles, especially those questioning the ‘science’ of GMOs or vaccines.
    Rabble, the National Observer and Canadaland (Jesse Brown) are all good places to start for INFORMED opinion and updates on what’s happening in the world.

  2. A head of state with democratic legitimacy using that legitimacy to harm his opposition? This is fairly common practice in republics where the head of state retains even slight executive power (See: ‘Presidents with Prime Ministers: Do Direct Elections Matter?’ by Margit Tavits). Because while the two offices share a similar purpose, in Portugal’s case the head of state has something to lose from allowing the left to gain power, ours does not. Constitutional monarchy remains the only option that allows a head of state to retain wide executive power while acting like they don’t.

    “Governor General David Johnston was appointed by outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper”

    Not strictly true. Yes, yes I’m sure you know the appointment was by the Queen. That is not what I’m getting at. Harper created the Advisory Committee on Vice-Regal Appointments which helped select the current governor general. It is currently comprised of Kevin Stewart MacLeod (Usher of the Black Rod and Canadian Secretary to The Queen), Robert Douglas Watt (formerly Chief Herald of Canada, Director of the Vancouver Museum, City of Vancouver Archivist, and board member of the Royal Heraldry Society of Canada among other positions), and Jacques Monet (Historian and Director of the Canadian Institute of Jesuit Studies). The PMO retains a strictly observational role in the selection process (which allows the public to suggest names). The committee creates a shortlist to submit to the PM who recommends a name to the Queen.

    It is one of the few positive changes Harper has done in regards to Parliament in that it is increasingly difficult to see the Governor general as the Prime Minister’s appointment.

    1. Your first point is a legitimate one. I am sincerely asking the question in this piece. I don’t purport to be an expert on Portuguese constitutional arrangements. I do know a lot about Canadian media, which makes me wonder.

      As for your next point, however, David Johnston was appointed by Stephen Harper. Period. Full stop. The Royal appointment is a convenient constitutional fiction. In the normal course of events, and in this case, when the prime minister advises, he or she in reality commands. When the Monarch commands, she or he in reality obeys the command of the PM. And, by the way, since this is bound to come up too now, in reality, constitutional fictions notwithstanding, the Governor General and not the Queen is the head of state. DJC

  3. First of all, Portugal is not a country in the so called ‘rich nations’. So the media is usually not interested. Like I have heard before, Portugal is the European third world. Maybe so but judging by the last EU meetings and attitudes towards Greece and Spain and lately the refugees, one wonders which is not third world.
    Secondly, Anibal Cavaco Silva was prime minister in the 80s and he represented the right wing in Portugal. So with the pressure from the big money and probably a promise of some extra though in the Bahamas and a nice vacation house somewhere, he forgot democracy. I personally that this is not a unique case in the democratic world anyway. We just got rid of a prime minister that basically took the first steps for a very undemocratic Canada. We are lucky that our democracy is a bit stronger than Portugal’s implemented in 1975.
    One just has to read a bit to see the state of world politics once the neo-liberal / neo-conservative ideology took over the planet. Our cute Blair is now semi-apologizing for what he illegally did in Iraq. There are millions displaced, a country lost for a few decades, lives destroyed and he goes ‘oops sorry’. This is unbelievable. This guy is a war criminal and along with his pal George Bush should be tried and both the US and Britain should pay reparations to Iraq.

  4. During the last 10 years this second generation Canadian gave up on Canada. Went to Portugal for a funeral and fell in love with it. Decided to move there after we retire. Still leaving, even though Canada’s moving out of its dark age.

    No Portugal is not a good place to raise kids right now. It is like Atlantic Canada, where the young have moved away for work and all that’s left is the old folk. Portuguese are weary and beaten down. They are in serious trouble in more than economic ways. They did defeat their bill C-51 a few months ago, God love them.

    But I just don’t see them having the energy or strength to endure the upheaval the socialists in power would bring. Probably like Greece, only to end up with the same policies they promised to reverse. I think President Cavaco Silva made the best decision for Portugal. The socialist coalition can still take down the minority government.

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