Monday, January 11, 2010
Playing for Time
Jeffrey Simpson claimed, in last Saturday's Globe and Mail, that the Prime Minister's suspension of Parliament would not loosen his grip on that body. "Canadians didn't make him suffer the last two times he adjusted the parliamentary timetable to suit his partisan purposes." Simpson wrote. "Why would they respond any differently now?"
And, earlier in the same week, Tom Flanagan -- Harper's original eminence gris -- offered an analysis which was as remarkably straightforward as it was cynical. Harper's political success, Flanagan claimed, was based on a mixture of "polarization, ad hoc alliances" and the "fear of an election."
This prime minister plays for time. From a year ago, when he almost sabotaged his newly elected government with his clumsy attempt to hamstring his opponents, to this year's attempt to avoid accountability for what is happening -- or, more precisely, what is not happening in Afghanistan and the environment -- Mr. Harper has retreated to what he claims should be any prime minister's fall back position, prorogation.
His hope is that Canadians, bored with the processes of government, will overlook the fact that nothing is happening. And, if they do begin to notice, he can blame the situation on the opposition parties. He fought the last election on the notion that parliament was dysfunctional, neglecting to mention that each of his party's MP's had been given a manual on how to make sure that it didn't function. He claimed that Canada was going to skirt a recession. When that rosy prediction proved to be completely at odds with the facts, he said he needed time to recalibrate. When Canadian automobile manufacturers were heading into oblivion, he said that he needed time for the Americans to figure out what they were going to do before he acted. He uses the same argument when it comes to environmental policy. Until the Americans come up with one, Mr. Harper asserts, we can only bide our time. If the government had taken that position in the 1960's, we would still be waiting for medicare.
On the other hand, the prime minister has given the opposition parties the gift of time. "Harper's Given Them Two Free Months of Target Practice," was the headline to Lawrence Martin's column in The Globe. Perhaps. But -- while the break gives the opposition plenty of time to keep the prime minister in their cross hairs, and they will find lots of ammunition in his past statements -- if that's all they do, they will prove Mr. Simpson right. They should use this time to fill the policy vacuum which Mr. Harper has left in his wake. What should Canadian policy be on the environment? What, as we face at least two years of anemic economic growth, should Canadian policy be on unemployment? What should Canadian policy be on the detention of Afghan prisoners? And what happens when our troops leave that country?
For, the simple truth is that Mr. Harper is prime minister by default. He came to politics as an angry young man, who had a much better idea of what he was against than what he was for. Rocked in the cradle of Western alienation, he came to Ottawa to get even. And that's the reason he is still there. A party which knows more about what it is against than what it is for will never achieve a majority. Paul Martin tried the same tactic; and he, too, presided over a minority parliament.
The opposition parties -- particularly Mr. Ignatieff -- need to give Canadians policies to vote for. Their job is not to make Parliament work. Mr. Harper has devoted a lot of energy to ensuring that it doesn't. Now is the time for both Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Layton to tell us what they stand for.