Saturday, December 06, 2008

A week in politics

The week that wasn't. We rub our eyes. A week of promised transformation, new ways of thinking and acting, new forms of governing.

Political parties, cooperating to make Parliament work. Canadians, fed up with the bickering, divisive partisanship that has marred the House of Commons for years, have been calling for just that. But when the prospect actually loomed, it was made to look threatening.

Nervous Liberals are pulling back: the future of the coalition is in serious doubt. At this point we must hope that his Conservative handlers let Harper be Harper. Only The Stephen can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He came this close one week ago; perhaps next time he will be successful. And there will, inevitably, be a next time.

I have been struck by the similarities between this past few days and periods of genuinely revolutionary transformation. At first I thought these were mere analogies: now I am not so sure. Obviously we were not observing some kind of fundamental overthrow or historical rupture, but merely a possible change of government. Yet we were also watching, and participating in, the possibility of a genuine paradigm shift, however fleeting and tantalizing it was.

Coalition thinking is foreign to our political culture. Our antique "first past the post" electoral system doesn't lend itself, for many reasons, to collegial parliamentarism. It exacerbates regional differences; even modest shifts in public opinion can result in major changes in the composition of the House of Commons; and the fight for pluralities becomes an end in itself, rather than consensus-seeking and cooperation.

But when coalition talk began, the traditional ways of thinking began to slide away. Readers of my blog will know that I have never had much time for the Liberal Party, for whom power has too often been preferred over principle, and perks and privileges over service to the public. But there I was, with countless others, beginning to imagine a new way of doing politics, strategies of cooperation, a willingness to break new ground. The obstacles were many, but the possibilities were endless. When things suddenly seem doable, we tend to make them so if given half a chance.

So this situation had its own Girondists and its Jacobins, ranged against the counter-revolutionaries, whose fight-back was fierce: we were treated to days of barefaced lies funded by a huge Conservative Party war chest, powered by bad faith, anger and desperation. It all culminated, as we know, in the padlocking of Parliament by a Prime Minister afraid to face the House
, facilitated by a representative of the British head of state, perfidious Albion by proxy.

The polls, snapshots of popular opinion at one point in time rather than eternal truths, indicated precisely what one might expect: in a time of turbulence, people reach for the known:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

Suddenly this became just another exercise in national unity, a war against Quebec separatism, a fight against a "coup d'état", democracy's last stand. It was Harper cast briefly in the unlikely mould of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, with prorogation replacing the War Emergency Measures Act. A new way of thinking gave way to the old, partisan ways of working.

Canadian public opinion, volatile in this situation as it was during the election campaign just a few weeks ago, would have shifted just as quickly in the opposite direction had the coalition triumphed and been seen subsequently to be working effectively, in a disciplined fashion, on our economic crisis.
But this was not to be.

Momentum, always essential in a paradigm shift of this nature, has been lost, and I suspect fatally.
Louis XVI closed the doors of the Salle des États in 1789 to prevent the runaway National Assembly from meeting. He simply put off the inevitable for a short period of time. But here in Canada the new Tennis Court Oath is not so likely to hold.

Canadians feel this, and it's natural that so many have reacted as they have. If Harper were to call an election tomorrow, and the G-G allowed it, he might even win a majority.

At the beginning of all this I voiced some serious misgivings about the choice of St
éphane Dion to lead the coalition. Instead of Georges Danton, we got Inspector Clouseau. Yes, a Clouseau who got in touch with his core towards the end, but that hardly mattered. He was discredited during and after the election, fairly or unfairly, and to many Canadians his return seemed like something out of The Night of the Living Dead. And that video--good grief. The full story of this monumental bungle has yet to be told. There are studios in Ottawa for hire, after all: there was no need for an amateurish mini-cam effort delivered to the media unpardonably late. Was it sabotage or incompetence?

In any case the Liberal Party is in disarray. Michael Ignatieff is not keen on the coalition; the loudmouth Jim Karygiannis has publicly denounced it, as have Frank Valeriote and Keith Martin in more circumspect fashion. At a time when party discipline is never more called for, such people are permitted to spout off publicly with no apparent sanction. That's a signal, if ever there was, that the Liberals are in full retreat. Bob Rae's plucky defence of the coalition will all too soon be a voice in the wilderness of Liberal business as usual.

Because Liberals, being Liberals, will look for an easy out. It's in their nature. They have already sacrificed an underling to the gods. More burnt offerings will surely follow, including Dion himself. And Harper will make it easy for them on January 27. Indeed, I would be surprised if the two parties weren't in back-channel mode already, negotiating a compromise on the budget that both can spin as victories. Talk about deals with the devil.

I'm an optimist by nature, but I think I can read the writing on this particular wall. The Maple Syrup Revolution has likely proven to be 1905, not 1917, but
there will be other opportunities and other possibilities, and other moments to be seized.

For example, i
n all the smoke and confusion, Harper's plan to gut pay equity has never been taken off the table. Previous Liberal and Conservative governments did their best to stop pay equity in its tracks. We still won. Could this be the next galvanizing issue? A Women's March on Ottawa? Why not?

Count me in. Let's make history, dammit.

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