The best thing to happen to the Liberals

With no one to yell at, the party has done some useful policy work

The best thing to happen to the Liberals

Looking for a Liberal in Ottawa last fall was like a trip into the heart of darkness. You would eventually find a crew of them, hunched over the latest polling data in some dark corner of the Centre Block, where they’d give you the 1,000-yard stare and mutter quietly about the party lacking leadership and direction. The whole miserable session culminated in the legendary Night of the Long Faces, when a group of Liberals repaired to a bar at the Chateau Laurier for a bitch session that the Toronto Star breathlessly reported as a nascent coup being mounted by Bob Rae to topple Michael Ignatieff.

Everything is relative, more so in politics, but in the early months of 2010 it is suddenly a good time to be a Liberal. It’s easy to find Liberals on the Hill these days; with the government off “recalibrating” its agenda, they are striding around like they own the place. And why not? Ever since Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament over the Christmas holidays, the polling gap between the Conservatives and the Liberals has vanished, and for the past three weeks, Ekos tracking polls have had the two parties in a dead heat.

The received wisdom is that the Tory lead (which before Christmas one pollster called “entrenched”) vanished because of public anger over the prorogation, and many pundits have suggested that Harper’s inability to pass up an opportunity to show how clever he is has backfired once again. And there certainly appears to be something to that. Most people are genuinely annoyed that Parliament is not sitting, probably for the simple reason that most people don’t get to simply decide not to go to work for two months, least of all in the dead of winter.

But explaining why the Tories are unpopular doesn’t fully explain the new-found bounce in the Liberal step, so here’s an alternative suggestion: the extended post-Christmas break from the parliamentary grind has been good for the Liberals because it’s actually allowed them to do a better job as the opposition.

That seems counterintuitive, since one of the biggest complaints about Harper’s opportunistic suspension of Parliament was that it short-circuited all of the accountability mechanisms of responsible government. No more meddlesome Afghanistan committee with its annoying fixation on the Colvin allegations, no more of that daily parade of hyenas in heat known as question period.

But reasonable opposition is the unappreciated junior partner in the adversarial system of responsible government. It is all well and good to attack the government, but the opposition must do so in good faith, framing complaints in a manner that advances the public good and the national interest, while proposing a reasonable alternative course.

And the fact is, for all the complaints about Harper’s small-minded obsession with tactical shin-kicking, one of the biggest problems with last fall’s parliamentary session was that the opposition was itself not terribly responsible. The Liberals in particular spent most of the time scrambling from one issue to the next like a puppy dog with ADD. From the torch relay route to stimulus advertising to stimulus spending to H1N1 to the Colvin allegations, each week brought allegations of fresh scandal or outrage, each more indicative of Tory incompetence and perfidy.

Some of those issues were certainly worth getting excited about. But when everything is a scandal, then nothing is, and it didn’t take long for the public to conclude that the Liberals had no idea what they were doing. What the prorogation has done is remove the party from the bullying, reactive and optics-centred playground of question period. Under the banner “The Liberals are Working,” the party dutifully showed up in Ottawa on the previously scheduled date for the return of Parliament, and since then it’s been a blizzard of panels, conferences, and media scrums. With no one to yell at, the Liberals have been forced to take the initiative, and they have used the opportunity to quietly but methodically advance their own agenda.

Over the past few weeks they have had useful sessions and policy announcements on pensions, governance, parliamentary officers, job creation, child care, Senate reform, health care, and Afghanistan, to name a few. None of it is bang-down-the-door-and-stop-the-presses stuff, but that’s good. It’s just solid, steady government work, and much-needed cred-building as the party builds momentum toward its big thinkers conference in Montreal at the end of March.

The broader lesson is that the cut and thrust of the Commons may be overrated as a mechanism of accountability. According to the House of Commons compendium, question period’s main aim is “to seek information from the government and to call it to account for its actions,” which is like saying the primary purpose of ice fishing is to catch fish. As the saying goes, there’s a reason why they don’t call it “answer period.” Question period may not be obsolete, but there’s no reason those 45 minutes per day have to dominate everything that happens when the House is sitting. After all, over in the mother of Parliaments in the U.K., the PM only submits for his ritualized hazing for a half-hour once a week.

Weird, isn’t it? In one of those great reversals of fortune that only politics can serve up, it’s now the Conservatives that look scared and directionless. Meanwhile, it might turn out that prorogation is the best thing to have happened to the Liberals, letting the party mount an effective opposition, and establish itself as a legitimate government in waiting.

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