Let the games begin

Why solve Canada’s woes, writes Paul Wells, when there’s politics to play?

Let the games begin

And now for your monthly forecast. On Jan. 20, on a bright, sun-dappled Washington mall, millions of Americans will watch Barack Obama take the presidential oath of office. Backed by solid majorities in both houses of Congress, advised by a formidable cabinet that includes a Nobel prizewinner, and supported, for now, by millions of Americans who didn’t even vote for him but who admire his spirit and see no reason to wish him ill, the young new president will embark on a serious program of reform to his country’s economic policy, its social programs, its war craft and its relationship with its allies abroad.

Six days later in Ottawa, your members of Parliament will reconvene for yet another high-stakes championship round of Hey, Pull My Finger.

Our poor neighbours to the south will be bogged down in the tedious search for real solutions to real problems. Up here it’s just empty calories. Fun! When Michaëlle Jean reads the government’s latest Throne Speech—the fourth in three years—le tout Ottawa will be poring over the print version for hints of Stephen Harper’s latest poison-pill attack on the opposition parties.

“ ‘My fellow Canadians’—what the hell does he mean by that?”

“Lloyd, the speech didn’t mention infrastructure. Sources say the PM wants to lure the opposition into criticizing him on that so he can sneak around back and bushwhack them with a surprise infrastructure bill that—if it’s defeated—could lead to a surprise election call or . . .”

Every time Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton wander to within three feet of each other, teams of crack semioticians will swing into action, scrutinizing the duo’s body language for hints about the future of the Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition government-in-waiting/agony (pick one). Folded arms! Awkward small talk! Oh my God oh my God they’re wearing the same watch . . . Anything—absolutely anything—could be the telltale tipoff announcing an imminent bloodless coup/election/prorogation/new Liberal leadership race/devastating round of negative pre-writ TV ads/fiscal stimulus/constitutional overture to Quebec/carbon tax (choose one or several).

In this heady environment there is little danger that anyone will mistake Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s Jan. 27 budget for a plan to allocate $220 billion worth of spending in pursuit of long-term goals. Where’s the fun in that? No, instead we’re all going to treat Flaherty’s budget as the trigger for a brand-new confidence crisis. We haven’t had one since December, after all, and we’re starting to jones. So here’s the deal. Budget Day is a Tuesday. If we can’t get the headlines “CRISIS” and “NOBODY COULD HAVE SEEN THIS COMING” onto the front page of the Globe by Saturday at the latest, then by God, we’re just not trying hard enough.

Meanwhile, in Washington, that killjoy Obama will be sitting down for a bunch of “meetings” with his “advisers” to look for “solutions” to “problems” that can be addressed with “legislation” in the hope that citizens’ “lives” will “improve.” BORING.

Here in Canada, we got over all that solutions-to-problems crap way back in the summer of ’02, when Paul Martin changed our politics forever by announcing that he might have to quit the Chrétien cabinet over something Jean Chrétien might have said, but that he couldn’t bring himself to decide. This led to a weekend of wild speculation and rumours that was so much better than sex—especially Ottawa sex—that nobody in the capital has been able to kick the rumours-and-speculation habit ever since. Absolutely nobody. Government, opposition, reporters, hairdressers, cabbies, the mayor: here in the 613, we are all stone deaf on the What Just Happened because we’ve got the volume knobs turned up to 11 on the What Do You Suppose Might Happen Next. I’m telling you, this city is a trip. The guy who runs my local magazine shop greets me with a hale, “So d’you think this coalition thing is gonna fly?” People at the cineplex debate the relative worth of Michael Ignatieff and Ken Dryden. (“This new Liberal guy,” somebody on the train back to Ottawa after Christmas was saying, “I can’t even pronounce his name.”)

As we said above, empty calories. All this babble and breathless what-if is like talking about politics, but it’s not really talking about politics because in sane societies there is, bound up in the who’s-up who’s-down of political gossip, some attempt to diagnose a society’s problems and their potential remedy. We’re so far past that in Ottawa I’m not sure how we get back to a politics of high-minded concern for public-policy issues, if indeed there is anyone left who wants to. This is because the government’s opponents remain mired in incoherence, while the Prime Minister seems to prefer it.

These things have a lag time. The Conservatives’ supporters have been slow to notice that nothing Stephen Harper says on anything is credible anymore. Once they notice it will take longer before they begin to care. Any leader of any stripe can get by for a while on his supporters’ shared disdain for his opponents. The Liberals have worked hard for half a decade to ensure that disdain for Liberals remains potent fuel.

But if you’re for Stephen Harper these days, what else are you for? Smaller government? Just wait until you see that budget. Fiscal restraint? Only on Thursdays. Remember, Budget Day will be a Tuesday. An end to regional pork? We’ll all be swimming in rivers of pork by Easter. Letting companies sink or swim by themselves? Please. Stock Day was in Lévis, Que., the other day offering $380 million in loan guarantees for the Davie shipyard, because that’s what a 21st-century economy needs. Deficits? Harper campaigned against them, then sat smiling while his finance minister promised there’d be no such thing. Wrong both times.

Fixed election dates? Parliamentary vetting of Supreme Court appointments? Senate reform? Staying in Afghanistan? It was all so clever and exciting the first time Harper did the opposite of what everyone thought he believed, way back when he was merely poaching David Emerson for a cabinet seat. Chess to everyone’s checkers, or so it seemed. But by now it is clear enough that Harper is playing dodgeball, not chess. Does anybody really think the principles in the Throne Speech, whatever they are, will guide the Prime Minister’s behaviour in the months ahead?

So, do I believe a many-headed Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition thing would be better? No, actually. I don’t think Michael Ignatieff believes it either, even though the Liberal sort-of-leader a) was present at all the meetings leading up to the creation of the coalition beast, b) signed a letter to the Governor General asking for her support for the thing, c) still maintains he will lead a coalition government “if necessary.” Ignatieff has watched Harper survive on a diet of incoherence, and he watched Stéphane Dion fall by advocating the Green Shift, a clear policy for the long term (and, as a bonus, a policy Ignatieff championed before Dion did). The lesson Ignatieff has drawn is that coherence is deadly. He will compete with Harper in the arts of misdirection and contradiction. Ignatieff has always been a diligent student of his surroundings. He took one look at today’s Ottawa and decided it is a place where one must not say what one thinks.

We laugh about these things to keep from crying. The endless frenzied paralysis of political Ottawa is soul-destroying because there are important things our politics could be about but isn’t: our energy-wasting households, our improving but still second-rate universities, our increasingly incoherent attempt to run a 21st-century economy on 19th-century infrastructure. You might draw up a different list from mine. I think we can both agree that nobody’s list is getting serious attention in Ottawa lately.

That’s why Barack Obama’s inauguration will grate, even on those Canadian spectators who are relieved to see the back of George W. Bush. That ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol will bespeak a seriousness of purpose—heck, just a presence of purpose—that has no match in Ottawa.

There is no need getting too jealous. Obama’s task and much of his project amount to repair work after Bush drove the U.S. economy and foreign policy so wildly astray that it will take years to mend the damage. The frivolity of the current Ottawa moment is an indulgence, a sort of luxury: we can afford a few years of careening idiocy while we coast on the benefits of a decade’s relative fiscal virtue.

But by now we’ve had those dumb years and more. We have been lurching from crisis to crisis, from incoherence to broken word, for years now. Stephen Harper won more scraps in 2008 than in his entire life up to then. And it is harder today than ever before to discern a reason why he wants to be in politics. Beat the Liberals some more? Sure. Fine. Great. And then?

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