Politics of fear

ANDREW COYNE: No wonder nothing gets done in Ottawa. Everyone is scared.

Politics of fear

Photograph by Chris Wattie/Reuters

This Parliament began, a little more than a year ago, with a short-lived attempt at forming a coalition government. In its place has emerged something much more enduring: a coalition non-government. The government pretends to govern, and the opposition pretends to oppose it, and both sides seem quite content with their appointed roles. Because everyone’s too afraid to do anything else. Fear is the order of the day in today’s Parliament, and it has paralyzed the place.

I had thought, and written, that the return of Parliament, after all the controversy over prorogation, would see “a ferocious battle of narratives” between a government determined to use the dual occasion of the Throne Speech and budget to shift the agenda on to its preferred ground of the economy, and an opposition equally determined to keep the heat on the government over its handling of the Afghan detainees file, and its refusal to hand over the documents Parliament had demanded in this regard.

Boy, was I wrong. When the proposal to change the wording of O Canada first excited controversy, conspiracy theorists saw it as an attempt to distract public attention from the rest of the government’s agenda. There are several flaws with this theory, but chief among them is the notion that there exists some sort of “agenda” to be distracted from. It’s difficult to say, of course: Throne Speeches are notoriously enigmatic documents. But what had appeared at first blush to be signs of a revival of economic conservatism has not survived closer scrutiny.

The speech’s most startling departure, a proposal to liberalize foreign investment in “key sectors” including, but not limited to, telecommunications, now appears to mean not very much: far from the sweeping away of Canada’s remaining investment barriers that the speech seemed to promise, by the next day’s budget this had been reduced to one comparatively minor sector (satellites), plus a vague nod toward the 2008 report of the federal competition policy review panel, whose proposals were watery enough to begin with.

The cold light of budget day was equally unkind to the Throne Speech’s other major policy thrust: a freeze on departmental operating budgets. Not only was there rather less to the freeze than it first seemed—it applies for two years only, and holds spending only to the lofty base established in fiscal 2011, that is, at the very height of the stimulus frenzy—but, far from signalling a broader program of restraint, it appears to be the extent of it.

For all the “austerity” chatter in the national media, it remains the case that spending, already at an all-time record high, will be $11 billion higher in the next fiscal year than the last, and $12 billion higher than forecast in last year’s budget; that the budget’s spending projection for the next five years is essentially identical to that set out in last September’s fiscal update; and that, in fiscal 2015, nine years after the Tories took office (assuming they are still there), spending would still be higher than it was under the Liberals, by any measure.

A distraction from the government’s agenda? As far as I can tell, the anthem was the agenda. Or at any rate: if you want to know why Stephen Harper now considers $54-billion deficits the benchmark of fiscal responsibility, it helps to know that he is taking policy advice from the likes of Sen. Nancy Ruth. It was Sen. Ruth who prevailed upon the Prime Minister to alter “in all thy sons” to “thou dost in us” (her reaction to the proposal’s demise: “this is another example, for me, of hatred against women”). But it was the Prime Minister who thought this a capital idea. One supposes he is not so far gone as actually to have believed in it. It was just another clever tactical manoeuvre, from a Prime Minister for whom tactical manoeuvres have become a substitute for forward movement.

Talk to Conservative backbenchers, at least among the shrinking numbers of conservatives in the party, and you find a glum lot, embarrassed at what their government has become: the drift, the cynicism, the total absence of ambition or purpose. So why don’t they do something about it? For the same reason that the Prime Minister declines to offer an agenda: fear. The Prime Minister is afraid the public does not share his views, and so refuses to share his views with the public. His MPs are afraid of the Prime Minister, and so shrink from offering any firmer resistance to his right. Unwilling to prod him to do more, they make it easy for him to do nothing.

But Conservatives are lionhearts next to the opposition. Recall again Parliament’s last act before it was prorogued. It was to pass an extraordinary motion ordering the government to hand over all papers related to the Afghan detainees affair, citing Parliament’s “undisputed privileges” under the Constitution, “including the absolute power to require the government to produce uncensored documents when requested.” The motion could not have been clearer; neither could the stakes. Either the government of the day is obliged to bend to the will of Parliament, or it is not. Either we live in a parliamentary system—in a democracy—or not.

And so, the government having thumbed its nose at Parliament in the most forceful way, one should naturally expect opposition MPs to back up these stirring words with actions. As Maclean’s went to press, a week after Parliament’s return, they had done nothing, other than to repeat their demand. “Stop, or we’ll shout ‘stop’ again.”

To be sure, the Liberal MP Derek Lee, who as it happens has particular expertise on this subject (see his seminal 1999 work, The Power of Parliamentary Houses to Send for Persons, Papers and Records) has been pressing the issue. Lee has been seeking leave from the Speaker to raise a question of privilege, which if granted would allow him to put forward a motion finding the government in contempt of Parliament, and instructing the sergeant-at-arms to seize the documents in question.

(By the time this appears, he may even have done so. It will depend on whether the government shows any inclination to hand over the papers on its own, for example in the terms of reference given to former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, whom it has asked to advise it on the matter. At press time these remained murky.)

But it’s far from clear whether, if it does come to a vote, his party will back him. You can tell when the opposition isn’t serious about an issue: they get hysterical about it. A media report quoting a lefty prof’s uncorroborated claims about the documents’ contents set them baying like hounds one day. Another report, revealing that—horrors—Canadian intelligence officers had questioned Afghan prisoners (isn’t that what we hire them for? to gather intelligence?), led to even more exaggerated outbursts, as if this in itself proved complicity in torture.

No. There is only one way to resolve this question, and that is for the appropriate authority to have a look at the documents. The appropriate authority in this case is Parliament, “the grand inquest of the nation.” MPs needn’t speculate about the contents of the documents; they have the power to demand them, if only they will use it. If they are serious, they will do so, with whatever special arrangements are needed to allay national security concerns.

But: the opposition is full of buts. Maybe it’s a trap. Maybe the government will declare this a confidence motion. Maybe we’ll be forced into an election we’re not ready for. There are a thousand reasons not to act, and the opposition shows every sign of looking for one. As the government fears the public, so the opposition fears the government.

It’s a funny thing. Minority parliaments are supposed to be unstable. Yet such is the pusillanimity on both sides that this one looks set to run and run. So long as he doesn’t actually do anything, Harper can govern as long as he likes.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.