Another year’s federal politics in 12 chapters

Stages in the legislative process that make a bill law in the Canadian Parliament; ministers (not including the Prime Minister) on cabinet’s powerful Priorities and Planning committee; former political figures (not including sovereigns or social activists) memorialized in bronze around Parliament Hill—twelve is the number in each of these interesting categories. But for our purposes here, in this second annual stocktaking of the year just ending, it’s the 12 calendar months that matter. Pick just one political story for each page, and 2011’s kaleidoscope might just take a turn from jumbled to intelligible.

January: We glimpsed how Ignatieff thought a leader should look

By the start of 2011, we had long since figured out Stephen Harper’s disciplined style and thought we understood the limits of Jack Layton’s appeal. But Michael Ignatieff had taken over as Liberal leader in an odd way, with no conventional leadership race to bring him into focus. Instead, Ignatieff had been defined for many Canadians by Conservative attack ads. For those who had paid attention to him before politics, his globetrotting-intellectual persona still loomed large.

Then came his Jan. 25, tone-setting address on Parliament Hill to the Liberal caucus, with the media invited in. This was no detached thinker. Sleeves rolled up, Ignatieff ripped through a 15-minute speech in which he mocked Harper, invoked Barack Obama, and answered his own question—“Are we ready to serve the people who put us here?”—with a shouted, “Yes, yes, yes!” Hopeful Liberals saw a fiery campaigner, astute Conservatives a man ripe for ridicule. We didn’t know it then, but this was a clear foreshadowing of the campaign to come.


February: We watched Conservatives smoothly execute a key transition

As an opposition leader and especially as Prime Minister, Harper has shown a remarkable ability to shed and replace chiefs of staff, communications directors, and other key advisors. But the one constant in his electoral machine was the beard and brogue of Doug Finley, his  campaign director. When Finley stepped down at the very end of January as he recovered from colon cancer, the party began a testing transition. Guy Giorno and Jenni Byrne stepped into new roles.

For a lesser partisan machine, the loss of a figure as dominant as the Scottish-born Finley would have been a marked setback. Instead, the transition seemed to go off without a hitch. Spring election speculation continued unabated. As for Finely—who ran Harper’s winning 2006 and 2008 campaigns and was rewarded with a Senate appointment in 2009—Twitter awaited.


March: We marveled as the PM fell, yet defined the moment his way

It was no surprise when the Conservative minority was voted down by the opposition Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois on March 25. The House had been an increasingly fractious and angry place. The actual non-confidence vote, only the sixth in Canadian history, found the  government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to supply full cost estimates for fighter jets, crime bills and corporate tax cuts.

Yet Harper largely succeeded in burying those reasons by asserting doggedly that the real issue was the opposition’s refusal to support his government’s budget. “There’s nothing, nothing, in the budget that the opposition could not or should not have supported,” he said. “Thus, the vote today that disappoints me, will, I expect, disappoint Canadians.” His refusal to even minimally acknowledge that the election was triggered by anything other than a clash over economic priorities carried him into the campaign and, arguably, to victory.


April: We absorbed the potential of Layton’s NDP surge in Quebec

The orange wave surged over Quebec so unexpectedly that even senior NDP veterans had difficulty knowing what to make of it. By April 23, when Jack Layton climbed to the podium at Montréal’s Olympia Theatre to address his party’s largest ever campaign rally in the province, the possibility of an NDP breakthrough was widely acknowledged. The Bloc was running scared. The Tories and Liberals were looking elsewhere in the country for any gains.

At the back of the Olympia, Layton’s young Quebec organizers spoke, wide-eyed, of a dozen or so new Quebec seats being within reach. That seemed remarkable enough. Yet had they been able to fully take in the spectacle of Layton podium performance, and the crowd’s reaction, they might have dreamed bigger. Holding his talismanic cane aloft, smiling as only he could, hitting his applause lines like the pro he was, “Bon Jack” embodied an unlikely convergence of long, careful political preparation and recent, inspiring personal determination. You can’t make this stuff up.


May: We experienced Harper’s majority win as an inevitability

It’s an illusion of course, maybe even a delusion, to think anything in politics had to happen the way it did. There are always too many variables. Still, Harper’s May 2 election victory had that it-was-written feel about it. He steadily built toward the moment, from his near miss in 2004, through his two minority wins in 2006 and 2008. The train was rolling toward this destination.

And Harper’s campaign-trail consistency was remarkable. His rallies were a model of methodical planning and error-free execution. He refused to be badgered by media complaints into taking more reporters’ questions or exposing himself to unscripted encounters with voters. He stuck to his key economic message even when Layton’s rise might have unnerved a more skittish campaigner. Election night was full of compelling stories—Bloc and Liberal failures, NDP ascent—but it belonged, in the end, to the Prime Minister.


June:  We shrugged as a political financing experiment was cancelled

On June 6 Finance Minister Jim Flaherty reintroduced his spring federal budget, which was never passed in the rush to an election, with a key twist: Flaherty added a measure to phase out the $2-per-vote subsidy to political parties by 2015-16. The taxpayer subsidy was introduced by the former Liberal government in 2004, to compensate for the curtailing of corporate and union contributions.

The Conservatives’ first attempt to get rid of the subsidy, announced in the fall of 2008, triggered the ill-fated bid by opposition parties to form a coalition and replace Harper’s minority. But with Harper leading a majority, there was no chance of his being thwarted this time. Few Canadians took much notice. And so an attempt to make raising money less central to our politics comes to an end. Constant, clever, insistent fundraising appeals to the party faithful—a Tory strong suit—will be essential to any party’ success for the foreseeable future.


July: We saluted as our troops left a battle zone still in question

When Canadian soldiers moved in large numbers into Afghanistan’s violent southern province of Kandahar in 2006, military and political leaders were unprepared for how much the mission would come to dominate foreign and defence policy. The hard fighting they were soon engaged in was unlike anything Canadians had experienced in decades. Before exit day, 158 Canadian soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan, along with a diplomat, two aid workers, and a journalist.

The last Canadian commander of Task Force Kandahar, Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner, didn’t really want to leave. He would have preferred to stay a bit longer to help the Americans, whose troop surge into the province had put the Taliban on the run and stabilized previously volatile districts. Canadian troops remain in Afghanistan, but mainly engaged in training the Afghan National Army. But the years of fighting changed the place of the military in the Canadian public imagination—and Canadian political calculations.


August: We mourned Jack Layton, moved by what he’d come to mean

The death of the NDP leader on Aug. 22 at just 61 was not entirely surprising. The previous month Layton had announced that he was battling cancer for a second time, his ravaged face and desiccated voice shocking the country. But the way he died was unprecedented. He drafted a farewell letter and organized a public funeral in Toronto, knitting together the personal and political in his final weeks and days in a way that made them indistinguishable.

Layton came at the end to represent, in an era of deep cynicism about politics, an unapologetic zeal for total immersion in public life. All through the spring campaign, struggling back from a broken hip, Layton had exuded his relish for the democratic fray. Facing death, he didn’t shy from explicit partisanship. “Let’s demonstrate in everything we do in the four years before us,” he told the New Democrats in that last letter, “that we are ready to serve our beloved Canada as its next government.”


September: We were reminded by judges that even majorities face setbacks

With Parliament in session again, the Conservatives sitting pretty with their fresh majority, it seemed that nothing could slow the implementation of Stephen Harper’s vision. Then came the Sept. 30 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that the federal government could not shut down Vancouver’s Insite supervised injection clinic for intravenous drug users.

The unanimous 9-0 decision delivered a rebuke to the Conservative position that Insite’s clear track record since 2003 of helping addicts avoid infections and overdose deaths should be trumped by the government’s desire to send a strong anti-drug, law-and-order message. The ruling also validated the pro-Insite positions of the British Columbia provincial and Vancouver municipal governments. For those left disheartened by Harper’s resounding spring victory, the court offered a fall tonic.


October: We witnessed the lasting emotional power of a populist cause

From the time it was implemented in 1995, the federal registry for rifles and shotguns was deeply controversial. In the broadest of strokes, rural gun owners resented it, while urbanites who feared gun crime approved. Opposition gathered steam after a 2002 report from Auditor General Sheila Fraser put estimated the registry tab would climb to $1 billion by 2005.

With hot-button right-wing populist issues like abortion and capital punishment largely off the table in Canadian politics, the long-gun registry took on disproportionate importance for that portion of the Conservative base. Harper extracted maximum political benefit from attacking the registry. On Oct. 25, the bill to eliminate it was finally tabled in the House. A drawn-out, culturally fraught episode in Canadian political life was coming to a bitter close. Even the data in the registry was to be destroyed, so no province or future federal government, not to mention police force, could make use of the information. Few outcomes politics are so categorically one-sided.


November: We took comfort from a Canadian’s prominence in troubled economic times

The Cannes summit of the G20 club of major developed and developing nations was dominated by gloomy, even alarming, news about Europe’s deepening debt crisis. This was the backdrop for the appointment of Mark Carney, the Bank of Canada’s youthful governor, to head a key oversight body called the Financial Stability Board. Never mind what the FSB does—highly technical banking stuff. Pay attention to what Carney represents—solid Canadian economic management.

Carney is a fascinating story in his own right. His assessments of the state of banking regulation, economic policy and its international coordination, are parsed closely by rapt global market players. Beyond his personal qualities, he embodies the new Canadian swagger concerning our sound banks and solid government finances. But can Canada’s political and business leaders build beyond those oft-mentioned fundamentals to more innovative manufacturing and competitive service sectors?


December: We watched a familiar national shame unfold in the hinterland

On the first day of the last month of 2011, the federal government imposed what’s called third-party management on the Northern Ontario reserve community of Attawapiskat. That meant an administrator appointed by Ottawa would run the Cree community of 1,800 on James Bay, where a crisis of abysmal housing began drawing national attention in late November.

It was yet another example—they happen every few years—of a burst of media attention to the plight of an impoverished, remote First Nations village briefly forcing Canadians to contemplate the worst policy failure of successive federal governments. But how to break that desultory cycle? As Attawapiskat took centre stage, the Harper government was quietly introducing legislation to reform band council elections and improve financial transparency. Maybe this incrementalism will help where past grand gestures did little.