‘Assuage the bitterness’

Interesting point from a New York Times story on whether Barack Obama’s arrival will change the debate in Washington.

Interesting point from a New York Times story on whether Barack Obama’s arrival will change the debate in Washington.

“It’s worth noting that nearly every Inaugural Address ever delivered includes some variation on the ‘change the tone’ theme: Zachary Taylor in 1849 praised efforts to ‘assuage the bitterness’; Benjamin Harrison in 1889 said ‘we should hold our differing opinions in mutual respect’; Calvin Coolidge in 1925 insisted ‘there is no salvation in a narrow and bigoted partisanship.'”

There will, of course, be various reports of newfound civility and cooperation around here as the resumption of Parliament approaches. A few days ago, for instance, there was this (Jan. 9, “Harper pushes for co-operation on upcoming budget”). All of which, you might suspect, will prove about as solemn a vow as this (Nov. 7, “Harper seeks co-operation in Commons”) and this (Oct. 15, “Harper pledges co-operation after election”).

Could the current state of affairs in Ottawa be improved upon? That depends, I suppose—first, on how badly you view the present situation; and second, as noted above, on how edifying you believe our politics to have been through the decades. If you believe that proceedings have been better, it only stands to reason that the proceedings could be better. If you regard Ottawa as an eternal cesspool beyond any and all hope, you can probably stop reading (both this post specifically and everything else posted here in general).

The rest of you, onward.

What would constitute better? Politicians of varying belief will always disagree. For that matter, politicians of varying belief should disagree. But then they should be able to do without, say, referring to their opponents as traitors. Or unapologetically lying. Or, if you want to get technical, purposefully undermining the institutions of Parliament and actively encouraging cynicism of the entire process. It would nice, for instance, to get through the next session of Parliament without anyone being outright accused of sedition, no?

If so, how to go about achieving that better? Good question.

Having considered this for at least a half or so, there are perhaps three options.

1a. As argued in that Times piece, much of the onus in Washington will fall on Barack Obama, who must use his particular talents to negotiate peace in our time. The same is essentially true in Ottawa: the tone of this place is very much dictated by Mr. Harper and, to a slightly lesser extent, Messrs. Layton, Duceppe and now, Ignatieff. For sure, the likes of Van Loan, Baird, Kenney, Poilievre and Del Mastro are all uniquely talented in this regard. But none would behave as they do if their party was led by a positively genteel partisan who spoke only in hushed tones. It is very much Harper’s House—his comrades and foes matching his volume and tone and rhetoric each day. No doubt, the opposition have their days, for both good and ill. But the feel of the place is largely dependent on the Prime Minister’s mood. And if Mr. Harper emerged later this month as a new man, Parliament would be compelled to follow suit.

1b. It is not only, of course, because Barack Obama is Barack Obama that it is possible to muse of change in Washington. It’s also merely that a change in the presidency is happening at all—with the blank slate and opportunity that provides. Could Stephen Harper still personify change in Ottawa, three years after he became Prime Minister? Good question. Put it this way: even if he changed, could his opponents possibly forgive and forget their grievances with him? If you were sitting on the opposition side, how long would it take you to get over being threatened with bankruptcy and accused of treason and plotting to destroy the country?

2. If change from on high is unlikely (1a) or impossible without another election (1b), what about change from the cheap seats? I admit this is the option I find the most potentially entertaining.

Let’s say a group of generally reasonable MPs—probably backbenchers—representing all four parties formed an informal Bipartisanship Committee, publicly committing to pursue civil discourse, joint initiatives and general compromise. Let’s say they organized a series of nationwide town hall meetings—stealing John McCain’s proposal to Barack Obama—at which they agreed to debate and discuss the major issues of the day in front of and with Canadians. Let’s say the members periodically (but politely) broke with their own party leaders and made a point of inserting themselves into the national debate.

Would anyone here not be interested in seeing how this might work?

Is there any prospective prime minister who could possibly avoid endorsing such an endeavour?

As various observers have noted over the last few weeks, no less than the basic concept of an adult conversation taking place here between two people of differing political views is broken. If that’s true—and what I see tends to confirm that—then it would seem we’re faced with no less than rebuilding the very foundation of coherent democracy in this place, roughly akin to teaching a man with two shattered legs to walk again. In lieu of profound inspiration from on high, the first steps are bound to be small and almost infantile.

Footnote: None of which is to say politics need, or even should, be free of conflict or rhetorical jousting or wit. First and foremost, that would make this job terribly boring and compel me to take this act elsewhere. Say, to professional wrestling. Or Taiwan.