See the politician run

From the latest issue of the print edition, 1300 words or so on the permanent campaign that is our politics (including a bit about something the NDP has been up to that I don’t believe has been reported elsewhere).

Consider one of the otherwise inconsequential portions of the parliamentary day—the time allotted for “statements by members.” These 15 minutes immediately before question period are generally reserved for the recognition of favourite causes, honoured constituents and notable world events, but in recent years this time has also allowed for free political advertising. Faced with a Liberal opposition, the Conservatives took regular pleasure in using those 15 minutes to mock Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. After barely two weeks of relative quiet this spring, the Harper government duly turned on the NDP—backbencher David Wilks stood up on June 15, nine sitting days into the new Parliament, to decry the dangerous policies of the “radical hard left NDPers.” Five days later, Conservative Blake Richards ventured that the NDP was “not fit to govern.” “With its high tax plan, the NDP is not fit to govern or to lead Canada through the fragile global economic recovery,” Richards informed the House. That particular phrase—and its cousin “unfit to govern”—have since been committed to Hansard, during members’ statements, question period and otherwise, a total of 37 times.

This is the embodiment of the permanent campaign—a constant, unrelenting and tireless approach to politics. And it is this idea of the never-ending election that now dominates Ottawa. What might have previously been dismissed as an unfortunate side effect of minority Parliament is now foundational to modern Canadian politics. The practice–in discourse and tactics alike–prevails even after the obvious political necessity is gone.

Why does this matter? Good question.

In the United States, the permanent campaign mentality is arguably at the root of what ails the political system. Of course, at the national level, that system depends on compromise and cooperation between two parties and three branches (the House, the Senate and the President). And it is a system—see George Packer’s excellent piece on the Senate—that allows political rivals to use obstructionism as a tool in that campaign.

At least until we have an elected Senate—or unless the public rises up in considerable number—there is not much to prevent a Canadian government with a majority (or a coalition government or a minority government with sufficient political acumen) in the House of Commons from moving forward with an agenda. The sort of paralysis we see in the United States isn’t really possible here. Or is at least less likely.

That said, our system can still be driven to dysfunction. It can still be dysfunctional. And arguably it already is. In large part that’s because the system depends on the good faith, goodwill and general interest of the collective (the politicians, the press and the population). A legislature is naturally a place of conflict, but it benefits from compromise, cooperation and consideration. Absent some general respect for the institution and its purpose it becomes just another place to repeat the party talking points—free commercial time with periodic interruptions to go about the formalities (voting, etc) of governance.

Maybe it was ever thus. For as long as there has been democracy there has been politics. The former is not really possible without the latter. But, I’d venture, the whole thing holds together best when there’s a kind of balance. And the danger of the permanent campaign is that that balance disappears, to the detriment of the actual business of 308 individuals managing and leading a country.