The 41st Parliament and the future of Canadian politics

What kind of country do we want? What kind of politics do we want?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in a photo opportunity on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 30, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

When last we looked upon this place, Brent Rathgeber, tall and nerdy, was asking a question and Elizabeth May, short and unrelenting, was rising on a point of order.

Mr. Rathgeber, elected as a Conservative in 2008 and again in 2011 for the riding of Edmonton-St. Albert, had recently left the Conservative caucus on account of how a private member’s bill he had proposed had been rather dramatically amended, seemingly at the behest of his party’s leadership. Thus he was now free to stand every so often during Question Period and express sentiments that were not entirely laudatory of the government. And so he did, challenging the government on its handling of the temporary foreign workers program.

A moment later, Ms. May stood and, managing to catch the Speaker’s attention, registered her concern that the 15 minutes set aside each day in the House of Commons for the honouring of causes and citizens was once again being given over to “crass partisan purposes” and “personal attacks.” (Conservative MP Daryl Kramp, though not named or identified by Ms. May as an offender, stood up then to declare that he took “offence” to Ms. May’s comments and that it would be wrong to suggest that his complaints about the fee received by Justin Trudeau for a speech in Mr. Kramp’s riding were not of concern to said riding.)

Some hours later, the parties agreed to finish up with the remaining business of the first session of the 41st Parliament of Canada and all Members of Parliament were released back into the wild. Mr. Rathgeber would proceed with a series of public speeches on the topic of our “Broken Democracy,” while Ms. May would have her own series of town hall meetings intended to “Save Democracy.”

And so they and we return now to the working monument on the Hill, to listen as a nice old man from up the street reads aloud a series of commitments on behalf of the government of the day. Apparently we’re all going to be getting a bit of a break on our cellphone bills. And with that, and various other promises, will we herald both the return of the 41st Parliament of Canada and a time—two years, give or take—for choosing.

If our democracy is indeed broken, if it does indeed need to be saved, we have two years now to do something about it. Or at least to begin to do something about it. There are some two years between now and this nation’s 42nd general election. And nearly everything, down to some of the parameters by which we formally govern ourselves, is up for grabs.


So what kind of country do we want?

Three men can each presently make equally plausible cases that it will be him who will have a claim on the Prime Minister’s Office when that election result in 2015 is confirmed. (Depending on the official totals, there might be competing claims to be resolved.) For each, the victory would be profound.

Stephen Harper, the audacious and unapologetic Conservative, would become just the fifth man to win a fourth mandate, just the third man to win four consecutively and the first in more than a century to win a fourth straight. He would likely then soon pass Jean Chretien to become the fifth-longest serving prime minister in history. To do so, he must now only best a bizarro version of himself (Thomas Mulcair, the New Democrat) and the son of the man who, as the heroic story goes, made him a Conservative (Justin Trudeau, the Liberal). Waylaid by scandals he himself made possible—oh, if only he hadn’t appointed Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin to the Senate that day amid the tumult of that December five years ago; oh, if only he’d not waited seven years to ask the Supreme Court to explain how the Senate might be reformed; oh, if only he’d not hired a very wealthy man to be his chief of staff—and seeming maybe to have exhausted both his government’s capacity and the public’s patience, the challenge has never seemed so great, his rivals never so talented, his administration never so vulnerable. Only his dream of destroying the Liberal party and replacing it with a new natural governing party is at stake.

For Mr. Mulcair, the broad-shouldered and fierce New Democrats, his would be the first national NDP government in this country’s history, he the first prime minister who was not a Liberal or Conservative, the culmination of everything that suddenly seemed possible in that remarkable last third of the 2011 campaign. Mr. Mulcair, successor to a man who was posthumously sainted, made leader as a result of tragedy, must now only achieve the sort of power that previously seemed impossible, the pursuit of which still raises existential questions for the party he leads.

For Mr. Trudeau, the feathery-haired and dreamy Liberal, the task is merely to restore and bring purpose to a party affiliation pushed to the brink of political bankruptcy, the promise merely to change politics, the hope merely that he will somehow live up to his name and everything his father bestowed upon it. His potential seems immense, but precarious. So surely there could be a fairy tale ending. And yet surely still it could go all go bust.

In choosing MPs who represent the parties who would make these men prime minister, we have only to decide what kind of government we want and answer the questions about the size, shape and purpose of it that Mr. Harper has both loudly and quietly raised. We need only sort out what we need, what we want and what we are willing to do about that.

And on the way to those answers there is only everything else to sort out.

A pipeline to the United States needs the approval of the President, a pipeline to the West will be for the regulators to judge and the federal cabinet to decide, a pipeline to the East remains to be negotiated. A free trade agreement with Europe remains to be agreed to. There will be Supreme Court hearings for the Senate and perhaps charges against as many as four of its members. There are four by-elections to be held: two to test the enthusiasm for the Conservative party, two to test the abilities of the Liberals and New Democrats. There are fighter jets to be purchased and ships to built and multi-billion-dollar prices to be clarified for both. Regulations to control the greenhouse gas emissions of the oil-and-gas sector are twice overdue and we have international commitments to somehow meet. Judges are refusing to impose the sentences that the government has set out. The access to information system is broken. In Quebec, a separatist government is attempting to make religion a matter of public policy and electoral advantage. The people of Lac-Megantic deserve answers and then, perhaps, changes. The provinces, already mired in debt, are being asked to do more and the ability of our prized health care system to care effectively for all of us will soon be tested as never before. Our collective household debt is at a record high. Our roads, highways and transit systems are in desperate need of renewal. Our prisons are more crowded and more violent. Our food banks are serving longer lines. Our aboriginal communities are as beleaguered as ever.

Are we willing to do what needs to be done to stave off the worst possibilities of climate change? More specifically, are we ready to accept what changes and sacrifices that might require? Are we finally really going to do something about the Senate? If so, how? Why do we still pay more for our milk? Can we reinstate the long-form census or is useful data about our society too much to ask for? Will we ever know who tried to disenfranchise voters during the 2011 election? Can our MPs being something more than living avatars of their parties? Can they claim the power of the public purse? Can the parliamentary budget officer be an important force for accountability? Are we ready to legalize marijuana? Does it still make sense to be tough on crime? Do we still believe in the welfare state? Are we willing to help our fellow man end his life on his own terms? Can we fight forced marriage and rape overseas without dealing with abortionAre we truly concerned with helping the heroin addict or is our compassion limited by our personal comfort and preconceived notions?

All of this is laid out before us now, whether or not we wish to look upon any or some or all of it. And regardless of how much the Harper government manages to save us on our cable bills, here is the stuff that will make us as a collective nation. Here be our politics.


So what kind of democracy do we want?

If the tenacious Elizabeth May has erred at all in her cause, it is in the full name of her summer tour—”Save Democracy From Politics.” What she presumably means is something more like, “Save Democracy From The Imbalances Of Power That Currently Impair Our Version Of Democracy’s Effectiveness And Relevance.” But it is surely easier (and cuter, in this case) to say “politics.” It is easier to blame that which we are a taught to regard as a corrupting force, the dirty and tawdry game that sullies the pure ideal of democracy.

But it is politics that makes and sustains us.

“Politics arises from accepting the fact of the simultaneous existence of different groups, hence different interests and different traditions, within a territorial unit under a common rule,” Bernard Crick wrote. “The establishing of political order is not just any order at all; it marks the birth, or the recognition of freedom. For politics represents at least some tolerance of differing truths, some recognition that government is possible, indeed best conducted, amid the open canvassing of rival interests. Politics are the public actions of free men.”

It is not democracy that separates us from tyranny. It is politics. There might now be something wrong with our politics. It might be weakened by cynicism. The structures we have built to formalize and guide it might be subject to abuse. Our democracy might be in poor health. Or we might at least aspire for things to be somehow better—for a more meaningful House of Commons, a more relevant MP and a freer flow of public information. We might even feel that we are teetering now on the brink, that not just our democracy, but our politics, is in real danger of slipping away from us. That might even be true. If this feels like a pivotal moment, that might be because it is.

But if we need be saved, it is only through politics—that most human of creations and achievements—that we will find salvation. It is only through politics that we can hope to fix what is broken. It is the tumult we must accept. It is the tumult we must, in fact, embrace.

It is through politics that we will choose the man who will lead us on the 150th anniversary of our birth as a nation. It is through politics that we will answer those questions about our governance, resources, wealth and welfare. It is through politics that we will decide what to do about our environment and our fellow man, about how we will care for our sick and how we will respond to the scourges of poverty and addiction. It is through politics that we will decide over the next two years who we are and who we think we can be. It is only through politics that those who seek change can hope to achieve it.

So we stand now on the edge of a monumental two years. Two years for questions both eternal and pressing. Two years for ourselves and each other. Two years for Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau. Two years for Brent Rathgeber’s concerns and Elizabeth May’s points of order. Two years to decide how we want our politics to be practiced. Two years to say whatever has to be said.

Regard it all as a celebration of politics, that which defines us and that which is limited only by our individual and collective willingness.