The Commons: A cold and miserable day



The Prime Minister arrived promptly at 9:30am. Stepping out of the car, he waved to the reporters assembled 70 metres away and then strode through the back door of Rideau Hall. His staff followed behind.

Half a dozen news trucks idled in the Governor-General’s driveway. A dozen television cameras lined up by the fountain, aimed at her front door. Madame Jean’s staff had set out coffee and, though lukewarm, it eventually became necessary.

Thus, the wait began. Two and a half hours of chilly anticipation.


So how did we get here? The answer depends on your perspective.

In a simplistic reading, our present situation is a direct result of what happened last Thursday. That day, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty stood in the House of Commons and delivered his government’s fiscal and economic update. Presented as a national plan at a time of profound economic crisis, it included promises to eliminate subsidies to political parties, tamper with the public service’s right to strike, and fiddle with the system through which women are able to seek equal pay for their work.

It seemed designed only to corner the opposition. So challenged, the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois found themselves with common cause and interest. Enter the coalition. And under threat of forced exit, the Prime Minister retreated to Rideau in search of reprieve.

That is the short version.

In the longview, it is the latest chapter in what is now an epic and troubling story.

In-and-Out. Chuck Cadman. Afghanistan. Torture. Linda Keen. Arthur Carty. Marc Mayrand. Dalton McGuinty. InSite. Listeriosis. Crime. Science. Academia. Elections Canada. Omar Khadr. Gordon O’Connor. Maxime Bernier. Canadian soldiers. The Military Police Complaints Commission. The ethics committee. The press gallery. CAIRS. Access to information. The federal budget. The economy. The recession.

The emblem of this government has become a furious male face screaming indignation in the arena of our democracy. At every turn, the response has been to obfuscate, manipulate and demonize. Everything has been opportunity to divide. Truth has been tangential. Ethics and morals have been deemed quaint. The Game has superseded all. Short-term political advantage is all that’s mattered. Nothing worth doing if it is not in one’s own personal interest.

Each time, it was possible to believe it wouldn’t happen again. But inevitably there was another low. And while individually these moments might seem relatively minor—at least when compared with the great political and human challenges of our time—taken together it is a dispiriting collage.

I confess, at this point, that I have never before observed a government from this vantage point. Perhaps this is typical. Perhaps Stephen Harper’s government is no worse than any other. For sure, every administration commits its sins, some maybe in greater number and severity. But then even if this government is in line with the norm, I’m not sure that doesn’t just make this all the more crushing. I’d like to believe we’re better than this. I’d like to believe they’re better than this.

There should though be no separating this from that. What happened today was not singular, except maybe in the historical sense. It is merely an extension of all we’ve seen and heard this past year. Having exploited all else, Mr. Harper has now bent democracy to his will. A dangerous precedent has been set. The country is divided. But his desire for power has been requited.


A few dozen demonstrators had gathered at the gates of Rideau, awaiting the Prime Minister’s arrival. They waved signs and chanted slogans in his support. Reporters identified several of them as staffers in his government.

Reporters stood and waited and gossiped and joked. TV correspondents sent back dispatches to their networks on the complete lack of identifiable developments. The front doors of Rideau were opened, raising expectations, then closed. The Governor-General’s photographer stepped out to snap a few shots of the mob. The sun came out, brightening, if not warming, the scene.

Then the doors opened once more. The tarp was pulled off the wood podium and the podium wheeled into place. A man brought out a glass of water on a small silver platter and placed it at the stand. The microphones were duly checked. One of the Prime Minister’s aides deemed the spotlights too bright and had them adjusted. Another aide appeared to explain that reporters would be allowed four questions—two in English, two in French.

In the moments before the Prime Minister arrived, the skies clouded over. It began to snow, then hail. Mr. Harper appeared in a long black coat and maroon scarf, but no gloves. As he spoke, white pellets bounced off his shoulders and collected in his hair. Every so often the storm would gust, the wind rumbling over the Prime Minister’s microphone.

He announced Parliament to be closed. He appealed to mystical public opinion. He made promises. His answers were long and periodically pleading. He did not yell and scream. But he was hardly contrite. If there was any kind of apology contained therein, it was hardly explicit.

All stood and watched and listened in the cold and hail. Everyone and everything looked miserable.

Looking for more?

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