2012 on Parliament Hill: John Geddes sums up a year in 12 chapters

A search for coherence at the closing of the year
Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney speaks to the CFA Society Toronto on global and Canadian economies and the stability of the global financial system in Toronto on Tuesday, Dec.11, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

How many senators did Prime Minister Stephen Harper appoint in 2012? How many years does the government allow, in its latest plan, for “development and acquisition” of F-35 fighter jets? How many premiers, provincial and territorial, attended the November economic summit in Halifax? (Hint: Saskatchewan’s just phoned in.)

In all cases, the answer is an even dozen. But for our purposes here—in this third annual installment of a year-capping look back—we’re interested in 12 only as the number of months in the calendar. Select just a single story for each, and 2012 might almost begin to show some semblance of coherence.

January: We were surprised by a speech’s ambitious tone

Stephen Harper’s run as Prime Minister has been defined so far mostly by incremental steps. His signature rhetorical gambit is to express exasperation with anyone who fails to see whatever move he’s announcing as not only sensible but unavoidable. It’s effective, but not often inspiring. And so the tone of his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last Jan. 26 was unexpected. He spoke of “major transformations” on pensions, immigration, exports and innovation. As the year progressed, he delivered modestly on pensions and boldly on immigration. On exports and innovation, however, he put no truly memorable measures in the window. But then the next election isn’t expected before 2015.

February: We added “robocalls” to the political vernacular

Ever since Harper made the Federal Accountability Act his first legislative priority back in 2006, he has tried to make ethics a Conservative brand strength. (The damage done to the Liberals by the sponsorship scandal was, after all, largely what brought him to power.) The biggest threat to that crucial element of the Tory image has been, not corruption in government, but agressive electioneering. The so-called “in-and-out” campaign financing affair hurt. The danger deepened in February when investigative journalists Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher broke what would be the first of a string of stories on possible abuse of automated phone calls—or robocalls—to confuse voters about where to cast their ballots. Elections Canada’s investigations into the matter continue.

March: We concluded the New Democrats must want to win

Heading toward the NDP’s March 24 vote for a successor to the late Jack Layton, serious doubts remained about the party’s seriousness. Was Layton’s 2011 election breakthrough, especially in Quebec, a watershed or an aberration? The choice of the next leader would signal how the party saw itself. Brian Topp represented continuity with Layton’s team. Topp made many party officials feel at ease. Thomas Mulcair, on the other hand, was a relative newcomer to the NDP, whose sometimes acerbic style unsettled insiders. But unlike Topp, a backroom guy, Mulcair was a battle-hardened front-bench political performer. He looked like an instant contender, not an on-the-job learner. Mulcair’s win made Harper’s job harder, and raised the bar for the Liberals in choosing a new leader of their own.

April: We were reminded of a watchdog’s enviable credibility

In an era when few federal institutions are entirely unsullied—witness the woes of, for instance, the RCMP—the Auditor General of Canada continues to command almost universal respect. Former AG Sheila Fraser retired from the office an iconic figure. Her successor, Michael Ferguson, appointed to the post in late 2011, made an immediate impact with his first report. Ferguson’s spring 2012 audit featured a sharply critical review of the government’s program to acquire F-35 fighter jets. The F-35 was already the focus of unrelenting criticism. But only Ferguson’s report was accepted as definitive—a clear sign of his office’s reputation. The government accepted the need to look again at alternatives. So the F-35’s future is uncertain. And the AG’s clout is unquestioned.

May: We eavesdropped as an MP revealed the obvious

The government’s budget bill, C-38, was packed with more measures than critics said should ever be crammed into one piece of legislation. Conservatives insisted the unwieldy omnibus act was just fine. But then backbench Tory MP David Wilks was caught on amateur video telling a group of his constituents in Revelstoke, B.C., that they were right to think the bill should be broken up—but that he was powerless to oppose it alone. Wilks spoke dejectedly about how party discipline works, how the Prime Minister and cabinet tell ordinary MPs how to vote. Nobody was surprised when he later released a statement affirming, despite what he’d said, his support for the budget legislation. So ended a brief respite from the monotonous pretence of caucus solidarity.

June: We enjoyed the skilled voice of what might have been

In an era marked by indifference to oratory on Parliament Hill, listening to Toronto MP Bob Rae is a source of open pride for Liberals and secret envy for rival partisans. Rae can lift a text off the page, improvise in Question Period, crack a joke in the scrums. So complete a politician is he that nearly everybody around Parliament Hill assumed—and some confidently predicted—he would run (again) for the Liberal leadership. When he announced in June that he would not, Rae’s explained his decision to the shocked media with poise and humour. Many Liberals wonder if they shouldn’t have picked Rae to lead them in 2006, when he lost to Stéphane Dion. Now, it seems inevitable that whenever the next Liberal leader falters, some will whisper again, “Too bad we didn’t go with Bob.”

July: We realized provinces can play energy politics, too

The notion that Ottawa, under Stephen Harper, is an oil town is pretty much beyond dispute. His descriptions of Canada as an “emerging energy superpower” include hydro and nuclear, but fossil fuels predominate. His government’s devotion to building pipelines is steadfast. But how free is he to drive development? In July, Christy Clark,  British Columbia’s embattled premier, who must fight an election next spring, set tough terms for approving the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta’s oilsands to a B.C. coastal port. Along with environmental conditions, she demanded a share of the economic benefits. And so the stage was set for an epic fight with Alberta—and a potential setback to Harper’s signature strategy for Canadian economic development.

August: We found out how Tories would return ethics fire

Ever since the Conservative party was fined $52,000 in the fall of 2011 for breaking political finance laws in the 2006 campaign—in the so-called “in-and-out” affair—the party’s hardball election tactics have left it vulnerable to charges of ethical lapses. The robocalls stories (see above) amplified that danger. So the news that the NDP had been forced to repay more than $300,000 in advertising revenue collected from unions at three policy conventions, after Elections Canada ruled the sponsorships violated bans on union and corporate donations, was a gift to the governing party. There could be no doubting the Conservatives would exploit the mistake: whenever pressed, the government’s defenders have unfailingly raised the official Opposition’s own misstep.

September: We felt federalists brace for change in Quebec City

All in all, 2012 was a year when provincial politics mattered more than usual at the federal level. Pipeline squabbles between the two westernmost provinces. The premier of Ontario forced to step down. But arguably the most unsettling transition was the September election of a separatist government in Quebec City. Pauline Marois, the new Parti Québécois premier, would be replacing Jean Charest, the long-serving, firm federalist who understood Ottawa—where he was once a boy-wonder minister in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet—better than most provincial politicians. And how concerned was Harper? Enough for him to arrange, a few months earlier when the PQ victory was in the wind, to meet privately with Mulroney to talk Quebec strategy.

October: We took in the spectacle of style in the spotlight

The month began with the breathlessly awaited official launch of Justin Trudeau’s bid for the Liberal leadership. Trudeau had begun the year claiming he wouldn’t run—leading the party wouldn’t, he said, leave him enough time to devote to his young children. Then came his March 31 victory over Tory Senator Patrick Brazeau in a charity boxing bout, which, rather absurdly, boosted his standing. Months of heated speculation followed. By fall, his entry felt inevitable. His launch speech in his Montréal riding staked a claim to a middle path between what he dismissed as the “ideological answers” of the Conservatives and NDP. Trudeau would strive to add substance in the months that followed, but few doubted his style was what kept him in the frontrunner’s position.

November: We celebrated—sort of—a star’s career move

The rise of Mark Carney from promising public servant to unlikely celebrity was one of the most intriguing stories of the past decade on the federal scene. Lured to Ottawa in 2003 from investment banking, Carney became Bank of Canada governor in 2008. He swiftly established himself as a bright light among the world’s central bankers. In late November, he announced that next June he will take over as governor of the Bank of England. Some Canadians took pride in Brits seeing one of our own as the top guy in the field. Others felt Carney’s move showed how Canada remains in the economic minor leagues. Reports later suggested he only opted for London after ruling out a try for the Liberal leadership. He might not be gone for good—his London appointment is for five short years.

December: We couldn’t be sure if a fighter jet buy is on or off

Arguably the most mismanaged major federal project of the past few years has been the plan to buy 65 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets. From the moment Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced Canada’s apparent commitment to the procurement in 2010, questions about the real nature of the project have plagued the government. Was there really no other jet worth considering? (It turned out, there were.) How much would the F-35s really cost? (The latest estimate, $45.8 billion over 42 years.) The government released a stack of reports in December to clarify the costs and pledge to explore the possibility of buying another, likely cheaper aircraft. Still, as long as the F-35 remains a live option, the hard political decision on this horribly bungled file remain in the future.

( Looking further back: here are 2010 and 2011 in federal politics, each in 12 chapters.)