Circle your calendars! Jan. 26 is Back-to-Parliament Day. That’s when your MPs will reconvene in Ottawa for another! Fun! Few! Days! of recrimination and bitter, bitter resentment. There will be a Throne Speech. It will require that all MPs not named Harper sleep on beds of spikes. The opposition will complain. The Prime Minister will protest blandly that the new provisions apply to everyone (“Look, it says ‘Harper’ right there in Article 2”). And right away, the opposition will face an oddly familiar choice among three options, the third a little fresher than the others:
(a) vote against the government and force an election;
(b) humiliating climbdown, followed (in this instance) by a bad case of Spiky Bed Back;
(c) coalition government.
In short, late January will not be significantly different from late December. That’s because these days Back-to-Parliament Day and Truly Weird Parliamentary Crisis Week are falling closer and closer together. Which is why, depending where you start counting, Canada’s Parliament has not functioned as a legislative body since May, and is not likely to start working any time soon.
Everyone will blame somebody different for this state of affairs, but consider our increasingly erratic Prime Minister. In April and May he sent his MPs and his caucus’s committee chairmen into a dozen committee rooms with written instructions for bringing the business of Parliament grinding to a halt. In July he urged Stéphane Dion to “fish or cut bait” in the matter of election timing. By late August he was furious to discover that Parliament was dysfunctional, in the manner of a man who pees on the floor and then complains the carpet is damp. He proceeded to cut Dion’s bait by calling an election in defiance of the plain meaning of his own fixed election-date act. He campaigned on warnings that Dion would run a deficit, then delivered a victory speech full of fond wishes for peace and co-operation. Then he set about explaining why he’d probably have to run a deficit. Before long he was in Peru calling deficits “essential.”
He returned to the hitherto dysfunctional Parliament and, barely a week after the Throne Speech, had his finance minister deliver an economic update in the form of a bed of nails: cuts in public funding for political parties, pre-emptive strikebreaking for public-sector unions that had been bargaining in good faith, the abandonment of wage equity. (No mention of deficits, though!) Two days later, when the opposition showed some teeth, Harper sent his transport minister—true story—to the CBC to announce the government would abandon the party-funding and union-busting provisions.
Then he strode into Parliament and boldly built a consensus that saved us all from an eternal psychodrama. Just kidding! No, he went to Rideau Hall to strangle the fall session in its crib. If the opposition returns in January to announce it has backed off from its coalition gambit, it’s only reasonable to assume Harper will send yet another minister—natural resources? Grains and oilseeds?—to a Petro-Can station or the Lambton Mall or somewhere to reintroduce the poison-pill measures from the fall update. As Andrew Coyne has said, it’s easy to keep your opponents guessing if your actions are determined by random chance.
But is it churlish of me to point out that in the meantime, Canada has no government worth the name?
The whole point of the fall election, we were told, was to give Harper some “open water” to govern without having to worry the opposition would do anything nasty, such as opposing him. The whole point. Certainty vs. chaos. Steady hand vs. the deluge. The voters granted him, for the second time, the awesome gift of power; he used it to steer a straight line away from open water into chaos and deluge, like some mad Ahab of parliamentary mischief.
In short, he’s been a bit of a twit, has our dear leader. It does us no good to have a Prime Minister who flies to Winnipeg and Peru singing Kumbaya if he can’t set foot in Parliament without bringing a blowtorch. He clearly cannot stand the place. That’s a problem because at some point, he’s going to need a functioning Parliament to get anything done.
Well, that’s a problem if he actually wants to do something. Turns out that’s a big “if.” It’s becoming more and more obvious that the impasse in the House of Commons is an expression of the Prime Minister’s own conflicted feelings about the place. He showed on the Afghanistan war that when he wants to he can lead a government that bends and concedes in pursuit of its goals. But that was about soldiers. He cares about soldiers. He has never convinced me he cares about the economy, or believes any government can do anything to affect its course. Build roads? Bail out car companies? Take advice from Jack Layton? He’d sooner cut off the opposition’s allowance, then hit the road to tell more fibs about Stéphane Dion.
From a springtime of committee chaos to a summer of ultimatums to a fall election, a December crisis, a tasty prorogue-y holiday feast, and the near certainty of another New Year psychodrama. I could swear there was a pattern in there. Blame the opposition if you like, but what olive branch did the PM hold out that they refused? Stephen Harper spent his whole adult life complaining that the state was no good for anything. Now, under him, it is so. Consistency at last.