Two weeks

Greetings from an Undisclosed Location between Afghanistan and Ottawa. My reflections on the former will appear in the next issue of Maclean’s. As for the latter, I’ve kept close watch. It’s a bit of a mess. I leave you people alone for 10 days and…

A few thoughts.

Saddest moment: Not the Dion cellphone video, but his explanation for it when Gilles Duceppe accosted him later. “We’re not used to being in opposition,” Dion said.

To which the only rational response is: why the hell not? The Liberals were in opposition, with Stephane Dion as leader, for almost precisely two years. That’s roughly as long as the Korean War lasted. The position from which the Liberals had to appeal to the Canadian people on any issue was the position of opposition. The resources at their disposal were the resources of opposition. The privileges they enjoyed on Parliament Hill were an opposition party’s privileges. Dion’s office was the office previously occupied by Preston Manning, Stockwell Day, Bill Graham and other luminaries. Now, I’m told Dion used to be some kind of academic. Maybe he could look those people up. He would discover that they were opposition leaders. But then, as I wrote in June, the distinguishing feature of the office while Dion was there was that he refused to decorate it. Because he refused to believe he was sitting in it.

I did not believe a man could raise denial to a more elevated level than Paul Martin and Joe Clark did. But Dion stands, permanently, as the most appalling example of failure of introspection I have ever seen in a political leader. He has wiped out most of the considerable admiration I ever had for him. I think it is time, for instance, to shift much of the credit for the Chretien-era national unity strategy away from Dion and back to his cabinet predecessors, Alan Rock and Marcel Masse (I do wish I could do accents on this borrowed computer), and to the boss, Jean Chretien. As for more recent events, I simply don’t know whether Dion is capable of measuring his own role in the consummate debacle that was his career as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. His capacity for blaming others is jaw-dropping. Not that any of this matters any more, but it all still leaves me breathless.

The big picture: In October Stpehen Harper had a reinforced minority against an enfeebled Liberal Party led by a man who had no support in his caucus. A long, expensive, divisive leadership race lay ahead for the Liberals. Harper delivered an economic update whose central tenet was that Canada, alone among nations, was not seriously threatened by economic upheaval and did not need to provide economic stimulus. So sure was Harper of his strategic superiority that he pushed the assorted demons tormenting him — opposition parties, labour unions, wage equity — back as hard as he could, presuming none would dare challenge him.

It took two days for him to drop the party-funding and strike-breaking provisions. His finance minister no longer appears in public except to plead for a chance to survive long enough to provide economic stimulus. Harper faces a Liberal party that stands solidly behind its new leader and does not need to incur the expense of a genuine leadership race. (I do not admire the process that led to Ignatieff’s coronation and am not part of the man’s fan club, but I have a hard time seeing how the Liberals are weaker strategically today than they were three weeks ago.)

Parenthetically, but worth mentioning, when Parliament resumes Canada’s most important foreign-policy interlocutor, the United States, will be led by a team that resembles the Harper cabinet about as closely as Neptune resembles a tennis racket. I hear the new energy secretary will be a Nobel prize-winning physicist; could we please arrange a meeting between him and Stockwell Day somehow? Pretty please?

Oh oh oh. And Harper’s best friend in Quebec, Mario Dumont, is unemployed. By running essentially as the true Quebec opposition to Harper’s government, Jean Charest has strengthened his own hand. Most commentators say the Parti Quebecois was strengthened in the home stretch by Harper’s hyperventilating in the midst of a crisis he created.

It is difficult to defend the thesis that Harper has had a good month.

On cynicism: Normally when I criticize a Liberal and then criticize a Conservative, somebody comes along to call me a cynic. I have never understood this. I do not believe confusion and retreat on all sides are either necessary or cheering sights. I much preferred covering Jean Chretien on his best days or watching Preston Manning fail nobly, and even Stephen Harper succeed roughly, at producing a viable conservative alternative that could compete reliably for power. Charest’s late-career maturation has been one of the best political stories I’ve covered in 14 years. I prefer competence and high purpose to… well, to most of what we’ve seen lately.

But when our politics is a mess and nobody looks good doing it, I see no point in taking partisan refuge (“Well, at least my side isn’t as bad as your side”) or handing out medals for second-worst. Our prime minister’s behaviour lately is appalling (more on this in our next print edition). The opposition has been a mess in response. Better days may lie ahead, but these sure aren’t good days for our politics.

A conversion: One rough division of labour here at Maclean’s has long held that Colleague Coyne advocated for electoral reform, whereas I didn’t care. Those days are over. Part of the recent crisis was due to the way our electoral system affords the Bloc Quebecois far more space than the other parties are willing to afford it legitimacy. If we don’t think a separatist party has as much right as the others to determine who keeps or loses power, then it makes no sense to hang onto an electoral system whose many insanities include its tendency to give the Bloc more seats than its share of votes. I will be looking for a mainstream party that credibly and seriously advocates major electoral reform, to bring our Parliament more closely into alignment with the voters’ wishes.

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