May 29, 2005

Not our proudest moment.

Mike pointed out today* that I had been a little bit quiet about the political intrigue in Ottawa since the Liberals survived the non-confidence vote on Thursday.

Indeed I have been, not having posted anything since my semi-tongue-in-cheek grandstanding about the Stronach-crossing prediction.

A lot of words have been written about the current political situation, and a lot has been said (those two don't always go hand-in-hand). So I'll keep this brief (for me ...) and do my best not to simply re-hash old news and old views.

I've been watching along with everyone else as the tension has built in Ottawa, and it has all made me feel rather squeamish, to be honest. Somewhere between the appalling behaviour of those implicated in the sponsorship scandal and the circus show that has been Parliament for the past few months, this is not exactly a proud moment to be Canadian.

In a way it was only fitting that something as dramatic as Belinda Stronach's floor-crossing and the vote of cancer-stricken independent MP Chuck Cadman would decide the final result. After months of escalating rhetoric and outrageous claims, it couldn't have been easy to cut through the noise and cause some excitement.

It's hard to know what to make of Belinda Stronach's move. I'm not convinced that this was a purely power-grabbing stunt (no more than I am convinced of the indignant outrage of all those politicians who purport to be shocked by such power-grabbing). It should come as no shock that Stronach was not happy with the direction in which Stephen Harper was taking the party. The groundwork for her defection was laid -- deliberately or not -- with subtle and not-so-subtle signals dating back to her leadership campaign, of course, and more recently to the Conservative Party convention.

Yet the mess of accusations is partly of Stronach's making. Even if you give the benefit of the doubt and assume that she didn't ask for the Cabinet post, she should have declined what we would then assume to have been Paul Martin's offer. Her conscience-inspired crossing story would be a lot more credible if she had. And, let's face it, she could still have known that a plum Cabinet appointment -- probably one better than HRSD -- would be hers come election time. It also didn't help that she attended a Conservative campaign strategy session on the weekend that she was debating her move. Maybe it would have been odd if she hadn't shown up? Too bad. She should have called in sick.

Does this even make sense as a power-grabbing move? If her goal is party leadership and Prime Ministership, she is unlikely to get it with the Liberals. But if her goal is a senior cabinet post, she may have been banking on the fact that Stephen Harper was soon to go down in flames, possibly putting off for a few years any hope of a Conservative government and the Cabinet appointments to go with it.

I'm not sure we'll ever know the true mix of motives (for it was unlikely to be any one, pure reason) that led Belinda Stronach to cross the floor. Either way, she was subjected to ridiculous and offensive attacks that ultimately said a lot more about some of her critics than they did about her decision. Even if you disregard this cheap, locker room behaviour, it is hard to get past the stunning hypocrisy of the more serious cricisms of her move. Many of her current detractors rallied around one Peter McKay when he blatantly reneged on his signed agreement with David Orchard -- the one which effectively handed McKay the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party -- in merging the Progressive Conservative party with the Alliance. At the time, McKay and other supporters of the move claimed it was for the good of the country and democracy. How quick they are to reject any similar claims by Stronach today.

It will be telling to see how Stronach does in the next election, facing the riding that elected her as a Conservative. You can bet the Liberals with throw a lot of resources behind that particular battle, whenever it comes.

The intrigue surrounding Stronach's defection serves as a microcosm of the big picture politics unfolding in Ottawa these days. Forget the official notion of confidence and who got the one or two votes needed to tip them over the edge. There is no definitive judgement to be found in a confidence vote these days.

Turn your attention instead to the notion of trust, which is right scarce in Ottawa -- and across Canada -- these days. The politicians don't trust each other, and the electorate doesn't trust the politicians. I'd wager to say the politicians are feeling a little leery of the electorate, too, so the feeling is mutual. Sadly, many Quebecers are probably getting the sense they can't trust anyone -- including themselves! The message is clear even from our friends down south, via the venerable New York Times -- don't trust everything you hear about Canada. How we have fallen from grace.

Yes, forget the unanimously-passed veterans' bill a couple of weeks ago, forget the "bon mots" spoken about and by NDP MP Ed Broadbent on his retirement, and dispense with any feeling of relief you had in thinking that we might be able to catch a breather after the govenment survived the recent confidence vote. Everything you need to know happened in the 30 seconds immediately following the vote, when Paul Martin rose to half-heartedly pronounce a truce, and then Stephen Harper rose to give Paul Martin the verbal equivalent of the finger**.

There is no truce. As crazy as it sounds, the opposition has stated that it still has its finger on the non-confidence trigger.

So expect more political theatre (a.k.a. grieving man, with dog, on farm), more rhetoric, more vitriolic debate. Just don't expect any real confidence. There isn't even basic trust.

[*] Wednesday, when I started writing this entry. Oops.

[**] Even wading into the dangerous territory of speaking of a "united" opposition, reinforcing views of a Tory-Bloc love-in.

Posted by anatole at May 29, 2005 10:57 PM