Canada

Stephen Harper and the politics of suspicion

Don Newman on the origins of incivility in the House of Commons.

The Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians held its fifth annual dinner this week in Ottawa.

It was an opportunity for former MPs who hadn't seen each other in a number of years to reconnect and catch up on what everyone is doing.

It also reminded many of how, not so long ago, Parliament could function more or less civilly while dealing with important and divisive issues, and could actually get the business of Canada done.

Stephen Harper in question period, in October 2009. (Canadian Press)

Most of the attendees were people who had served in either government or opposition when Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney or Jean Chrétien was prime minister.

These were former MPs and senators who had been present for the great, sometimes bitter, debates of the Trudeau era, including the patriation of the Constitution as well as the Conservative bell-ringing in 1982, which shut down the House of Commons for two weeks in the bare-knuckles fight over the National Energy Program. 

Also present was the generation that had been around for the often over-the-top displays of the Liberal Rat Pack in mid-1980s, after Brian Mulroney came to power.

And the passionate but often thoughtful debates on free trade, Meech Lake, the GST, divorce and the death penalty that also marked the Mulroney years.

There were many, too, from the Chrétien era, with its battles over the elimination of the deficit, the 1995 Quebec referendum and the security and intelligence fallout from 9/11.

All of those were tough fights with strongly held views on all sides. But through it all, Parliament worked.

The price of Reform

Of course, Parliament worked because elections in those periods also produced majority governments and sooner or later majority governments get their way.

But it also worked because MPs made it function. They seemed to understand that they were there to get things done.

That is not the case today and, on reflection, I'd have to say that the fraying of the system began during the Chrétien years.

The fraying was not — it might surprise some I'm sure — the fault of the Bloc Québécois who, while preaching their own view of both history and the future, always treated Parliament with respect.

Rather it came from the Reform party led by Preston Manning.

Reformers came to Ottawa with the argument that everything in the Nation's Capital was corrupt. In fact, Reform MPs were ordered at one point not to stay in Ottawa over the weekends in case they became corrupted by this latter day Babylon.

If you remember, Manning wasn't going to sit on the front bench but lead from the middle row.

He also said the Official Opposition leader should not live in Stornoway, the government residence provided for the leader of the party with the second largest number of seats in the House.

And Reform MPs were not to take the supposedly fat-cat pensions that all members were entitled to.

Everyone is against us

Well, Manning was soon sitting on the front bench and, when he became the Official Opposition leader, he moved into Stornoway instead of turning it into a bingo hall, as he had once threatened.

Today, even those Conservative MPs who were once Reformers are all enrolled in the parliamentary pension plan.

Manning, of course, is long gone. Replaced first by Stockwell Day, then by one of the original Reformers, Stephen Harper, the current prime minister. 

But while Harper lives at 24 Sussex and seems to enjoy all the trappings of the prime minister's office, as indeed he should, he seems to maintain the Reformer's deep suspicion of Ottawa and all other political parties.

In the first Conservative minority from 2006 to 2008, rather than looking for ways to make Parliament work, the Harper government prepared a document telling Conservative committee chairman how to make sure their committees didn't function — in order to bolster their  plea for a majority mandate in the next campaign.

Then, after failing to win a majority in 2008, the Conservatives launched the plan to effectively cancel public funding for federal parties and, in the process, bankrupt their competitors.

That manoeuvre almost cost the Conservatives the government. But did they learn from that experience?

Just a few months ago, in Sault Ste Marie, Harper was secretly videotaped telling party members that only a majority could achieve the party's goals because all of the other elements of the political establishment in this country are aligned against them.

Climate of suspicion

Under the current regime, this climate of suspicion has worked its way down through the system to the other parties.

As a result, spin has replaced substance, posturing has replaced policies, attacking opponents has replaced attacking problems pretty much across the board.

Sprinkled throughout the 350 or so diners at this week's dinner were some current MPs, parliamentary staff and the lobbyists who often help make the system work.

The younger among them seemed surprised at how friendly the greetings were between people who they knew must have been fierce opponents in their time.

And while former parliamentarians seemed open to the idea of new rules to make minority parliaments last longer and be more effective, the current members seemed to have great difficulty grasping the concept.

They seem to see these suggestions only for whatever narrow partisan opportunity they might or might not provide.

Among the good deeds this former-parliamentarians' association undertakes is working in emerging democracies to help make those parliaments more effective.

Based on what we have been watching in Ottawa these past twelve months, perhaps this week's group should be thinking about what might be done closer to home.