See the politician run

From the latest issue of the print edition, 1300 words or so on the permanent campaign that is our politics (including a bit about something the NDP has been up to that I don’t believe has been reported elsewhere).

Consider one of the otherwise inconsequential portions of the parliamentary day—the time allotted for “statements by members.” These 15 minutes immediately before question period are generally reserved for the recognition of favourite causes, honoured constituents and notable world events, but in recent years this time has also allowed for free political advertising. Faced with a Liberal opposition, the Conservatives took regular pleasure in using those 15 minutes to mock Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. After barely two weeks of relative quiet this spring, the Harper government duly turned on the NDP—backbencher David Wilks stood up on June 15, nine sitting days into the new Parliament, to decry the dangerous policies of the “radical hard left NDPers.” Five days later, Conservative Blake Richards ventured that the NDP was “not fit to govern.” “With its high tax plan, the NDP is not fit to govern or to lead Canada through the fragile global economic recovery,” Richards informed the House. That particular phrase—and its cousin “unfit to govern”—have since been committed to Hansard, during members’ statements, question period and otherwise, a total of 37 times.

This is the embodiment of the permanent campaign—a constant, unrelenting and tireless approach to politics. And it is this idea of the never-ending election that now dominates Ottawa. What might have previously been dismissed as an unfortunate side effect of minority Parliament is now foundational to modern Canadian politics. The practice–in discourse and tactics alike–prevails even after the obvious political necessity is gone.

Why does this matter? Good question.

In the United States, the permanent campaign mentality is arguably at the root of what ails the political system. Of course, at the national level, that system depends on compromise and cooperation between two parties and three branches (the House, the Senate and the President). And it is a system—see George Packer’s excellent piece on the Senate—that allows political rivals to use obstructionism as a tool in that campaign.

At least until we have an elected Senate—or unless the public rises up in considerable number—there is not much to prevent a Canadian government with a majority (or a coalition government or a minority government with sufficient political acumen) in the House of Commons from moving forward with an agenda. The sort of paralysis we see in the United States isn’t really possible here. Or is at least less likely.

That said, our system can still be driven to dysfunction. It can still be dysfunctional. And arguably it already is. In large part that’s because the system depends on the good faith, goodwill and general interest of the collective (the politicians, the press and the population). A legislature is naturally a place of conflict, but it benefits from compromise, cooperation and consideration. Absent some general respect for the institution and its purpose it becomes just another place to repeat the party talking points—free commercial time with periodic interruptions to go about the formalities (voting, etc) of governance.

Maybe it was ever thus. For as long as there has been democracy there has been politics. The former is not really possible without the latter. But, I’d venture, the whole thing holds together best when there’s a kind of balance. And the danger of the permanent campaign is that that balance disappears, to the detriment of the actual business of 308 individuals managing and leading a country.




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See the politician run

  1. Maybe, just maybe, Canadians like the taste of shit?

    bon appétit 

  2. Whenever a friend tells me that the most important thing in national politics is that Stephen Harper and his CPC be removed from power, I counter that the most important thing is that whatever regime follows Harper doesn’t follow his tactics but starts making Canadian politics better.

  3. “Where you stand depends on where you sit” comes to mind in this discussion because for those of us who aren’t witless Liberals, the permanent campaign started decades ago. 

    Wherry, your schoolmarm tendencies are funny – ‘Con MPs are being mean to NDP MPs, whatever shall we do …. sure, at the moment, it’s rude statements by members but they soon be setting fire to the reichstag! ‘ 

    • The liberals started it first…evidence please?

  4. I think Wherry is spot on here. Our system works fairly well when the majority of MPs work together on issues of common interest. We’ve rarely had a government in this country predicated on the support of an actual majority of Canadian voters, but it didn’t matter much in the past, because everyone was going to work together anyways to find a reasonable solution on most issues. The parliamentary committees were boring sure, but they worked well.

    However, it seems to me that the hyper-partisanship that has emerged over the past couple decades has eroded the ability of our parliament to compromise, seemingly on anything. The tone of speech in the commons is one thing, but even reasonable ammendments to government legislation are now routinely ignored. Where compromise existed in the past we now have the “give no quarter take no quarter” attitude of those who seemingly consider it a personal affront to suggest that they may not have the best answer to absolutely everything, or that their good ideas can’t be improved upon.

    Given this recent evolution in Canadian politics, I think the time has come for fundamental changes to our political system. Whatever the political culture in the past, it seems clear to me that as long as a party can win government by cultivating a minority base and then using the First Past the Post system to divide and conquer, we can no longer expect them to consider what the majority of Canadians actually want on any one issue.

    Proportional representation is the only means I can see to find that balance. At least if everyone’s vote translates into an appropriate amount of support in the House of Commons, we can be sure that the resulting decisions will at least involve a majority of MPs that actually have the support their positions imply.

    Right now we simply don’t have that. What we have instead is a majority premised on a special interest base, that is bound and determined to do whatever it pleases DESPITE majority opinion.

    Voting is not democracy if it results in a minority dictating to the majority.

  5. I quibble a little with your statement, “And it is this idea of the never-ending election that now dominates Ottawa.”

    I would say rather that it is not the dominant idea of all of Ottawa but is for the Conservatives and especially for Stephen Harper himself.  My understanding is that SO-31s or Members’ Statements have been around for a long time and were much as you described them.  There might have been the occasional political statement made under the Liberals but nothing approaching the base, personal attacks that have become the norm under the Harper Conservatives.

    However, when you say, “Absent some general respect for the institution and its purpose it becomes just another place to repeat the party talking points—free commercial time with periodic interruptions to go about the formalities (voting, etc) of governance.” that describes how things are under Harper to a tee.  He has shown on multiple occasion how he does not respect Parliament or anybody who might have a divergent view on some policy issue.  He also doesn’t want any excessive divergence coming from his own caucus or even cabinet.

    Just read your talking points and sit down.  Produce documents?  We don’t need to produce no stinkin’ documents.  No patronage appointments except for all the patronage appointments I will make.  Etc. etc. etc.

  6. This comment was deleted.

    • Ah…. Turd

      bon appétit 

    • Not only do Con supporters gloat; they also taunt. Classy. Thanks for exemplifying the point of the blog comment.

    • You truly don’t get it. 

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