The Commons: The last night - Macleans.ca

The Commons: The last night

For Stephen Harper, there is no longer anyone to blame

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Shortly after 11 o’clock, Michael Ignatieff stepped forward to formally acknowledge the unavoidable. “Democracy teaches hard lessons,” he said.

He managed a smile, but the energy was out of him. He appealed to the life of this country, but this was a wake—his audience teary-eyed and bleary-eyed and silent and stunned.

He made a gallant show of appealing to tomorrow, but his political foray surely ends here tonight. And if this was not the last night of the Liberal Party of Canada, it was at least the last night of the Liberal Party of Canada as it has believed itself to be.

This was—or at least felt like—the end of a lot of things and so it is difficult to know where to begin.

***

This was the last night for Gilles Duceppe and the last night for the Bloc Québécois. This was the last night for the old idea of the NDP. This was the last night for four cabinet ministers and Helena Guergis and many of those—Mark Holland, Navdeep Bains, Gerard Kennedy, Martha Hall Findlay, Bonnie Crombie—who were supposed to be the Liberal party’s future. This was the last night for pretending that Elizabeth May would soon enough go away. This was the last night for minority government (at least until the next election). This was the last night for Parliament (at least in a certain symbolic sense valued only by strict purists). This was the last night (at least in a certain figurative sense) for all those who equated a majority government for Stephen Harper with the end of the world.

But let us start with Michael Ignatieff, for so much of this seemed—rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly—to depend on him. And while others will remain, they will do almost certainly without him.

In the end, he was both better and worse than he was supposed to be; neither the philosopher king his proponents dreamed he was, nor the insufferable and presumptuous twit his detractors made him out to be. He was, these past five weeks, a minor revelation: a barnstorming preacher by turns, a rollicking throwback on the stump.

He was, at his best and worst, forever searching. He is a curious man who has spent his life indulging that curiosity. And here was his greatest adventure. But whatever he learned, what he discovered about himself and his country, he did not find whatever it was that we wanted to hear. However much he talked, whatever he said, he could not find the words. That night in Sudbury he begged the country to rise up. And maybe it did. But not for him.

Maybe he never had a chance. Maybe those ads and this party and those expectations doomed him from the start. (Maybe it wasn’t Stéphane Dion’s fault after all.) Maybe this was nothing more than bad timing. But if he had only this one chance—however fleeting, however slight—surely it is now passed.

It will all make a fine and instructive book someday.

***

If the last few weeks in the political life of Jack Layton did not seem real, here is an objective measure that is indisputable and certified. Before summer arrives, Mr. Layton will have taken up residence in Stornoway. Whenever Parliament resumes, it will be Mr. Layton who Stephen Harper sees when he looks directly across the aisle.

Between them will remain the central tension of these last five weeks—the lingering concern of these last five years and perhaps the theme of the next four.

Five weeks ago, Mr. Harper’s government became the first in the history of this country to be found in contempt of the House of Commons. Five weeks later, 40% eligible voters have elected to return it to office with an even stronger mandate.

Five weeks ago, the NDP was little more than a quaint group of plucky Parliamentarians, almost precious in their preoccupation with legislation and policy and debate. Five weeks later, 30% of eligible voters have dispatched them to “fix Ottawa” with an even stronger mandate.

In their approaches to Parliament, both saw their respective paths to power and both now have power. For Mr. Harper, there is no longer anyone to blame. The levers of power are now almost entirely his. For Mr. Layton, there is no longer anyone between him and the government side. The platform and the responsibility of official opposition are now his.

It will be a new Parliament and a new House with a new Speaker, but it will confront the same questions and the same concerns and the same fears. Between Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton there will be answers of some kind or another. If what we are to understand in this regard from these last five weeks is decidedly unclear, let us let them settle it.

***

It is 1:57am in the grande ballroom in the basement of the Sheraton in downtown Toronto. The television platforms are being taken apart. The tables are being packed up and the cables wound. The signs bearing Mr. Ignatieff’s stylized visage are now kitsch. The 41st general election is now history. The flags still stand at attention and the lights are still on, but the show is over, the night is done and the day is through.

This was the last night for so much and so much is now passed. It was and is bewildering and humbling and wonderful. But good night to all that and good morning to whatever now shall be. To each their own lessons.