A year's politics in 12 chapters

(No partridge, no pear tree)

Eggs in a carton, apostles in stained glass, forwards needed to ice four lines in hockey—twelve is the magic number. For our purposes here, in this season for taking stock of the year nearly past, it’s the 12 calendar months that matter. Pick just one political story for each page, and 2010 begins to feel almost coherent.

January: We learned that social media really is politically potent

The year began with the backlash against prorogation—Prime Minister Harper’s arbitrary decision to suspend Parliament—dominating political debate. Nobody around Parliament Hill saw it coming. So long have we told each other that the House is a joke, Question Period a farce, that we’ve lost sight of the stubborn belief of many Canadians that the central institutions of democracy matter anyway.

Layered on that quaint, archaic article of faith was the new enthusiasm for using social media to express and organize outrage. At the protest’s pointy end was a Facebook group called Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, run by Christopher White, a University of Calgary graduate student in anthropology. White wasn’t fronting for any political party. The indignation naturally faded after Parliament resumed. But we shouldn’t forget the lesson: turns out the talk about social media’s potential for activism isn’t just hype after all.

February: We remembered that health care is contentious

It’s been a long time since health care dominated Canadian political debate. Ever since Paul Martin cut a multiyear health deal with the provinces in 2004—perhaps the most consequential action of his brief prime-ministership—the issue has been off the table as a cause of fed-prov friction. But every once in a while, something reminds us that universal health insurance is a big-ticket item and the system is far from perfect. It took Danny Williams traveling to Florida for heart surgery to bring the issue back, if briefly, into sharp focus.

The outsized persona of the Newfoundland premier (as he still was then) made this case study compelling. Critics of Canadian-style care pounced—Aha! Our health care isn’t good enough for a rich politician, so it isn’t good enough period. Defenders of the system (me included) asked why Danny went to Florida for surgery that’s done very well in Canada. The episode touched nerves on both sides, foreshadowing issues of access that will rise in prominence in the run up to the next serious look at the system—before Martin’s deal runs out in 2014.

March: We heard a good rant, and a significant platform promise

The Liberal Party of Canada cherishes a tradition of periodically reviving itself by holding conferences where lofty ideals and cutting-edge policy are aired. It happened famously in Kingston, Ont., in 1960 and again in Aylmer, Que., in 1991. So Michael Ignatieff’s decision to hold a thinkers’ confab in Montreal this past March was a nod to his party’s tradition. It might well have turned out to be a yawn. And, indeed, Ignatieff’s attempt to wrap up the meetings by saying Liberals must turn themselves into the “party of the network,” whatever that means, was underwhelming.

Yet the conference was a success anyway, for two main reasons. Firstly, former diplomat Robert Fowler gave a rip-snorting speech that blasted both Liberals and Tories for their foreign policy failings—a rare reminder that voicing serious, unguarded views in the public political sphere might be worth it. Secondly, Ignatieff announced that his Liberals, if they regained power, would freeze corporate tax rates, rather than pressing ahead with the Conservatives’ cuts. That single decision makes available billions that should allow him, in the next election campaign, to credibly propose more spending than the Conservatives. It sets the stage for a clearer ballot choice.

April: We realized the crime bills are all about their own wordy titles

The most potently populist theme in Harper’s rhetorical arsenal is tough-on-crime. There can be no doubt it plays well with a broad swath of voters. (The by-election victory former Ontario police chief Julian Fantino on Nov. 30 in a formerly Liberal riding north of Toronto gave Tories reason to hope this message might win them crucial suburban seats.) In April, the government left little doubt that it’s the packaging of this thrust that matters, rather than any actual plan for reducing crime.

On successive days the Conservatives introduced the “Bill to Ensure Serious Time for the Most Serious Crime” and the “Bill to End House Arrest for Property and Other Serious Crimes by Serious and Violent Offenders.” Never mind that Justice Minister Rob Nicholson didn’t even attempt to present arguments that serious crime isn’t now being punished with serious time, or that lax judges are prone to letting heinous criminals loaf at home. This is the government’s most active legislative dossier, and yet Nicholson has not presented a major policy paper or delivered a substantial speech explaining in any detail the basis for the government’s approach. What’s left? The titles of the bills tell the tale.

May: We looked to the Mother Country’s post-election example

The big Canadian political story of the spring happened in Britain. After a close UK election failed to produce a clear winner, all parties entered into negotiations aimed at coalition government. The outcome: David Cameron, the Conservative leader, became prime minister by forming a full coalition the smaller Liberal Democratic party. That left Labor and former prime minister Gordon Brown out in the cold. This mattered a lot in Ottawa because Harper continues to make so much of the 2008 bid by Liberals and New Democrats to form a coalition, with Bloc Québécois backing.

He argues that coalition was fundamentally illegitimate. The scenario he fears is obvious: his Tories beat the Liberals narrowly in the next election, but he doesn’t get to remain PM. Had Brown managed to negotiate a deal with the Lib-Dems, Harper’s case against the acceptability of a second-place finisher leading a coalition would have been weakened. As it turned out, he was able to assert that the British result supports him. “Winners are the ones who form governments,” Harper said after meeting with Cameron in the garden of 10 Downing Street shortly after the new British PM took over. “In the end,” Harper went on, “the coalition in Britain, and I think it’s important to point out, was formed by the party that won the election.”

June: We witnessed ugly scenes, but also smooth maneuverings

The lasting memory of the G20 and G8 summits in Ontario might be of the ugly protests in Toronto and the dubious police crackdown in response. But I don’t see that lingering controversy over apparent violations of the civil rights of demonstrators making any difference on the federal scene. However, Harper’s handling of the summits served as a reminder to insiders of his sure-footedness on the world stage. He looked good on the two big challenges the summits posed—helping prevent a bank tax that would have been bad for Canada, and nudging the summit messaging in the direction of deficit cutting, rather than more stimulus spending.

Harper used to look narrowly interested in relations with Washington and London. But in advance of these summits, he reached beyond the anglosphere, to countries like India, Brazil to Saudi Arabia, for support on key issues. This from a politician who barely set foot outside Canada before becoming Prime Minister. Perhaps the most unexpected part of the Harper story so far has been the way he has exploited set-piece international events.

July: We felt that the data didn’t support the outcome

Like the prorogation controversy, the summer’s storm over the government’s decision to get rid of the long form of the census caught official Ottawa off guard. The move seemed to be designed to appeal to the most fervent libertarians in the Conservative base. Who else cared about the sort of questions Statistics Canada asks? But Industry Minister Tony Clement found himself besieged by an alliance of academic researchers and economists, urban planners and corporate data-miners.

When Munir Sheikh, the country’s chief statistician, resigned as head of Statistics Canada, he put an individual face on a story about numbers. It was foolish to imagine that this would ever matter enough to most Canadians to swing many votes. Even so, it was a defining moment for the Harper government, underlining the Conservatives’ penchant for pure political calculations over the technocratic values of evidence, expertise and analysis. This was less a battle over the census itself, in the end, than over the way policy is made in a modern state.

August: We went along for the ride on a summer road trip

When Ignatieff embarked on an old-school series of summer bus trips, the punditry snickered. Breathing diesel and barbeque smoke for weeks on end didn’t seem his style. By August, though, conventional wisdom had shifted. The old Harvard prof seemed to be doing okay. (Although not so well to escape the satiric eye of my colleague Scott Feschuk.) Most of the press reviews were favourable and Liberals were feeling better about themselves. According to Harris-Decima, the Liberals rose to within three points of the Tories by late summer, after having been about 10 behind in the pre-bus-tour polls.

But there was a sting in the opinion surveys, too: Ignatieff’s personal popularity lagged his party’s, leaving him far behind Harper. By fall, the brief blush of optimism among Liberals prompted by the bus gambit had faded. So was the whole exercise useless? No. Opposition leaders typically don’t show their real stuff until the test of a full election campaign. The summer demonstrated not that Ignatieff can win, but that he can at least hold his own on the hustings. We didn’t know that before.

September: We sat in on a symposium in political base-tending

No unrealized goal means more to the rural and small-town core supporters of the Conservative party than getting rid of the federal registry for rifles and shotguns. It’s hard to say why. Guns don’t mean as much in practical terms as, say, income taxes or the Canada Pension Plan. They don’t mean as much to any traditional sense of Canadian identity as, say, the army or Arctic. Still, for many outside the big cities, being told they must register their long guns is the ultimate imposition of unwelcome urban priorities. So it was that Harper rejected opposition overtures for compromise when a Tory backbench MP’s private member’s bill to scrap the registry came up for a vote.

The bill was defeated, but Harper didn’t look too broken up about it. Part of his base might not like his deficit spending, another might regret his declaring the Quebecois a nation, still another despair over his blocking of a foreign takeover (see next item). But those who care about their guns, at least, have reason to believe he’s still their man.

October: We weighed $40 billion against the value of 13 House seats

I mean no offence to the Regina Chamber of Commerce when I say that their luncheon speeches have not loomed large in the national political calendar. But Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s Oct. 21 talk to the Queen City’s business elite was different. His impassioned plea for the federal government to block an Australian company’s $40-billion bid to take over Saskatchewan’s Potash Corp. put the feds in a political bind. Wall is a prairie conservative, the sort of guy Harper is supposed to view as a natural ally.

Had the PM, through Industry Minister Tony Clement, allowed the takeover—as his core Conservative free-market convictions must have been telling him he should—13 Tory seats in Saskatchewan would have been put at risk. No way that was going to happen. (Clement announced the call in early November, but Wall’s offensive was an October story.) Seeing such a bedrock Conservative economic tenet abandoned was something to behold.

November: We gaped, open-jawed, at a major-league political flip-flop

Less than two weeks after the Potash decision, Harper announced he would leave Canadian troops in Afghanistan to train Afghan soldiers until 2014, reversing his repeated, emphatic, no-wiggle-room vows to pull virtually all our men and women in uniform out in 2011. The Canadian combat mission in Kandahar will still end, but 950 troops and support staff will move north to take up a share of the crucial task of building up the Afghan army. The flip-flop brought Canada into line with NATO’s broader 2014 exit plan; Harper changed his mind, it seemed clear, to avoid being off-side with those allies.

It was made easier to do by the fact that he was, in fact, bringing himself around to Ignatieff’s preference, declared last summer, for Canada to stay on in a training role. So he could count on Liberal support. And that’s one reason this story matters beyond the spectacle of Harper changing course so abruptly on by far his biggest defence and foreign-policy file. The episode also shows Conservatives relying on Liberal backing for a major policy shift—a strange occurrence if, as Harper has it, Ignatieff is really leading Liberal/NDP/Bloc coalition.

December: We recalled something key that we’d almost forgotten

Glancing back over the 11 stories I’ve chosen above, I’m struck by how none has to do with running the economy through difficult times. Yet that is perhaps the most important ongoing challenge, and has been since the world financial markets melted down during the fall 2008 federal election. A bit arbitrarily, therefore, I choose Harper’s Dec. 2 event in Mississauga, Ont., when he trumpeted the success of his government’s “Economic Action Plan,” as the news story of this month. He boasted that since the summer of 2009, when the recession ended, more than 420,000 net new jobs have been created across Canada. His government has provided $16 billion to modernize public infrastructure, including roads, bridges, water, parks, transit and recreational facilities.

Is it cynical to note the prominence of that blue-and-green, upswept-arrows logo that the Tories plastered on all those public works? That branding push has done the trick. Never mind that old Liberal legacies, sound banks and solid national finances, gave Canada’s economy its resilience. Harper has doggedly sold his government’s economic interventions to voters, and all indications are that message has been received. And compared to how Canadians feel about the economy, all those other stories—from prorogation to potash, bus tours to gun registries—might soon feel like last year’s news.

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