The Commons: 'It gets to the point of being tragic'

When historians take stock of Harper's life and times, they will certainly find better moments than this

There is perhaps nothing more crushing for the proud man than another man’s pity.

“It gets to the point of being tragic,” Jack Layton moaned the other day, sounding more than a little sad, “that the Prime Minister will make promises that he has no intention of keeping. Can the Prime Minister tell us which of the promises that he made in yesterday’s budget … he plans on breaking in the months to come?”

Stephen Harper, understandably a bit hesitant to prognosticate these days, didn’t have much of an answer for this one. Which is getting to be an identifiable trend.

Though clearly not the best of times for this Prime Minister, it’s probably a bit premature to declare this the worst of situations. For now let us merely say that when historians take stock of Mr. Harper’s life and times, they will certainly find better moments than this.

Having defined himself a month earlier as a bit of a scaredy cat, Mr. Harper reemerged this week for what one of his aides deemed no less than “one of the most important budgets in Canadian history.” After unprecedented consultation and consideration, we were told, Mr. Harper and his team had devised an unprecedented plan for unprecedented action in these unprecedented times. Billions would be spent on highways and hockey arenas. Jobs would be saved, the vulnerable sheltered, a shovel in every acre. Trains would not merely run on time, but, in fact, arrive ahead of schedule.

No doubt Mr. Harper awoke Wednesday morning quite surprised to find Canadians not rejoicing in the streets.

Indeed, reaction to date has varied wildly—from shrugs of resignation to apoplectic screams of indignation. Those who want less from this Prime Minister are outnumbered only by those who want more. Those who dismiss the federal budget as a failure are outnumbered only by those who view it as merely pointless. Those who question the Prime Minister’s budget as a way of solving the country’s economic problems now include no less than the University of Calgary professor who oversaw Mr. Harper’s master thesis in economics.

As expected, Danny Williams is fuming on Newfoundland’s behalf and Jean Charest is frustrated for Quebec, but equally unimpressed is Brad Wall, the boyish and conservative Premier of Saskatchewan. Less than 24 hours after the budget was tabled, the International Monetary Fund downgraded Canada’s economy and rendered moot much of Jim Flaherty’s work.

And if the prospect of haplessly presiding over financial apocalypse wasn’t worrisome enough, here came Michael Ignatieff, the notably confident opposition leader, vowing to put Mr. Harper on “probation.” Mr. Harper, Mr. Ignatieff explained, would answer to him from here on. The talk now is of having the Prime Minister on a leash, our duly elected leader reduced to a family pet for the new couple at Stornoway.

With few other options, Mr. Harper’s staff has devoted considerable effort to stage-managing a series of photo-ops to more flatter his efforts. Unfortunately their ham-handed efforts and the Prime Minister’s own unfamiliarity with a nail gun have only reinforced the image of a man whose political skills are no match for the sorts of realities that generally demand a different kind of leadership.

No wonder Mr. Harper seems a bit down these days.

This day, for instance, he seemed less feisty than frustrated—shaking his head and muttering as a Liberal disparaged his government’s support for scientific research, banging his forehead with his fist as a New Democrat lectured him about U.S. trade policy. There must seem no end to his troubles.

Setting aside this government’s budget, Michael Ignatieff rose first and called the Prime Minister to account for the protectionist measures included in new American legislation. Next, Mr. Ignatieff wondered whether the government might be preparing to fail the ailing auto sector.

The Bloc Quebecois were upset with plans to establish a national securities regulator. The New Democrats were steamed about a perceived lack of attention to pay equity and, as if Mr. Harper does not already have enough to worry about, this Prime Minister’s steadfast refusal to become Barack Obama.

“Mr. Speaker, it is a sad contrast. Look at what is happening in the White House today,” sighed Jack Layton. “The very first bill being signed by President Obama makes it easier for women to pursue pay equity and it allows them to sue employers for pay discrimination, something the Conservative government wants to take away.”

Mr. Harper’s answers were mostly perfunctory, a word that would equally describe the applause he received from a caucus that rose to cheer him a mere three times this day. Generally speaking, the excitement in this place is inversely proportional to the seriousness of the discussion, but the government side does seem very much to be wearing this economic slide. Indeed, even the Prime Minister’s stylist seems to be struggling, dressing him this day in a particularly garish tie (bright red with multi-coloured diagonal stripes).

Only once did Mr. Harper rouse himself to the tenor of those dramatic days in December when he was the nation’s only hope against socialists and separatist revolutionaries.

Mr. Layton had just finished his ode to the righteousness of the new American president and so challenged, the Prime Minister felt obliged to respond in kind.

“Mr. Speaker, I will tell the House what the only sad contrast is around here these days,” Mr. Harper began, his voicing rising with the syllable. “It is the leader of the NDP, who a month ago was prepared to support the mission in Afghanistan, prepared to support corporate tax cuts, prepared to support development of the oil sands, and now wants to go back and try to pretend he is a left wing ideologue all over again. It is his problem. He made his bed. He can sleep in it.”

His team jumped to its feet. And no doubt it sounded good at the time. Though one was left to wonder whether Mr. Harper was declaring himself a better socialist than the NDP leader or dismissing the dire socialist threat he warned us of just a month ago.

Dizziness is getting to be a theme around here.