The Commons: Uncontrollable democracy

When he's not precipitating elections, Stephen Harper likes to lament how unnecessary and reckless they are

The Prime Minister looked a bit frustrated. He had concluded his prepared remarks and invited questions and now various members of the mob before him were shouting various queries in his general direction. This was not as Mr. Harper prefers it. No, when Mr. Harper has his way, those who wish to ask a question of him are to present themselves to a member of his staff beforehand. Once the Prime Minister is ready to entertain other voices, a member of his staff then calls on the questioners by name and employer. After the Prime Minister has finished responding, the next questioner is called by name and employer. No follow-ups are permitted.

Here the woman from the Prime Minister’s Office called out the name of the journalist assigned the first question, but the mob was unwilling to cooperate. Amid the shouting, she called out again, to no effect. The Prime Minister seemed at a loss, obviously unused to being treated like a common politician. Eventually, after a few uncomfortable seconds, he pointed in the direction of a TV newsman to his immediate right. After a perfunctory response, the shouting returned. Mr. Harper managed to point out a francophone voice in the crowd. Another question, another response and then he turned on his heels and took his leave.

It is rare to see the Prime Minister without control. And it is obvious the Prime Minister does not much enjoy the feeling.

“Our economy is not a political game,” he had lamented upon arriving at the podium set up for him in the foyer of the House of Commons. “The global recovery is still fragile. Relative to other nations, Canada’s economic recovery has been strong but its continuation is by no means assured. Many threats remain.”

Indeed, the threats are apparently legion, from “turmoil in the Middle East” and “disaster in Japan” to “European debt” and “global economic uncertainty.” All are well beyond Mr. Harper’s control (and responsibility, mind you) and all are imperilling the economic recovery on which his government has spent all its precious time.

“The budget that the Minister of Finance tabled yesterday, the next phase of Canada’s Economic Action Plan, is a low tax plan of critical importance to jobs, growth and the financial security of hardworking Canadians,” he raved, holding the budget book up for the cameras like a Price is Right spokesmodel. “It is unfortunate for Canadians that the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois seem to have a different priority and that is to force an unnecessary election.”

When he’s not precipitating elections—in 2005 it was Mr. Harper’s motion of non-confidence that upended the Liberal government and in 2008 it was Mr. Harper who asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament—Mr. Harper is fond of lamenting how unnecessary and reckless they are. Mind you, if his fixed election date law had been worth more than the paper required to print it, the country would be compelled to conduct an election every four years, no matter what international calamities were occurring at the time.

Perhaps Mr. Harper wishes elections would simply come when properly called upon by a member of his staff. Perhaps he wishes people would just listen. “From coast to coast to coast,” he said, “Canadians expect all parliamentarians to be working together to finish the job of securing our economic future.”

Of course, by “working together,” the Prime Minister seemed to mean “voting together,” namely in support of Mr. Harper’s budget. “Let me be very clear,” he clarified. “This budget, the next phase of Canada’s Economic Action Plan is designed to ensure the continuation of Canada’s recovery. The opposition parties have a choice between two priorities—their ambition for an unnecessary election or our important measures to support Canadians and the economy.”

But however unreliable and selfish those conspiring opposition parties, Mr. Harper had not lost hope in their ability to capitulate. “Notwithstanding their declarations,” he said, “the opposition parties still have the opportunity to put Canadians’ interests first.”

All this invoking of “Canadians” and “Canada’s Economic Action Plan” and “Canadians’ interests,” might’ve seemed more selfless if the distinction between the country and the current Prime Minister hadn’t already been officially deleted.

A short while after Mr. Harper had managed to take two questions from the mob, it was Michael Ignatieff’s turn to face the TV lights. Flanked by a dozen Liberal MPs, he seemed altogether enthusiastic. “This is where you come to choice time,” he announced after once again declaring his dissatisfaction with the government’s budgetary abilities. “You can have those Conservative priorities or you can have compassionate, responsible Liberal ones. Those are the choices.”

But if Mr. Harper was still focused on the choices of the opposition parties, Mr. Ignatieff was apparently already looking past the 40th Parliament. “We believe that the moment has come for Canadians to make a choice here,” he said.

And so they soon will. The control is about to be taken away from these two men and this place and bestowed upon whoever wishes to exercise it.

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