What it means when Peter Van Loan gets upset

Is there meaning in last week's question period commotion?

Ralph Goodale attempts to derive great meaning from last week’s commotion.

The altercation followed a fairly minor procedural argument. But it reflects a deeper problem. Since the last election, both the Conservatives and the NDP have pursued a strategy of partisan polarization. Their explicit objective is to drive all other participants off the political playing-field, so they can have it all to themselves. You see that strategy unfolding every day in the bitter polarizing tactics they both employ.

The subtext seems to be that the House of Commons would be a better place if Liberal MPs—those proud centrists who are not so sullied by “polarization”—were more prevalent, but it’s not clear to me what this has to do with last week’s events. What would have happened differently if the Liberals were in official opposition? Would a Liberal House leader have not used the point of order Nathan Cullen tried? Would Peter Van Loan have been less likely to confront a Liberal House leader who did so? Would the Liberal leader have reacted differently than Thomas Mulcair did if Mr. Van Loan attacked his House leader?

There’s a fair amount to be said about what the Conservatives and New Democrats have in common: the ways in which they have grown as parties over the last decade, the mutual desire to see the Liberal party crushed, a certain unabashedness about the practice of politics. But I don’t think last week’s disagreement is obviously something to do with any of that. I don’t think it’s particularly symbolic of anything. It was a thing that happened. Just like other things have happened in other sessions.

The deep-seated conflict that lies at the heart of polarized politics truly appeals to only a small number of the most extreme partisans, on one side and the other, who relish the constant fight. People like Van Loan, Cullen, Mulcair and Harper — it turns them on.

Suddenly this is a Cosmo sex advice column. I’ve no idea what turns these gentlemen on—and would rather remain so ignorant—but I’m not sure it helps to Mr. Goodale’s case to include this guy in that group. Also: are there really no Liberals who share the same zeal for political conflict?

But it also turns off large numbers of Canadians generally. They don’t hold extreme views. Perpetual campaigning is not their thing. They don’t like polarization or the hatred it breeds. So they just drop out of the political process altogether. They are the ones who stay home on election day. 

But here’s the good news! Canada is far too complex a country — too subtle and nuanced, too fundamentally decent, too full of hope and ambition — to be content for very long with the polarizing wedge politics of division, greed, fear and envy. People will look for something better. The greater Canadian instinct is to want to pull together to achieve goals that are bigger and more worthy. The future will belong to those who blaze that trail.

Aside from the obvious implication—The future belongs to the Liberal party! If it can just hang on long enough for everyone to come around!—Mr. Goodale has something of a point here. There are a lot of people—especially young people—who don’t vote. There would seem to be a lot of people who don’t believe the political process is relevant. There are about 10 million registered voters who didn’t vote in the last election. That’s a tantalizingly large block of potential voters—if you could just figure out how to motivate them.

But if the political process in this country needs to be fixed, if it needs to be made more relevant, the fight of significance last week occurred on Tuesday night, not Wednesday afternoon. If there is a conflict over and within the soul of our politics, that’s where it is. Not in political polarization or Peter Van Loan and Thomas Mulcair exchanging bad words or in the permanent campaign (the latter of which is probably not going away, no matter how noble the politician or the political party in government strives to be).

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