At least the Canada Post filibuster was exciting for the kids

Paul Wells on how the fate of first class letter delivery was binding up the House

At least it was exciting for the kids

Sean Kilpatrick/CPSean Kilpatrick/CP

It didn’t take long for this new Parliament’s odd character to assert itself. The NDP launched a filibuster to stall back-to-work legislation aimed at Canada Post employees. One NDP MP after another got up to hurl thunderbolts at the government and chew up time. Under Hansard’s rules, the clock accompanying the House of Commons’s workday stopped. The fourth Thursday in June lasted until Saturday night. The Prime Minister played host at a late-night hospitality suite for his MPs. The little dog laughed to see such sport, and the dish ran away with the spoon.

Let’s unpack all of this and see what we can learn from it. As soon as Jack Layton dropped his stalling tactics the NDP lost, which means postal-union employees lost too. Stephen Harper’s government legislated a smaller pay increase than Canada Post had proposed in its final offer. Jean Chrétien took his pound of flesh in precisely the same way when he legislated posties back to work, at a discount, in 1997.

So the NDP learned it’s unable to shout back the tide. In a way this reinforces Ottawa’s latest conventional wisdom. Layton, it is fashionable to say, has less influence with 103 MPs against a majority government than he used to have with 37. He can’t force an election. He can’t block legislation. What good is he?

Plenty good, to his supporters. The supposed power he wielded from 2004 to 2011 was mostly a headache. Forcing an election meant returning, each time, to a Parliament with more Conservatives. Deciding not to force an election meant backing down. The Liberals usually helped Layton by backing down before he had to, but every once in a while he had to swallow himself whole.

Now he can do what opposition leaders are best at: he can oppose. Loudly, grandly, painlessly. Or he can choose not to oppose—to play the statesman. In fact the NDP has already done both. They voted to support a bill streamlining big trials with lots of criminal suspects, after a Quebec biker-gang trial dragged on so long the judge threw the case out. And then, when the mail strike came, they dug their heels in.

How smart was that? Conservatives were delighted because Layton’s play made his NDP look old-fashioned, a shill for organized labour. That’s no way to broaden the party’s appeal. But as Stephen Harper knows well, broadening your appeal isn’t always the smart thing to do. Big tents collapse if there’s nothing persuasive to hold them up, a fate that befell Joe Clark, Kim Campbell and Paul Martin in turn. Layton’s voters include a lot of people who believe in the right to strike. Now they know he still does, too. He can pick a big-tent issue some other time.

Meanwhile, his very young NDP caucus has enjoyed a few days’ adventure. Dozens of them got a chance to speak at length in the Commons, in the dead of night, on a not very important issue. They will have more confidence next time.

The rest of us are reminded that Parliament has functions beyond rolling the dice on an election call. This used to be obvious. Through most of the 1990s, you never knew when Preston Manning would show up with a speech he’d written himself and a stack of law books to hold it up to where he could read it, for an hour or more at a time, until everyone in Canada who cared could know precisely what he thought of something. The endless gamesmanship of seven years of minority governments made leaders of every party reluctant to explain themselves in that kind of detail. Our democracy was poorer for it. Maybe we can coax some of the old spirit back now.

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. While the fate of first-class letter delivery was binding up the House of Commons, the world was moving on.

The Blockbuster video shop on Rideau St., a few blocks from the Centre Block, is closing down, and 165 more across the country with it. HMV is putting its Canadian CD stores up for sale. Most of them will surely close before long. Both companies have been devastated by electronic delivery of goods—music and cinema—you used to need to buy in concrete form. The same trend makes mail delivery matter less every year. Here at Maclean’s we still mail the magazine to most of you, and the Canada Post strike was a huge pain to us. If it’s another 14 years until the next strike, we’ll work out a Plan B in the meantime.

This simple notion—the world changes, it’s not like it used to be—does not come naturally to either of the main parties in the new Parliament. Layton’s NDP and Harper’s Conservatives are preoccupied with arguing about the allocation of wealth and advantage, not its creation. They are wage-earners’ parties with competing ideas about what wage-earners want. But it’s not fat-cat bosses or ivory-tower elites that are shutting HMV and Blockbuster down. It’s new ideas and technologies. This week an Industry Canada panel released a report saying Canada is mediocre, and getting worse, at producing those ideas and technologies. The feisty new Parliament, having shown off its ability to fight yesterday’s fights, was no longer around to discuss the report. Maybe this autumn. Maybe.