So much has changed.
The government of Canada stands for nothing. The Liberals have therefore agreed to support it. The new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, has issued a stern warning: if the government starts standing for something, the Liberals will cut it loose. This has won Ignatieff plaudits for his spine, and indeed his stance really is different from Stéphane Dion’s. The difference can be measured with certain sophisticated instruments.
Dion used to say the government was awful and he would vote against it. But he kept finding magical ways to vote against the government without slowing it down. Ignatieff is impatient with the government. Disappointed in it. He furrows his brows and it is like watching two elk huddle for warmth. He will vote with the government. For now. But one peep out of Stephen Harper and it’s straight to your room without any dinner, young man.
The upshot: Harper was able to implement his 2007 budget without difficulty. As for his 2008 budget, that one passed without difficulty. But his 2009 budget! Ah-ha! Well, he’ll be able to implement that one without difficulty too. But Ignatieff will make him feel bad about it. This is the difference leadership makes.
It is true that the new budget is a risible claptrap that hoses money around randomly without any semblance of a plan for the future. You say that like it’s a bad thing. In fact it took the combined efforts of the three opposition parties, known as the Coalition, to produce this result. Two of the Coalition partners, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, are therefore voting against the budget. Before voting for this Coalition budget, Ignatieff first had to abandon the Coalition. When foreign diplomats stationed in Ottawa sit down to write reports about Canadian politics for their political masters back home, they first rock back and forth for a few minutes, weeping silently.
The premier of Newfoundland and Labrador is upset about the budget. The premier of Quebec is upset about the budget. “The situations are not the same,” Ignatieff told reporters about the two situations, which are the same. Ignatieff is treating them differently. His Newfoundland MPs can vote against the budget but not his Quebec MPs. Nobody likes it when federalism becomes a straitjacket.
Every now and then, Dion’s MPs would threaten to vote against his edicts, but they never did stray. This won him a reputation as a weak leader. Ignatieff is letting his MPs vote against him, i.e. with the Coalition, i.e. against the budget. This is winning him a reputation as a wise and flexible leader. The situations are not the same.
The capital is in a tizzy because Barack Obama is coming to visit. The new U.S. President can’t get congressional Republicans to support his economic stimulus. (This is because the congressional Republicans aren’t led by Ignatieff, although for a while there anything was possible.) Obama can’t get the congressional Democrats to drop their protectionism. His cabinet appointees keep running into problems with the taxman. Of all the world leaders who are ignored by their own party, snubbed by their opponents and unable to build a cabinet, Obama is surely the most powerful.
We cannot yet confirm whether Obama will have a private audience with Ian Brodie when he arrives in Ottawa. Brodie, you’ll recall, was Harper’s chief of staff last year. He got in some trouble when he assured reporters that Obama’s protectionist rhetoric on the primary campaign trail was meaningless. People were upset because Brodie’s remarks seemed to be politically motivated. They should have been upset because his remarks were wrong.
Eventually Brodie left the goverment. There was just no room at the top for a guy whose predictions were so wildly off base, or at least not if Jim Flaherty was going to be sticking around. Brodie eventually fetched up at Hill and Knowlton, in a much nicer office than he used to occupy as a university professor. Among Brodie’s qualifications for the Hill & Knowlton gig: he helped pass the Accountability Act, which promised to end the days when political staffers could land cushy jobs because of their influence and access. There is suddenly a team of lawyers hovering over my shoulder, so I need to emphasize here that nothing Brodie did contravenes the Accountability Act in any way. This tells us a few things about the Accountability Act. For instance, it tells us why my other name for the Accountability Act is “The Fixed Election-Date Act.”
So much has been fixed. Election dates have been fixed, so elections now appear at random intervals. Taxation of income trusts has been fixed. Twice. Health care wait times are now guaranteed: if you want health care I can guarantee you will wait. We have fixed the Senate. It looks just as spritely and youthful as ever. Canada’s role in Afghanistan? Fixed. Our deployment will end unless it doesn’t. Two years ago Flaherty declared the era of federal-provincial bickering was over, and his word has proved to be precisely as reliable as it ever was.
So now we face the future, secure in the knowledge that nobody has a plan and you can’t take laws or words at their face value. It’s kind of refreshing. Like jazz. Because that’s who you want running the country when it’s plummeting into recession while it struggles through its bloodiest shooting war since Korea: a jazz band. I hear the Prime Minister is quite a pianist.