The political peril of sitting on a lead

Paul Martin could teach Michael Ignatieff a thing or two about public appetite for change

The political peril of sitting on a leadThe scuttlebutt in Ottawa—from senior Conservatives, retired civil servants, people-who-know-people—goes like this: it is fin de régime time for Stephen Harper. Discipline is out the window. Young staffers, who hoped they were coming into government to do something, are listless and demoralized.

The Prime Minister’s Office is obsessed with leaks on the inside and lousy coverage on the outside. This is significant because it represents a change of attitude at the centre. For long after he was elected in 2006, Harper really was a man on the move, too busy and determined to worry about critics. A friend of the Prime Minister’s bragged to me, in late 2006, that articles from the Globe and Mail weren’t even included in the PMO’s daily press clippings. Transcripts from talk radio were. Who cared what some snooty Bay Street rag was saying about the people’s government anyway?

Well, the Globe’s stock has finally risen in the Langevin Block. For most of this spring, a good chunk of time at meetings of ministerial staff has been taken up by complaints about the Globe and Mail’s coverage. Which would be a substantial waste of the government’s time, if the government was up to much.

Fortunately the Prime Minister and his associates have plenty of spare time to brood. This Parliament has little to show for the first 100 days of the session that began in January. A handfull of bills passed into law. Amendments to the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act. Amendments to the Indian Oil and Gas Act. Amendments to the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act. Recognition of Beechwood Cemetery as the National Cemetery of Canada. Solid work, if these were ordinary times. Since they aren’t, it isn’t.

So it’s reasonable to ask, as some members of Harper’s own government have been doing in private, when he’s going to pick his socks up and show his game face again. And it’s less and less surprising when people start speculating about whether he will even bother to stick around long enough to run for re-election.

The Liberals are giddy. Around Michael Ignatieff there is the feeling that Harper is slipping. Surely the new Liberal leader will be able to run a more competent campaign than Stéphane Dion did last year. So the Ignatieff crowd are acting as though all they need to do is avoid upsetting anyone, and power will be theirs. The term of art for Ignatieff’s behaviour—glad-handing, blandly ingratiating, deeply cautious on questions of substance—is “sitting on a lead.” It’s the defensive stance of the presumptive winner.

And I think it’s premature.

Political events have lately served up a few handy reminders of what it was like in this country in 1993 and 2006, the last two times Canadians decided to change the party stripe of their federal government. And what it’s like now isn’t what it was like then.

Brian Mulroney’s days of testimony before the Oliphant commission on Mulroney’s dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber were like some kind of freaky drug flashback to his years as prime minister. We put up with nine years of the guy, the unctuous tone, the wounded pride, the endless baroque explanations for absolutely everything. And he put it to the service of a succession of knock-down, drag-out national confrontations—over free trade, the GST, Meech Lake, Charlottetown—each profoundly more divisive than any national debate we’ve had in, say, the decade from 1999 to today.

We’re getting closer to being able to debate the merits of Mulroney’s policies, but that’s not where we were in 1993. In 1993 just about everyone in the country felt like they’d been beaten with sticks for months on end. Canadians were desperate for a change, and whether it was Bloc, Reform or Liberal, they didn’t much care who they changed to.

Flash forward to 2006. Same deal. The Liberals had celebrated a few years of good fiscal and constitutional news by falling on one another like rabid dogs. They mostly ignored you and me after 2002 because they were too busy playing dirty tricks against one another. Then a nasty scandal from the Chrétien years came to light. Then Paul Martin appointed a commission to pick at the details of that scandal for months on end, live on TV.

Again, we can have a jaunty debate today about the relative merits of Chrétien and Martin, the gravity of the sponsorship scandal, the level of vision and clarity Martin brought to the rest of his job, all of it. But again, my point isn’t about how we feel about these people today. It’s about how we felt in 2006, after four years of recrimination, infighting and escalating incoherence. Pretty eager to see the back of the Liberals, is how.

That’s not where the country is today. I’ve made no secret in these pages that for months now, I don’t think we’ve been seeing the best of Stephen Harper. But for more than 20 years now, Canadians voting in federal elections haven’t been in the habit of changing governments quietly, on balance, all things considered. No, it’s more brutal than that. We stick with incumbents—or we kick them out in a fit of revulsion. Harper hasn’t worn out his welcome to nearly the extent the Progressive Conservatives had in 1993, or the Liberals in 2006. Conservatives around Ottawa should buck up. Their guy’s not out of the game. Yet.

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