What I love most about Ottawa is the way everyone keeps their eye on the ball.
Here’s Lisa Raitt, the natural resources minister, chatting with her press secretary about problems at the Chalk River plant, which looks like the bargain-basement plywood set of Lost In Space and manages to produce most of the world’s medical isotopes. When it’s working right. Which lately it hasn’t been.
Raitt’s conversation with her assistant was recorded, apparently by accident. The recording went astray and wound up in a reporter’s hands. (We’re everywhere.) After many months of waiting for the mislaid recorder’s owner to claim it, the reporter, Stephen Maher, wrote about its contents. Raitt’s press secretary, currently between jobs, went to court to stop the reporter writing about the recording. She lost. The story came out. A few days’ distraction.
But here’s the thing. In the recorded chat, Raitt is strikingly preoccupied with how the trouble at Chalk River will be perceived, instead of with what it is. Why wouldn’t her colleague Leona Aglukkaq, the health minister, chip in a quote for a press release? “I think her staff is trying to shield her.” Why? “They’re terrified of the issues.” But then she thinks about all this for a moment. “You know what? Good. Because when we win on this, I get all the credit.”
There’s no point getting on too much of a high horse about all this. Everybody likes to get credit, and in politics when you enhance your reputation by doing good it puts you in a position to do more good. But that conversation was recorded in January. And since it is now five months since Raitt was so eager to be thanked, it would be cheering if she had done more in that time that deserved thanks. No such luck: Chalk River was shut down after she made these comments, it remains shut down, and there is no reason for optimism about its chances of starting back up any time soon.
Raitt’s best consolation is that she will not be made to feel uncomfortable about the recording for long. The Liberal opposition shares the government’s reluctance to apply itself to any single subject for any length of time. We get a scandal a week in Ottawa. Each time there is a moment’s thrill as everyone wonders whether this will be the pretext for another election, which if it came now would be the fourth in just over five years. Then everyone moves on to the next little moment, the next distraction, the next chance to get all the credit. Very soon Raitt will be last month’s villain.
This is how it goes lately in Ottawa. We are now five years into a string of successive minority governments that began when Paul Martin nearly lost the 2004 election. There is no reason to expect the winner of the next election to have a majority either. It could be Stephen Harper, it could be Michael Ignatieff, but neither will command a majority in the House. So the distinguishing feature of post-Chrétien Canadian politics—its precariousness—will continue.
Which means just about every parliamentarian will continue to spend part of the day thinking the way Lisa Raitt did on that tape. Will your staff shield you on the issues? Or will you roll the dice and hope for all the credit? It’s all about jockeying for position, because in a state of constant combat readiness, position is all you have. In government you can’t plan, because in six months you might no longer be the minister. In opposition you can’t say what you would do differently, because even if you know, you need to keep it under wraps until the campaign that’s eternally around the corner.
Note that this eternal short-term memory syndrome isn’t the certain fate of any minority Parliament. Just this one. Stable minorities have often formed, in various provinces or in Ottawa’s past, when a governing party could reach out to one or two other parties. But Stephen Harper doesn’t trust anyone enough. He keeps power and authority too close to him to build stable relationships with any of his opponents. In fact, he keeps his own ministers out of the loop on any serious issue. Bureaucrats in the ministries talk about getting “the full Langevin,” when the Prime Minister’s staff in the Langevin Block, across the street from the House of Commons, take over a hot file and push a minister’s department out of the way.
The Liberals, for their part, are trapped in an endless loop of shock and indignation. Every week they are amazed at what the government just did. So amazed they drop whatever they were talking about last week and spend a few days demanding the resignation of insert-name-here. I think this has a lot to do with the constant turnover in the Liberal leader’s office, from Martin to Bill Graham to Stéphane Dion to Ignatieff. The Liberals have fallen into stale habits because nobody has been around long enough to remember that there was ever another way to operate.
Meanwhile the world moves on. The global economy is reshaping. Our largest neighbour has a new government whose relationships with other governments are getting hard-wired while Ottawa’s attention is turned inward. There are problems that don’t go away simply because somebody gets credit for taking questions about them. When everyone’s trapped in gamesmanship, nobody wins.