Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Comparing Washington and Ottawa is illuminating

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Polls conducted before the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 4 indicated that over 60 per cent of Canadians -- and even larger majorities in most other countries polled -- would have voted for Barack Obama if they'd had the opportunity.

It's a safe bet that most Canadians have been further impressed by the calibre of the Obama administration being assembled over the last month: It has included significant bipartisan and non-partisan elements, while being more broadly representative in terms of gender and ethnicity than any previous administration.

It has not, however, been merely representative of American diversity; it has also been representative of American excellence -- including people with outstanding combinations of talent and experience.

None of this means there will not eventually be failures and disappointments among them -- that is virtually assured in human institutions. Yet, here, in the early stages of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama is assembling a team of the "best and the brightest" -- to invoke a phrase from another era -- that can inspire confidence so far as any change of government can ever do so. Not surprisingly, many Canadians currently feel a keen sense of Obama-envy.

By contrast, our most recent election, held on the cusp of the economic crisis, essentially reflected a hung jury. No party won a majority, and although the Conservatives gained relatively more in seats than they did in votes, over 62 per cent of the voters (in a record low turnout) voted for other parties. In a real sense, the election was a referendum not merely on parties and platforms but on leadership; and with the exception of Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, who confounded the pundits' predictions, all fell short of what the country might expect and certainly short of what it required.

Jack Layton's repeated -- and fatuous -- assertion that he was "running for prime minister" suggested his belief that he would succeed beyond anything achieved by his predecessors; he did not (nor did men in white coats hurry on screen to carry him off, as one expected on each viewing of his TV ads). Stephen Harper, who was opportunistic in calling the election and actually gained in the early polls, succumbed to his class-war demons over funding for culture and an insensitivity to voters' growing anxiety over the economy, about which his only memorable comment consisted of advice about the bargains to be had on the stock market. Hapless, stubborn Stéphane Dion, despite his intelligence, failed completely, both as strategist and communicator, leading inevitably to defeat and, for the foreseeable future, the discrediting of his policies.

Since then the body politic has been subjected to a severe pummelling, beginning with Harper's gratuitous attempt to humiliate, indeed destroy, his opponents through the expedient of a "cost-cutting" measure included in an economic update. In so doing, he has created the most poisonous parliamentary environment we have seen since the days of Diefenbaker and Pearson in the 1960s; in consequence of uniting the opposition against him he chose -- to escape a vote of non-confidence -- the unprecedented step of closing Parliament down completely, the kind of thing we might expect in Zimbabwe; and in doing this, he may have compromised the office of the Governor General, one of the very few institutional checks in our system against arbitrary government.

The damage Harper has done to his government and to Parliament is no less serious for being self-inflicted, but fighting his way back was made infinitely easier by Dion's ineptitude. Whatever one thinks of Dion's improbable coalition, only the prospect of its formation focused the government on its blunder. But Dion proved utterly incapable of sustaining the attack and demonstrating either the viability or the legitimacy of what he was proposing. For that, he has paid the ultimate price in politics: He has been unceremoniously deposed by his caucus and replaced by Michael Ignatieff.

This is a potentially hopeful development, but it's unlikely to be sufficient until a critical mass of Conservatives also come to realize that their leader continues, infallible and unrepentant, to poison the wells of our politics. Harper's overture to Ignatieff to consult on the government's forthcoming budget would normally represent the sensible way to proceed. Indeed, with talk of coalitions is in the air, the logic of Harper's overture could apply equally well to the formation of some "grand coalition" of Conservatives and Liberals during a national crisis.

However, neither that notion, nor Harper's more modest proposal, is likely to have much traction so long as Harper remains Conservative leader.

Though polls suggest great volatility in public opinion at the moment, one suspects that the great majority of Canadians would welcome a moratorium on the excesses of partisan warfare and, equally, would welcome signs that MPs were de-escalating the rhetoric and focusing on the urgent issues at hand. It's the absence of those signs which underscores the difference between what is happening in Ottawa and what is happening in Washington.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2008 A15

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