Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Only Harper can reset the tune, and tone, of politics

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VANCOUVER -- A sure sign summer is drawing to a close is the rush of political commentators, myself included, speculating on what the fall session of Parliament might bring. Ignore "Back to School" ads; the real action is taking place on editorial pages, newscasts and blogs and news sites as commentators make up for the summer paucity of hard political news, at least hard Canadian news, with impassioned speculation.

Such speculation takes on greater urgency this time around because the last six to eight months in the nation's capital have been particularly distasteful. Seldom has so much partisan vitriol and fury been directed at matters of so little consequence for our long-term future. Fortunately Rome was not burning, but our political leaders were fiddling as hard as they could.

If there was ever a need to hit the reset button, surely it is now. The problem, however, is so much unfinished business remains.

The economic recovery is uncertain. Major pipeline projects, and thus in part the direction of Canadian energy policy, remain under regulatory review in Canada and the United States. Potentially transformative trade deals are in limbo. The Senate expense scandal will rumble on until the last taxi chit has been examined by auditors and the press. Canadian telecommunication firms continue their advertising battle with the federal government.

Given this unfinished business, is there really a new agenda that could be unveiled in this fall's throne speech? Perhaps. The government, having unintentionally unleashed a vociferous public debate on Senate reform and abolition, could advance a comprehensive reform agenda that goes well beyond changes to Senators' terms of office. For better or for worse, the reform cat is truly out of the bag, and the government might as well ride the waves of public discontent.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, to his credit, has opened debate on the legalization of marijuana. Maybe, then, there is an opportunity for parliamentary action on this front, even bipartisan action, and the Conservative government might be pleased to have Trudeau at the cutting edge.

More can, and must, be done to improve the educational opportunities and outcomes for aboriginal peoples. Despite the certainty any government initiative will be slammed by aboriginal organizations as being too late, too poorly financed, and too unilateral, the government should not be deterred.

What Canadians need more than anything, however, is an improvement in the tone of public life, in the civility we bring to difficult public policy challenges. And here, the only person who can change not only the tune but also the tone of national political life is the prime minister. After all, opposition leaders operate within the constraints of their job description, which is to oppose every twitch and turn of the government. The prime minister, however, has greater opportunity and, I would argue, greater responsibility to improve the tone of Canadian public life.

And here, I should stress, the leadership challenge lies with the prime minister himself and not with his office. The recent cabinet shuffle has done little to change the tone of political debate. Staff changes in the Prime Minister's Office, such as a new director of communications, will have no public purchase whatsoever for the 95 per cent of voters who know little and care less about the composition of his staff. It is the PM who must set and be seen to be setting the tone.

Stephen Harper has allowed and sometimes even encouraged his government to drift into the dispiriting swamp of hyper-partisanship and personal attacks, and now only he can hit the reset button. If the government approaches the return of Parliament this fall as the opening shot in the 2015 election campaign, if attack ads replace thoughtful discussion, Canadians will be justifiably angry. We deserve better as we head back to the school of life this fall.


Troy Media columnist Dr. Roger Gibbins is the former president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2013 A9

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