Will the real Stephen Harper please stand up?

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This article was published 4/12/2008 (4793 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Will the real Stephen Harper please stand up?

For a week, the prime minister has been a petulant politician who, despite having a minority mandate, had no respect for the other parties in the House of Commons. As a result, the government was nearly overthrown by the Coalition of the All Too Willing.

And then, Thursday, we saw the return of the fellow who filled out the sweater vest.

Moments after obtaining permission from the Governor General to prorogue Parliament, Harper addressed reporters outside Rideau Hall with a gentle, thoughtful and conciliatory tone. Gone were the angry, rhetorical attacks; the sweater-vest guy was back to engage in a dialogue to help cushion Canada from an impending recession.

"The government is more than willing to open that kind of dialogue with the other parties," Harper said. "I want to hear their specific suggestions... Regardless of the machinations of Parliament, Canadians expect us to get on with it." After what we've seen over the past week, a change of attitude like that is likely to trigger a national epidemic of whiplash. It is a profound change and it couldn't have come at a better time.

Although the opposition coalition had every right to try to unseat the Conservative minority, that alliance was beginning to look a little shaky. In large part, this was due to the preposterously bad performance of Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion as the coalition's would-be prime minister. Even his own party seemed to have trouble imagining the vanquished academic as PM.

Harper's change of heart is also good for the country. Not only does it eliminate the uncertainty of a coalition, but it signals that maybe the prime minister wants to make Parliament work. Of course, you have to suspend a good portion of your disbelief to accept Harper's conciliatory tone at face value. His economic statement one week ago was a punitive and cynical attempt to punish opposition parties and federal civil servants.

Outside Rideau Hall, Harper sounded like a man who had exorcised that demon and he used two examples to prove he was a conciliator, not a warrior. Harper noted that in response to opposition concerns, he agreed to bring in a budget in late January, much earlier than normal. Harper also celebrated the fact he has already agreed to drop several objectionable elements of his economic strategy that precipitated the threat of a coalition government.

Harper neglected to mention these were death-bed recantations. He only moved up the budget and dropped the policies after the opposition threatened to defeat his government.

These facts do not, however, dismiss the potential benefits of a time-out.

Let's be clear. It would have been better if Harper did not prorogue Parliament; it is an excessive and desperate solution. Just as it is better to avoid a coalition, Canadians would rather vote for their governments. But we are well beyond best-case scenarios.

As it stands now, Harper's invitation to work together allows all sides in the political crisis to claim some victory.

Harper and the Conservatives live to fight another day. More importantly, Harper has been given an opportunity to do what he was unable to do last week: Govern in true minority fashion, listen to the opposition and chart a course based on pragmatism and not ideology. A measured, methodical approach would extinguish any plans for a coalition government and set the stage for Harper to regain his position in public opinion as the best leader to handle economic challenges.

For members of the coalition, there is the comfort of knowing they stood up to the Conservatives and got them to back down. There is some hope now that opposition policies will be featured in the January budget; to ignore the opposition a second time would reignite the campaign for a coalition.

A doomsday scenario still lurks in the shadows. Namely, that Harper is not sincere about working with the opposition and delivers a budget in January he knows will be defeated. In this scenario, the prorogation is not an opportunity to consult with the opposition, but a cynical stalling technique that helps Harper justify a new election in 2009.

That would put Canadians back into a campaign at a time where the economy is most certainly going to be worse off than it is today, without a budget, and with political parties embroiled in one of the most divisive battles ever seen in federal politics. The angry debate of the past week is threatening to break the country apart and plunge us into a profound political uncertainty.

We should all hope that the man who once donned the sweater vest means what he says this time. We're running out of chances to do the right thing.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.