The political crisis in Ottawa is silly, mendacious, of dubious motivation and, at the same time, quite magnificent.

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This article was published 3/12/2008 (4746 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


The political crisis in Ottawa is silly, mendacious, of dubious motivation and, at the same time, quite magnificent.

Depending on your political stripe you can criticize either Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Stéphane Dion and the Liberals or the power-grasping NDP and Bloc Québécois for causing the crisis and in truth each can take a share in the blame.

Harper demonstrated his politically tin ear once again with his government's ill-conceived and unnecessarily partisan economic statement. The opposition parties say the lack of an immediate financial stimulus is why they are banding together to bring down the government, but what started their upset was Harper's intent to cut government funding for political parties. Government funding is far more important to the opposition parties than to the Tories: one partisan act created another.

Whatever started the revolt and however cynical it was, the crisis has long since moved on. It is a galvanizing occasion. There has been some suggestion, not least by the prime minister himself, that the attempt to remove the government by other means than an election amounts to little more than a coup d'état.

No. It doesn't. Nevertheless, the country is faced with the very unappealing prospect of being led by an unsavoury coalition headed by Dion, the very man it rejected more resoundingly than any Liberal leader in living memory. In fact, the snippy, disdainful Dion is exactly the wrong kind of man to have the strength and negotiation skills a coalition demands.

Yet, for all that, the crisis underlines the strengths of Canada's version of parliamentary democracy. Power grab it may be, but having an opposition that can do more than oppose and can, in certain circumstances, bring a government down, is what our parliamentary system is all about.

Once we cast our vote in an election, we elect representatives to act for us. They are not there just to oppose. They are also there to replace if necessary. We can argue until we are blue in the face whether this was an occasion to do that, but if response to the biggest world financial crisis in almost a century is not such an occasion then what is?

The opposition to the economic statement didn't start out about the economy. So what? Political fights rarely begin in the rarefied echelons of great debate, but they do develop that way. Harper produced a narrow-minded economic statement and, predictably, got a narrow-minded response, but it was the broader issues that kept the opposition going and led to an unprecedented attempt to bring the government down.

What is magnificent about the crisis in Ottawa is not just that parliamentary democracy is using exactly the checks and balances it should use to challenge government action; it is that the political crisis reflects and is a response to developments in the real world. If this was just about who pays for political parties, it would have fizzled out long ago.

It's about whether the Conservatives under Harper are up for the job, and yes, that is what elections are about, but another election would be more destabilizing right now than replacement of the government by parliamentary means.

The economic crisis appears contained but not overcome. Its effects are only just being felt. The United States is in recession. Canada is about to follow. The world's banks and financial institutions are effectively in the hands of governments.

Harper now promises a response in January to the real world crisis. The problem is that the economic statement suggested that neither he nor his government have yet understood how bad the crisis is. The opposition and, I believe, the public, were expecting more than government belt-tightening, and partisan measures. They were expecting strong leadership and a firm direction. Harper may still provide that, but the lack of it in the economic statement and his failure for much of the election to understand the depth of the international financial crisis, have left doubts.

The stakes in Parliament reflect the stakes in the world as a whole. Our future is at risk. Most economists believe that countries must stimulate their economies to prevent the world from slipping into recession. There are alternative views and the scale of the stimulus and what forms it should take are open for debate. It is still not clear what Harper believes or what he will do. Time is passing by.

Unfortunately, the Liberals have precipitated a crisis without solving their own. Dion won the leadership by default and may now become prime minister in much the same way. That is an enormous worry and would be a sad end to a great parliamentary challenge. But for that to happen would be a comment on Harper's abilities, too.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.