Friday, December 05, 2008

Run, yes. Hide, no.

We in Canada have tolerated a long run of prime ministers and party leaders corrupted by power and believing themselves accountable to no one. Stephen Harper's declaration that he is not accountable to an elected parliament, that it must defer to him rather than the reverse, is contemptible. But it is not beyond the range of experience. The authoritarian impulse runs deep in the Reform movement and its heirs, but it's not hard to imagine other prime ministers, from other parties, attempting the same demeaning stunts and hollow rationalizations.

But the prime minister can only delay accountability, not avoid it. The glory of parliamentary democracy -- when it works -- is its speed and flexibility, and it is sad to see that efficiency lost. We should not have to wait for ten weeks to see accountability imposed on power.

But Mr Harper's stay of execution is only ten weeks. A week is a long time in politics, but not much in the life of a nation or a parliament. The coalition need only hold together in order to dispose of Stephen Harper's zombie government. If the coalition can't hold together, it wasn't going to succeed anyway.

Who, beyond the obvious candidates, is performing well and who badly here?

Doing Badly: Michael Ignatieff has done little to spark confidence in his leadership potential. Ignatieff, one suspects, is another of the natural autocrats who only enter politics in order to be the boss and have no real patience or understanding for parliamentary process. His seeming ambivalence about party and caucus may not hurt him in the vote-buying contest he is currently engaged in, but it does nothing for his reputation. Bob Rae may not be doing his leadership campaign much good, but his stature rises every time he speaks on the parliamentary situation.

Doing Badly: The Globe and Mail. What shallow, ill-informed, weakly-principled commentary the Globe's editorialists have delivered. And their commentators too, by and large. You would think the nation's leading paper could do better, could find better thinkers and better writers. The only kudos go to the headline writer who came up with "Harper plays the patriot game" -- a better piece of analysis than anything the Globe's writers have come up with. (CBC has not covered itself with glory, either, but the desperate need of the public broadcaster to seem non-partisan is probably telling there.) This situation, perhaps, is difficult for the inside players, fixers, and connoisseurs of power -- see Warren Kinsella reduced almost to silence!

Doing Well: the parliamentary caucuses. Oddly, it seems this coalition could never have come into being if the Liberals had a strong unaccountable leader in the usual fashion. Accountable governments flow from accountable leaders, and when M. Dion has to work with the strong minds in his caucus, a lively consensus replaces nasty politick calculation.

Doing Well: Michaelle Jean, I think. In ideal circumstances, the governor general's right to exercise her one power might have come into play here. The best way for the governor general to be the servant of parliament is for her to ask that her advisor always be ready to demonstrate that he and no one else has parliament's sanction in advising her. But the standing of governors general is always slight and their vulnerabilities great. Oddly enough, invoking her one power -- to ask that parliament decide -- might well have drawn the office into greater trouble than a mere ten weeks of unaccountable government. Her diffidence becomes her.
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