Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Stephen Harper’s temperament as an election issue

If there is going to be another national election in Canada this spring, the precipitating issue will be personal: a majority of members of parliament will think they can sell the argument to voters that Stephen Harper is an intolerable menace to Canada’s democracy.
Slipping back as a leading democracy is an alarming idea and should excite attention. This is a practical and, to some extent, a measurable issue. A real brute would quickly divide the country and, as a threat to national unity, would have to be removed.
Not to spoil the fun, however, but as a charge by one set of politicians against another, it should pass a pretty high threshold. The Speaker of the House of Commons and the courts are available to find Harper guilty of unlawfully undemocratic behavior. The opposition must do better than suggest they’d be better and nicer in the job. Surely, they must convince a working majority of voters that Harper’s government is undermining the checks and balances in our democratic system and demoralizing the democratic temperament of the country.
Historically, the charge seems far-fetched. Harper holds the Canadian record as the longest-serving minority prime minister. In other words, he has held power as a relatively weak leader longer than anyone else. He may look like a wax bully, but he’s survived by working within the humbling limits of his mandate.
His lousy batting average as a legislator was grimly documented by Ned Franks, a retired professor of political studies at Queens University:
“Mr. Franks’ research, which spans from 1945 to 2008, found that Mr. Harper’s first government, from 2006 to 2008, had a “batting average” of just 52.6% — the worst record of any prime minister, save for Joe Clark, whose tenure lasted less than a year.”
Has Harper’s style made intergovernmental relations worse? Has he shown no ability to negotiate with other leaders? His record seems a net positive so far. He secured an agreement to extend Canada’s participation in an unpopular foreign war, is in active border negotiations with President Obama, and secured a joint Canada-Ontario-US initiative to save General Motors and Chrysler. His reform of the equalization formula infuriated the premier of Newfoundland & Labrador Danny Williams. However, for the first time since the conscription crisis on World War Two, national unity today is not an active political issue in Quebec or in the West.
We’re told that Harper is a cold SOB of a boss. And Liberals reminisce with unaffected emotion about how they liked to work with “civilized” Conservatives when they were in opposition. Then they were idealists; then they spoke their own minds; and, of course, then they had crazy ideas about dinosaurs and men roaming the prairies.
The appeal of a brainy politician in opposition is easier to take than that of one in office—especially one without the safety net of a parliamentary majority. However, our most successful modern prime ministers—Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien—were tough administrators and Liberal icons.
Temperament isn’t irrelevant, but competence allows us to make amends.
Trudeau secured a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Chretien held the country together through another Quebec referendum. Harper, thus far at least, has led other leaders in trying to democratize the Canadian Senate, involving the House of Commons in the deployment of Canadian forces abroad, and securing greater transparency in the appointment of the Governor General and members of the Supreme Court.

Harper may want to take Canada to a place millions would rather not go. But, democracy itself is evidently not at stake.

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