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)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Thomas Mulcair’s Language Problem


Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair is a classic parliamentarian. He’s not out on the road pitching for the leadership of the Liberal Party or, like Stephen Harper, half-listening for trouble and half-thinking about a fascinating file on his desk. He’s a "House of Commons man"and that, if he doesn’t give himself a good shake, is going to be his political epitaph.

Numerate pundits who look in both directions note that the Harper Government has reached that tricky midpoint. Harper is now almost exactly as far away from his last appeal for re-election as, necessarily, his next. This is a time when people with power are most tempted to relax, to feel at home in Ottawa and in offices full of clever, civil, and tenured professionals.

The dangers for Harper are being thoroughly spelled out.

This, however, is also a dangerous midpoint for the House of Commons, a time when it also gets a little highwhen its sense proportion, its language, and its obsessions make sense to its members, social network followers, and ravenous journalistsand less and less to us.

The danger of going a little crazy about not being in the team going a little crazy with power, of course, is concentrated in the Official Opposition, with Thomas Mulcair and the very people who treat Parliament as their primary job.

Mulcair’s language problems in Washington recently are symptomatic.

Critics in Ottawa easily refer to the Harper Government with terms like “gutting” environmental laws, “politicizing” regulatory processes, and “ignoring” the provinces and First Nationsand as easily they promise to “restore” democracy, transparency, heart, and “evidence-based” decision-making to Canada.

If you were visiting from Milwaukee and hadn’t been briefed on Canada’s constitutional safeguards and temperate traditions, you’d think that Venezuelanot Canadawas the reliable ally with dirty oil.

Within Ottawa and on political networks, there’s a "truthiness" to extravagant opposition insults that slips into the vocabulary of normal, intelligent people. It doesn’t destroy their careersit just doesn’t play that well out of town.

Mulcair’s simply performed as a “House of Commons man” when telling Washington audiences that Canada’s government was “making a fool of Canadians" and was “gutting” environmental laws. He was being himself in a friendly city.

Setting aside the unvarnished untimeliness of arming one side of a pending decision that could restrict Canada’s competence to make its own decisionsto meet obligations that Americans insist on meeting on their own termshe used language that will soon limit his reach within Canada.

Mulcair and fellow Parliamentarians have at least 2 years to start talking credibly to the rest of us.

Harper’s government isn’t really that radical. His opponents don’t have to invent a new vocabulary. There are plenty of quieter accusations that worked in the past: "secretive," "out of touch," "centrist," "tired," "academic," and "divisive," for instance. Try promising to “do better” and “renew” interest in the future.

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