Fools on the Hill

Parliament's silly season is coming to an end

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The Gazette, Sunday, June 14, 2009

There is a seasonal aspect to the current silliness in Ottawa, the unruliness of the unsupervised schoolyard at the end of term. It happens every year around the middle of June, when the House rises for the summer, as it will on Friday for three months.

School's out, see you in September, or maybe not if the government is defeated on a supply motion on Friday. That's the part of the silly season that goes with a minority House. It's not seasonal, it's structural, and there's way too much testosterone involved.

Which isn't to say the government couldn't fall if Michael Ignatieff decides to vote against the government's supply motion, a question of money and thus of confidence, which the Bloc and NDP have already said they will oppose. These two parties really, really, don't want an election, but they do want to put the new Liberal leader's feet to the fire.

Iggy doesn't want an election, either. He knows the voters don't want a summer election and will look askance on anyone who interrupts their time in cottage country. Moreover, the Libs aren't ready yet. He's well aware that his job is to unite the party, fill the coffers and win the election. He has succeeded in the first part and is coming along in the second phase (his recent Montreal fundraiser brought in half a million dollars).

But he is nowhere near to being organized - and he is fond of the famous quotation of Sir Wilfrid Laurier: "It is not enough to have principles, we must also have organization." Iggy talks about a "308 strategy"- making a serious effort in every riding in the country. But as of last week, the Liberals had nominated candidates in only 10 of Quebec's 75 ridings. That's a long way from being ready in a province where hopes for a Liberal restoration are riding high.

When Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe decided to call Iggy's bluff on this last Thursday, they put a bullet in the chamber. It's up to Ignatieff either to fire it or put the gun down and walk away.

Discretion would be the better part of valour. But train wrecks have a way of happening in minority Parliaments. You can look that up under 139-133, the number called out by the speaker on the day Joe Clark's minority Conservative government fell in December 1979.

Then there's the matter of 16 Bloc members whose $28,000 pensions don't vest until June 28 of next year, six years after the 2004 election. How anxious will they be to show up for a vote at a time when the Bloc is polling 10 to 15 points below the 49 per cent it obtained in that election?

The seasonal aspect of end-of-term silliness is shown in the uproar over Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt, and her stage whispers about the "sexy" issue of the isotope shortage resulting from shutdown of the reactor at Chalk River. Indeed, a great career opportunity. Not the most felicitous choice of words.

Then again, it was part of a private conversation, inadvertently taped by her former communications director, Jasmine MacDonnell, who left the tape behind in the women's washroom, not to be confused with the minister's briefing book she left behind at CTV. This girl is way too young to be having memory lapses.

But is this what nowadays passes for serious journalism in Ottawa, publishing tapes of private conversations, accidentially taped and thoughtlessly left behind? Voyeurism is more like it.

As for Raitt, she left her apology for her choice of words one day too late. The basic rule of damage control is take the hit and move on. If she had apologized on Tuesday, rather than Wednesday, that would have taken it off the floor of the House, and saved us all the self-righteous indignation when Parliament is on its worst behaviour. But please, spare us the apples and oranges logic that Raitt's comments betrayed an insensitivity to the plight of cancer patients. Both the opposition and the press gallery are equally to blame for that bit of hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, there are serious issues of public policy to be considered, including the availability of isotopes. If the government knew the problem was looming, and there was a trail of e-mails to prove it, that would be grounds for Raitt's resignation.

Other issues that have been ignored in the current seasonal silliness include the nationalization of the auto industry by Washington and Ottawa, the plight of the forestry industry, and the Buy American procurement provisions of local governments as part of Barack Obama's recovery package.

This is serious stuff. But Ottawa isn't now a serious place. It's a daycare. The Prime Minister's Office - obsessed with tactics, wedge issues and attack ads - bears a large part of the responsibility. So does the opposition, who prefer drive-by shootings to raising important issues of public policy. And so does the press gallery, which is very close to veering out of control.

The whole town is in need of adult supervision. But first, it needs to shut down for the summer.

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