This session of Parliament has passed its expiry date

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The Gazette, Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Parliament will probably rise for the summer tomorrow, and not a moment too soon. There's never a prorogation around when you need one.

The three-month spring sitting of the House has been nasty and brutish, but not short enough.

Ottawa has always been disconnected from the reality of the country; there's a fevered pitch about the place and a symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media that connects them in a quest for scandal rather than shedding light on important questions of public policy.

But seldom have the parliamentary antics of Ottawa been so irrelevant to the concerns of the country as in the current session, which is why the Conservative government's poll numbers are stuck in the low-to mid-30s, while the Liberals are mired in the mid-to high-20s. Only two parties have any prospect of forming a government out of this minority House, and neither one of them is getting any traction.

The Tories have themselves entirely to blame for two unforced errors -proroguing in January with only a one-word message, "recalibrating," to argue in favour of shutting down the House. They got killed in the daily news cycle for two months as a result.

Similarly, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced women's and children's health in the developing world as Canada's signature initiative at this month's G8, it was only a single paragraph in a major address to the Davos conference, without any communications plan to support it. The Conservatives were completely blindsided by the inevitable pushback on birth control and therapeutic abortions, although Michael Ignatieff overplayed his hand when the pro-life faction of his own caucus ensured the defeat, quite predictably, of a Liberal motion to ensure funding for abortion procedures outside Canada.

That was only one of many embarrassments to Ignatieff, including his inane suggestion that Michaelle Jean's term as governor-general be extended, which killed any chance of that happening.

A series of policy flips by the Liberal leader, from refugee determination reform to the Quebec health care head tax, have left Liberals cringing with embarrassment. Jean Chretien promoting the idea of a coalition with the New Democratic Party wasn't a great day at the opposition leader's office, either. But Iggy's summer bus tour will be one more opportunity, perhaps his last, for him to connect with voters before an election.

As for the temper of the House and its committees, it ranges from dysfunctional to toxic. Question period has become unenlightening and irrelevant. It once was required viewing in offices in Ottawa, but now few ask, "What happened in QP?"

It is a very fortunate country, blessed with peace and prosperity, where the compelling issues of the day are the minor melodrama of Rahim Jaffer and Helena Guergis or the cost of the fake lake media backdrop at the G20 summit in Toronto.

Mind you, the fake lake story illustrates the haplessness of the opposition and the incompetence of the Tories on communications. Does anyone care that the world's leaders are coming to Muskoka and Toronto to discuss economic recovery, exit plans from stimulus, reducing global deficits, and the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and Japan, which could soon be coming to America? These are issues which, if not properly coordinated, could lead to a double-dip recession, which would actually get the public's attention.

But as at the end of most sessions, there are a couple of redeeming moments, driven by the clock. Two important files moved yesterday because time was running down to the summer recess.

One is the Afghan detainee file, and the opposition having access to the paper trail in a way that ensures Parliament's rights without violating national security. Prodded by the Speaker's ruling, the Conservatives, Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois agreed to a process yesterday where designated members from each party could see documents authorized by a panel of jurists. For reasons known only to itself, the NDP balked, saying it wanted free access to all papers, and refusing to submit to security clearance. While short of all-party agreement, there's a strong consensus.

The second is the question of auditing Parliament's spending, not to be confused with MPs' expenses. Auditor-general Sheila Fraser will do a performance audit on the institution of Parliament and its $500-million budget, but not on MPs and their office expenses. A very neat Canadian compromise.

As Fraser said yesterday: "Nor will we comment on the performance of the House, its committees, or individual members. We are not going to mention individual cases."

Well, since you put it that way, Sheila, come on in.

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