Harper falters in political vacuum

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Sun Media, Friday, January 29, 2010

Stephen Harper tends to get into trouble when he gets too fascinated by his own tactical brilliance.

For example, proroguing the House until after the Olympics was a clever move, which turned out to be too clever by half.

In the absence of a narrative to back it up, the storyline hasn’t been about the necessity of proroguing, an obscure word that requires spellcheck, but about Harper and his supposed meanness of spirit, to say nothing of his alleged contempt for Parliament and democracy itself.

The voters supported the previous prorogation because they didn’t like the storyline—the prospect of the Three Stooges Coalition seizing power in a coup that, while constitutionally legal, would have been politically illegitimate.

This time, prorogation was invoked in a political void and as events in January have reminded us, politics detests a vacuum and the media and opposition parties have happily joined forces to fill it.

It’s not about prorogation. It’s about Harper. Imagine his high-handed and dictatorial behaviour if he had a majority. Next, soldiers in the streets of our cities!

Thus, Jack Layton and Michael Ignatieff took turns standing in front of the doors of the House of Commons this week. In Layton’s case, the doors were closed to symbolize a lockout, always a resonant message for the NDP. In Iggy’s case, the doors were open to show an empty House.

Ignatieff kept turning up there all week, even announcing his suggestions for the budget before an empty House of Commons. The all-news channels, breaking from their saturation coverage of the Haitian disaster, kept putting the opposition leaders up even when they had nothing to say.

As a result, the Conservatives have taken a consensus five-point hit in the polls, for no reason whatsoever. They’ve tried to change the channel, first with last week’s cabinet shuffle and this week with the PM’s trip to Davos and his announcement that as host of the G8 and G20 in Ontario this June, Canada would be putting women and children on the agenda. Huh? A worthy initiative, details to follow.

Meanwhile, the government is, uh, governing, and its response to the Haitian earthquake is an example of getting it right. At morning briefings in the National Press Theatre, reporters have been inundated with statistics on everything from the number of Canadian troops and field hospitals in country to the number of Canadians evacuated, dead or missing. Donations are updated with the regularity of a telethon. The other day, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty joined three cabinet colleagues to reannounce debt forgiveness for Haiti, asking other countries to do the same.

So the Conservatives are taking on water from Harper’s tactical blunder in proroguing without a narrative, nothing more than a communications issue, while the government projects an image of competence and empathy on Haiti.

Consider: Had the House reconvened this week, the story would have been all about Iggy and whether he had begun to raise the level of his game. Harper could have skipped the House on Monday for the Haitian conference in Montreal, and still flown out to Davos the next day. After a week or two, he could have prorogued until after the Olympics, and saved himself a lot of trouble.

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