The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dysfunctional stability?

I do think it's fair to say that in the past few months, and particularly over the summer, we have seen increasing signs that this Parliament is really not working very well anymore, it's becoming increasingly dysfunctional.
- Stephen Harper

A combination of factors have conspired to make this among the most stable minority governments Canada has ever known ... and for some, is it ever frustrating!

Most Canadians have grown highly distrustful of the majority blank cheque. To them, a minority government is an honest government. Never mind that the party in power sees itself as an appropriately moral leader who can be trusted with such power: truth is, every one of Canada's political parties sees itself this way.

Harper has done some very good things while in power, even some nation-unifying things. He has also done some questionable ones. His stance on ethics and transparency, in particular, seems to have more in the image than in the substance. If anything, the new transparency legislation is actually making it harder for most media to reach requested information. Add these last two to the determined single central stay-on-message of Harper as prime minister, the continued refusal to communicate with the greater public except through channels and a manner of his choosing, and it starts to look strongly as though there is something worth hiding.

The vaunted "free votes" of opposition and campaign are present, but only on those votes where Conservative homogeneity of thought trumps individual interest. On other topics, free votes seem to be suspiciously absent.

Some of the grassroots Conservative interests, including some parts of Harper's own ideal agenda, are known to be neoconservative, and some of them are extreme indeed. In a minority government these must be balanced against the in-party Progressive Conservative minority as well as enough of the opposition agendas to find a way forward. The net effect is to force the government to find solutions that will be at least marginally acceptable to most of the elements of Parliament, and thus to more of the citizens of Canada than might otherwise be the case.

For some, even this amount of compromise is unacceptable. Given the absence of other options, this is what stalling tactics seem to be tailor-made for. Harper is not the first to have raised the dysfunctional label, and the current opposition parties are not the only ones to have active and highly developed tactics to obstruct unwanted decisions.
The government's deliberate plan is to cause a dysfunctional, chaotic Parliament.
- Ralph Goodale, Liberal House Leader, 18 May, 2007
Yet the neat irony is that all this dysfunctionality is actually forcing us to relearn how to compromise properly, to work together with diverse interests rather than hammer through a single interest policy. Despite all the rhetoric, the government still seems to somehow work adequately as is. Since both major parties have given us reason to distrust the majority structures that would give it greater efficiency and almost no checks on its power, it is highly unlikely that the net result of any election will actually change anything of significance. Those who think the Conservatives ought to rule without restriction will still fight for and vote toward majority status. Those who think the Conservatives should be stopped from any such rule will vote the opposite. Stephen Harper still seems to make a better prime minister than St├ęphane Dion or any or the other party leaders -- but there is just too much on the opposite side of the balance for the country as a whole to trust him with the carte blanche of a majority government.

Thus the net effect of an election will almost certainly be much the same as the current structure.

But will Harper, and the Conservative pressure behind him, be able to accept any result other than just that type of majority government?


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