Canadian Politics: Playing For The Crowd
The English language can be a royal pain in the butt sometimes, with its weird spellings and how the same word can be both a verb and a noun. At the same time that is also part of its charm. Turning a noun into a verb can sometimes provide an immediate mental picture and comprehension because of the previous associations.
This may seem like an odd opening paragraph for a political article, but I thought a word of explanation was needed prior to utilizing one such word to describe not only the most recent week of Mr. Harper's term, but his performance overall. Grandstand. My Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary has the following two definitions for that word: "n. a raised series of seats for spectators at a racetrack, sports stadium, etc. – To act in a way so as to impress others or win applause. adj."
Now all politics involves grandstanding to some extent or another, it just goes with the territory of trying to impress people enough to get elected. That's a given and pretty much expected behaviour from those folk. Systems where the office of the leader is elected independent of the rest of the government, as in republics like the United States, seem more inclined to accept the fact that their leader will be playing to the crowds as part of his duties.
But in the parliamentary system of Canada where the Prime Minister is the head of the party that wins the most seats and is not elected separately, there is significantly less power associated with the position then that of head of state. In theory the Prime Minister is simply the most important minister in a cabinet of people formulating and implementing policy to conduct the affairs of the nation.
In practice of course the amount of input individual ministers has is dependent on the willingness of the Prime Minister to delegate responsibility or share the spotlight. In the case of Mr. Harper he seems very hesitant to let the majority of his cabinet out in public. One of the first things he did upon taking office was forbid anybody to say anything to the press without clearing it with his office, then he cancelled the impromptu press conferences that used to happen in the hallways of parliament after caucus meetings and sessions in the House ended.
In the last election no party won sufficient seats to have complete control of the House of Commons. Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada won the most seats, but he is outnumbered in the House by a combined vote of the opposition. Under normal circumstances this would make the governing party a little circumspect with their agenda, and send them searching for allies in the house to prop up their government.
They would make concessions to other parties, with the result that the policies implemented would bear a more accurate reflection of the country as a whole instead of just one party's politics. But that's not happening this time for two reasons: the largest opposition party, the Liberals, are choosing a new leader, and the Conservatives are acting like they have a majority government.
The only reason they are able to get away with that type of behaviour is because they know the Liberals dare not vote against them and go into an election with a temporary leader. If the Conservative want to pass a piece of legislation, all they need do is make it a confidence motion, meaning if they lose they have to call an election, and the Liberals are forced to either vote with them or abstain.
They have also done their best to bypass parliament whenever possible, and have to be brought kicking and screaming into the legislature for votes on issues even though they've know they won't lose the vote. Steven Harper much prefers to stand up and make pronouncements to the country than have to deal with the messy business of actually letting other opinions be heard on a subject.
The first major example of this came when it was decided to go along with the previous Liberal government's plan to extend and expand upon Canada's role in Afghanistan. In polls taken across the country it turned out that most people were against the idea and wanted a clearer understanding of what would be involved with this commitment.
When the opposition cited these polls as reasons for recalling the legislature for a debate on the matter, the response was that Canadians didn't understand the complexity of the reasons for our troops being in Afghanistan. Finally the Conservatives were forced into allowing two days of debate on the issue. It was voted on and passed without Canadians feeling anymore comfortable about the issue.
Then there was the whole softwood lumber accord fiasco. For the past few years Canada and the United States have been locked in a trade dispute over the amount of softwood lumber Canada has been exporting to the United States. In spite of their being a Free Trade agreement between the two countries, the United States had charged $5 billion dollars in tariffs on softwood lumber.
Negotiations have been ongoing since before the election and this April Mr. Harper stood up in Parliament and with same degree of accuracy of Neville Chamberlin declaring "We have peace in our time" after allowing Hitler to walk into Czechoslovakia, said, "We have a deal". Two weeks ago, just before his first official visit to Washington, he proudly told the newspapers the same thing again.
It turned out that last April there wasn't a deal so it was made abundantly clear that something needed to be ready for signing on July 6th/06 when Harper was scheduled to meet with George Bush. This way Mr. Harper could look like his policy of toeing the line on American foreign policy, instead of the independent course charted by the previous governments was paying off.
Of course when the Canadian lumber industry started pointing out all the holes in deal, and why they didn't want to sign it, and the opposition parties started to demand that it be voted on in parliament Mr. Harper got in right huff. He told the lumber people to like it or lump it, and that if the opposition dared defeat it in parliament he would make it an issue of confidence and force an election on them.
Which brings us to the events of the past week and a half. Mr Harper went off to his first major international event, the G8 summit in France where supposedly energy was going to be prime on the agenda. That all blew up everybody's faces of course with the way things have been playing out in Israel and Lebanon. The leaders of the eight plus one (Russia) spent the days agreeing on the wording of a release about the situation.
But unlike the rest of the leaders, who know better than to say anything of consequence as a situation continues to develop, Mr Harper proved he couldn't resist the opportunity to be in the spotlight and made a statement where he said that he thought Israel has the right to defend herself and that her response was "measured" in other words appropriate. The next day eight Canadian citizens visiting Lebanon were killed by Israeli gunfire.
Now you can't blame Mr. Harper for Canadians being killed in Lebanon when the country is invaded by a foreign power, and I don't even think you can blame him for the fact that it takes time to get Canadian nationals out of the country, and anybody who does is being a jerk. In fact considering the resources available to Canada I think he's done the best we can hope for in the circumstances. Nobody else could have a done a better job.
His mistake wasn't even in saying that Israel has a right to defend herself, because that's almost a universally held believe in Canada. It was his eagerness to make the big statement of support for the American position in the Middle East, before even finding out the true nature of the situation that grated on people's nerves.
While Canada has always supported Israel, most of our governments have also been able to maintain the respect of the Muslim and Arab world as fair and impartial because we have had a foreign policy distinct from the Americans and British. With the exception of the first Gulf War, we have always been seen as the one to be used as the peacekeepers in these situations. From the Suez crises in the fifties to the Golan Heights in the seventies, Canadian troops have worn the blue helmets in the Middle East and earned the respect of most countries.
But Mr. Harper seems so eager to impress the American's that he went even further then they did in their reaction to the invasion of Lebanon by Israel. By saying this was a measured response on their part was pretty much condoning the shelling of civilian populations in Lebanon, which is bound to occur when going after groups like Hezbollah.
It's not the fact that Canadians were killed; it's the fact that he did not consider the possibility of Canadian civilians being at risk because of the Israeli actions that's the real problem. By condoning their actions one day it appeared he was condoning the killing of anybody who was in the way of their assault, including his own citizens.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not placing a higher value on the lives of those eight people just because they happened to be people who lived in the same country I do. That attitude is even more reprehensible then supporting the assault in the first place. Israel issued an apology to Canada for the killing of those eight people, have they issued one to Lebanon yet for the killing of God knows how many innocents?
Instead of trying to rectify his mistake and helping to search for a solution to the crises or to repair the damage he might have done to our reputation as peacekeepers and a country with an independent foreign policy, Mr. Harper has decided to play to the crowds. He's flying to Cyprus to meet with Canadian citizens who have been evacuated from Lebanon.
You can almost visualize him and his advisors meeting and trying to figure out the best thing to do that will play well for the crowds. What flamboyant gesture can he make that will compensate for looking like he didn't care about the lives of Canadians? Fly to Cyprus and look all compassionate and worried, maybe even get his picture taken with a group of evacuees looking paternal and statesman all at the same time.
Just like his "surprise" visit to Canadian troops in Afghanistan before their tour of duty was extended by two years and they became involved in a more direct combat situation, he's playing for the larger audience then those who are in attendance. While it's understood that politicians will do that on occasion Mr. Harper seems to be making it a permanent fixture of his government.
Steven Harper seems to have forgotten that we are a constitutional monarchy where the Prime Minister does not rule unilaterally. He has done his best to not only cut the opposition parties out of their role in government by avoiding parliament as much as possible, but he has made himself into the sole face of his own party.
While grandstanding to the converted might keep the party faithful in line, it's not doing anything to strengthen his support elsewhere. Not only will he not win his coveted majority in the House of Commons he could very well lose the next election entirely if he's not careful. As the last Conservative Prime Minister of Canada discovered, Canadians don't like being ignored or being drawn too close into the sphere of American influence. That's a lesson Steven Harper would due well to remember.