Raising the political bar

Greatness in Canadian politics will have ‘come and gone’ unless politicians step it up

Parliament resumed this week with one thought on everyone’s mind: With Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff vowing to bring down the Stephen Harper government, what will New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton do? Will Layton try to squeeze some NDP-friendly amendments out of Harper? Will Harper offer an olive branch to Layton in return for his support? Or will the NDP simply bring down the government and force our fourth election in five years?

As it turned out, it was Block leader Gilles Duceppe, not Layton, who kept Parliament running—for this week anyway. The Bloc Québecois reported on Tuesday they would be supporting the Ways and Means bill that could have potentially brought the government’s demise about.

I found the whole thing ridiculous. Are these really the kind of politicians that our country has produced?

The Prime Minister is a perfect example. Stephen Harper, for all his shrewd intelligence, seems to lack the necessary wisdom to understand what a minority parliament entails—working together with other parties. What a concept. Perhaps picking up the phone or sitting down at a table with members of other parties and trying to work out their differences is just too much for Canada’s Prime Minister. Mr. Harper is combative and even glib towards his opponents. During Question Period on Monday, he called Bob Rae a “left-wing incompetent.” I don’t care whether the man is or isn’t competent—you’re the Prime Minister. Act with a modicum of dignity, please, and leave the cheap shots to John Baird.

Layton and the NDP were critical of the government nearly all of last year without a moment’s hesitation, but as soon as it became apparent that it could be politically unviable to force an election, the brakes are slammed on and Mr. Layton became suddenly, as CTV put it, “gentlemanly” in question period.

When I raise the subject of politics with my grandfather, it usually comes down to the statement, “They’re all crooks!” I used to have faith in our politicians to put the interests of Canadians first, but I’ve become less idealistic. It seems to me the time for greatness in Canadian politics has come and gone.

How I long for the days of old—for politicians like John Diefenbaker, who could set a room on fire with a fantastic speech and stand up to the United States during an international crisis. Politicians like Lester Pearson, who spoke out against the injustice of the war in Vietnam and passed bills like universal health care in a minority parliament, working with other parties to make the government successful; politicians like Pierre Trudeau, who gave Canada the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and kept our country united during the FLQ crisis and first referendum on Quebec separation.

There were days when oratory and dignity were important to politicians. But it seems the Canadian public has been so complacent in accepting “politics as usual” from its Members of Parliament that the level of political discourse in this country has devolved into bitter, partisan, minority governments in which all every party can think about is scoring political points off of their opponents.

It’s time to demand more from our politicians. It’s time to raise the standard of debate in this country. It’s time to demand politicians go to Ottawa to do their jobs: serving the interests of their constituents. No more electoral brinksmanship, especially when the economy is still damaged and there is no real issue that an election could be fought over (I mean, employment insurance? Be serious, please). No more blindly voting against bills just because your political enemies write them. And please, no more negative campaign ads. Sure, Michael Ignatieff may be in it for himself, but aren’t they all?

Canadians love Barack Obama so much because his campaign raised the standard of debate in America. When he spoke, he inspired Americans to hope for a better future. He focused on the issues when he debated, not on personal attacks. And when he won, he raised the bar for politicians across the globe.

A Canadian Barack Obama is likely too much to ask, but we can ask our politicians to change nonetheless. It’s not that hard to do if you try. When the fathers of Confederation wrote the constitution, they enshrined in it three principles: Peace, order and good government. If politicians continue their present course of political deadlock and electioneering, we’ll soon fail to meet the first two principles while continuing to trample upon the third.

The time has come for Canadians to demand a new kind of politician, the kind that doesn’t make people say, “They’re all crooks!” Now, more than ever, we need politicians that can work for our interests and co-operate with others. That’s what minority governments are all about, and that’s what our politicians should be all about. If they don’t act now, they won’t get my vote.

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