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Partisan
Dec 11, 2008

One of the more amusing tales of partisan politics involves Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood and Canadian Prime Minister Mike Pearson. In his autobiography, Mike: The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson, the former prime minister wrote: “Mr. Smallwood was not the kind of politician to concede that the Opposition had or deserved any chance of winning. “Everybody was, naturally, on the side of progress, happiness, and Liberalism. Our crowds, therefore, were always the biggest, our meetings the most enthusiastic, our victory certain. He refused to concede anything to the Tories.

“Once in our procession to the airport he called my attention to the masses of people lining the street and to the cheers I was getting. The evidence on both counts was, I thought, far from conclusive, but it was a good welcome. Then our cavalcade had to halt momentarily.

“‘Look at them,’ Joey exulted, ‘they’re all on your side. Everyone in St. John’s is. Everyone.’

“I called his attention to the scowling hostile face of a man on the curb, who seemed to be shaking his fist at us. ‘Not everyone,’ I demurred, ‘look at that chap.’

“He did, but was not abashed. ‘Well, we’ll put him down as doubtful.’

“That was as far as he would go.”

The recent constitutional crisis in Canada exemplified partisan politics run amok. Everyone had an opinion, although for the most part those opinions were clouded by their political leanings. 

Even when the obvious is pointed out, they — similar to Smallwood — refused to concede they may have been wrong.

I know staunch Liberals, staunch Conservatives and staunch NDPers. Whenever I asked any of them what they thought about the crisis, they could only spew out their party’s talking points rather than take an objective step back and recognize there was more to the tale than what party officials were saying in the House or telling the media. 

For my Conservative friends, Prime Minister Harper could do no wrong. When I asked them why Harper had appeared to be bullying the Opposition Parties with his economic statement instead of reaching out to make Parliament work, their reply was that such was not the case and the crisis was entirely the fault of the NDP and Liberals. “How dare they threaten Canada by entering into an agreement with the Bloc Québeçois.” they said. “All the Liberals want to do is tear the country apart.”

“Isn’t Harper doing the same thing when he said the coalition will be controlled by the separatists?’ I asked. “Separatist sentiment has been on the downswing for years, but such statements only antagonize Québecers and make them take a harder look at the separatist option. Harper courted Quebec voters by declaring their province a ‘nation,’ but now he is burning down all bridges and abandoning any thought of winning a majority through Québec.” 

No such thing is happening, according to my Conservative friends.

On the other hand, my Liberal friends were at first all for the coalition with the NDP.

“But what about lame-duck Stéphane Dion becoming prime minister?” I asked. “He was shunned by the voters in the last election. What makes you think he is fit to run the country now?”

A few hums and haws were offered, but no real answer was provided unless it was to say Dion would only be the interim PM, adding Harper had betrayed the country, is a bully, can’t be trusted and didn’t have a plan to help the country weather the economic crisis.

“How can a coalition relying upon separatists be trusted?” I asked.

More hums and haws.

My NDP friends looked at the coalition and only saw it as a win-win for their party. Of course, it was that party’s only real opportunity to become part of a federal administration with seats at the cabinet table. When I mentioned that the NDP had significantly fewer seats in the House than the Conservatives — or for that matter the Liberals and the BQ — and Canadians had en masse voted against their party becoming part of the ruling elite, they hummed and hawed resorting to convoluted reasoning that that was how Canadian Parliamentary democracy works. The fact that Harper was on the verge of losing a confidence vote in the House was sufficient cause for the Liberals and NDP to form a coalition without presenting their case to Canadian voters, my NDP friends argued.

The only real thing the constitutional crisis proved is that our country remains deeply divided along partisan and regional lines. These divisions became more recognizable as the constitutional crisis unfolded and the parties bolstered their claims that only they represented  Canada by soliciting acceptance for their particular stands from their narrow base of support rather than the country as a whole. What was good for the country was only discussed in terms of the party affiliation, which is hardly championing the cause of making parliamentary democracy work during a minority regime.

Liberals and NDP took to the streets supporting the coalition, while Conservatives marched apart in support of their party, shouting out that the coalition was a threat to Canadian unity.

Even those who remained basically neutral during the crisis and tried to present cases that showed the faults of some of the arguments were attacked along partisan lines. Even right-of-centre media pundits did not escape the righteous indignation of Conservatives for pointing out flaws in the strategy used by Harper to taunt the Opposition into taking drastic action.

For the moment, partisan tempers have cooled. The Liberals have a new leader who doesn’t like the concept of a coalition with the NDP supported by the BQ, and the Conservatives have achieved some breathing room after the governor general agreed to prorogue Parliament until the end of January. More surprising in light of what occurred during the constitutional crisis is that Harper is now reaching out to new Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, asking for his help to work out the nation’s economic woes.

Time has a way of soothing troubled souls, but when another crisis emerges be assured that political partisan teeth will be bared and the prevailing opinion will be similar to Smallwood’s that everyone is (fill in the blank) a. Liberal, b. Conservative, c. NDP or d. BQ — or at least they should be and have no right to be otherwise. Discussing the flaws in any of their offered arguments will not be an option.