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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

While the Conservatives go through grotesque American style proceedings to choose a leader Canada is a one party state

For the first and perhaps most critical year and half of its time in power the Liberal government will face no opposition. Such is the consequence of the complacently accepted proceedings by which our political parties choose to choose their leaders. And sideline the MPs we elect and whom leaders lead.

The nominal Official Opposition, the Conservative Party, will choose a new leader on May 27, 2017. Members of the party in good standing at March 28, 2017 will vote.

A spending limit of $5,000,000 for leadership candidates implies that Conservatives will for the next fourteen months be putting their money towards puffing their candidates and dissing their rivals rather than calling the Liberals to account and building a war chest for the next election.

It also implies that the new leader may be someone who might have to spend millions to make him or herself known to party supporters and rustle up new members who may not even be party supporters. Is the best new leader not one of a handful of already well known Conservative MPs? Might anyone become leader, a Trump, or a Corbyn?

The attention of the media and Conservatives and politics fans will be on the leadership race. We may not be treated to the sordid spectacle the Republicans have presented in the States, but the candidates will be preening themselves and claiming to have new ideas, which conservatives are not supposed to have, and set a new direction for the party.

What new direction does the party need? Doesn’t it stand for fiscal responsibility, low taxes, government lite, a foreign policy based on Canada’s historic national interests? ‘Direction’ is nothing more than tactics, what to emphasise, whom to pitch to, image, all of which depend on the political conjuncture, which will be one thing in May 2017 and another thing at the next election.

Rona Ambrose was quickly chosen by Conservative MPs and Senators as Interim Leader and well received. But the understanding is that by accepting the interim leadership she has barred herself from becoming leader. Perhaps she would be the best to lead the Tories in the next election. But she mustn’t. The better she performs as interim leader the more poignant the position becomes.

As a ‘caretaker’ leader, Ambrose must cut a wan figure and not upstage the new leader when she or he is chosen. Freed of the reportedly tyrannical leadership of Stephen Harper and surveillance by the PMO Conservative MPs seems perfectly disciplined in marking time until they get their marching orders from the new leader.

In the meantime the party must be a ‘generic’ opposition, scoring points where it can.

The Saudi arms deal was a Conservative achievement. Now they are in opposition they question it. Most of the Liberal platform consisted of pledges to undo things the Conservative government had done. The Conservatives in opposition pick and choose what to make an issue of: stand up for financial transparency and secret ballots for unions and CF-18s bombing ISIS, keep quiet on the long form census and door to door mail delivery.

Those who can remember more than a few months ago may remember the rapturous reception of Michael Chong’s Reform Bill, supposedly empowering MPs to unseat their leader. It was to restore democracy to Parliament Hill. But even had Chong’s bill been passed as he originally presented it, a leader invested by the votes of party members and irreplaceable without a year long contest would have been impregnable.

The new leader of the Conservative Party will not lead me, a member of the party as I have already disclosed. He or she will lead the MPs in the Commons. They should choose who will lead them, rather than patiently wait until the amorphous membership presents them with a leader.

The Opposition is supposed to be an alternative government. What should we do if the Liberals only had a minority, or a small majority subject to erosion by by-elections and defections? If the government fell, there would be no alternative government ready to take over or to fight an election.

Justin Trudeau is Prime Minister because a majority of MPs support him in that role. He has no term, despite many media references to Prime Ministers’ and Premiers’ terms. It’s not going to happen, but it at least should be possible that MPs might think differently and want to support someone else as Prime Minister. That the Liberal Party might split. But at least until May 2017 the Conservative Party is not an alternative government. Nor an opposition. We have for now a one party state. With a complementary personality cult.

Airhead Justin is entitled to no more respect than he earns

Matt Gurney thinks we should treat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau courteously, ‘with the respect [his] office deserves.’ Happily, our institutions require no such inhibition on free and vigorous political speech.

‘Prime minister’ is a job description. Historically it wasn’t even official. Britain’s Sir Robert Walpole, the first ‘prime minister,’ was officially First Lord of the Treasury, but as the man who presided over meetings of ministers and dealt directly with the King, he came to be called the ‘prime minister.’

Over time references to the Prime Minister have crept into legislation and regulations in Canada. But there is no reference to the office in the Constitution.

The Prime Minister is the most powerful politician in Canada. But as such he is entitled to no more respect than he has earned, and people will naturally differ on that.

Parliament, the Courts, the Crown, are institutions we should respect as fundamental elements of our country. The Queen, the Governor General, and judges deserve our respect because of their positions. Whatever we may think of them as individuals. There is ceremony and protocol to embody that respect. While there are procedures in place to assure that the Prime Minister can do his work, there is no ceremony and protocol prescribed for him.

The quasi-inauguration Justin Trudeau laid on for himself in November, only extending the practice of his recent predecessors and many premiers, confuses this aspect of our political institutions and culture.

As does an insistence that he should be referred to respectfully as the Prime Minister rather than Justin, Boy Trudeau, the airhead or whatever takes your fancy.

Trudeau is recently returned from his visit to Washington where he was treated to a guard of honour, a 19 gun salute and a ‘state dinner.’ Foreign leaders may want to lay on ceremony for prime ministers to butter them up or just for the fun of it. Stephen Harper treated Benjamin Netanyahu more like the President of Israel than its Prime Minister on his visit to Ottawa in March 2012. But we should not allow this to confuse us.

Trudeau, like Netanyahu, is a ‘head of government,’ not a ‘head of state.’ Countries differ in their handling of the two roles, one with power and work to do and answerable for it, the other representing the whole country to itself and the world. In most countries they are separate roles with a monarch or president with a limited role in government and a prime minister, whatever the title from Chancellor in Germany to Taoiseach in Ireland, with power and responsibility and work to do. In the United States, France, Russia and Latin America the roles are combined. Even in the present envenomed state of American politics some of Barack Obama’s harshest critics grant him some respect as POTUS. The combination of the roles leads both to politicians exploiting their role as head of state for political advantage and loss of respect for the state when they go bad.

We should understand and relish that we have got it right in separating the roles in Canada and not let Justin Trudeau’s celebrity and partisan hoopla confuse us.

There is much to be said for a civil tongue in politics, as in all of life. But there is no reason why we should be more civil about Justin Trudeau because he happens to be the Prime Minister than about anyone else. Are we asked to be polite about Rona Ambrose because she is the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Or Tom Mulcair because he once was?

When Trudeau goes abroad on our tab, he is not there to ‘represent’ Canada with a pretty face and a pleasant manner. He has work to do, or he should be back at his desk in Ottawa. We should hope that he does the work well, but should be watching him critically to see whether he does. We should not be distracted by ceremony and photo ops.

People think it’s clever and daring to be rude about the Queen. They shouldn’t, but no one seems to object and there is enough silly gush to balance their rudeness, though ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’ If people want to be rude about Trudeau, it’s their right. They may be cleverly rude or stupidly rude, but it’s all part of free speech trying to come to grips with the character and work of the most powerful politician in the country so that MPs in Parliament and voters at the next election can judge him.