04 January 2006

Two historic defeats

The following is a slightly altered version of my column for the 19 December issue of Christian Courier and is, of course, primarily directed at my fellow Canadians:

In December 1979 I was privileged to pay my first visit to Canada’s capital. At the time I was a student at the Institute for Christian Studies, and a group of us drove to Ottawa, where we were guests of a research assistant for a Progressive Conservative member of Parliament from Alberta. Both the House of Commons and the Senate were in session, so we were easily able to see the two chambers in action. Question period in the Commons was of special interest, since I had been present 4 years earlier for question time at its British counterpart in London.

Joe Clark was prime minister in a recently-elected minority government and Pierre Trudeau was keeping his head low, as he had recently announced his retirement from politics. In the hallway we met in passing the late Stanley Knowles, then senior member of the New Democratic Party caucus, and found him an amiable and approachable person. We also stood on the same elevator with Jean Chrétien, who was more than a decade away from becoming prime minister himself.

The high point of our visit was lunch in the parliamentary dining room. We were sitting at table with our host when the 40-year-old Mr. Clark himself entered the room. He then proceeded to make his way from table to table, shaking hands with virtually everyone present. In due course he came to our table and, along with my luncheon companions, I shook the prime minister’s hand.

Although this may not have been tantamount to a kiss of death, I had to wonder whether it was mere coincidence that one week later Clark’s government was defeated on the budget. This, of course, plunged the country into a rare winter election that brought Trudeau’s Liberals back to power in February 1980.

I couldn’t help recalling these earlier events as I followed the developments leading to the defeat of Paul Martin’s minority government two months ago. There are obvious parallels between the two defeats. Yet there are differences as well.

The Conservative Party of Canada is quite different from the old Progressive Conservatives, absorbing, as it has, much of the ethos of the former Reform/Canadian Alliance Party, including its western-oriented populism. The Créditistes are long gone, having inadvertently finished themselves off by abstaining on Clark’s budget.

The biggest difference is the presence within the Commons now of the separatist Bloc québécois, which looks set to gain seats due to anger in Québec over the Sponsorship Scandal. The 1980 winter election precipitated years of what some observers have called mega-constitutional politics, beginning with patriation in 1982 and (possibly) ending with the Clarity Act of 2000. Even if we end up with another Liberal minority, the winter election of 2006 could bring back the constitutional issue, especially if the Parti québécois wins the next provincial election in Québec.

In the meantime, now that I’ve come clean about my encounter with Clark back in ’79, some readers might like to arrange for me to shake hands with one or more of the four party leaders currently in the Commons. Whether in the classroom or in this space, I do not plan to endorse publicly one party over the others. Nevertheless, along with many Canadians, I do not find it difficult to conclude that it’s time for a change. A healthy democracy is incompatible with protracted periods of one-party rule and would be better served by a more competitive party system.

In the meantime, make sure your parkas are zipped up before you go out to vote. And don’t forget your tuque.

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