Ignatieff the tall poppy?

Michael Ignatieff’s year in Canadian politics has been marked by ups and downs. He walked into the Liberal leadership earlier last year acclaimed as the new leader of that party after the failed attempt by Stephane Dion. In order to differentiate himself as a different kind of leader — one that could stand tall — he sought to wrestle a concession from the Conservative government on EI reform in May. Indeed, what has plagued the previous two leaders, first Martin and then Dion, was the lack of firm roots in the ground. The Liberal crop blew about as the party that defines itself as the broader middle, and one that tries to be everything to everyone, was finding itself without a firm foothold. Martin tried to branch out in all directions while Dion let the budding weeds of the Conservative party grow throughout the parliamentary plot.

However, under Ignatieff, the Liberals have not fared too much better and any planting has soon after been uprooted. On EI, for example, the ultimatum given was then rescinded — a concession for a “blue ribbon” panel to study the policy, insincerely under the watch of the Conservative Party’s Pierre Poilievre and the Liberal’s Marlene Jennings. And then inthe fall, Ignatieff must have too believed that it was a firm and definitive stand that the party lacked in supply. Ignatieff made another bold pronouncement, this time that the Liberals would no longer support the government. He hoped to give the Grits new growth, but at the same he marked the party for a brutal harvesting.

Canadians, both in the media and those that follow politics to a lesser degree, apply the tall poppy syndrome to those that would deal in our trust in our democracy. When Michael Ignatieff famously told Stephen Harper that “[his] time was up”, this focused attention squarely upon Ignatieff. The questions shifted from Stephen Harper to Michael Ignatieff.

Why do you say his time is up?
Why are you seeking an election?
Why are you seeking an election now?
What is your plan, Mr. Ignatieff?

And as the tall poppy syndrome goes for Canadians, suddenly we saw an opposition leader that we hardly knew ready to take down the government, for no real comprehensible reason. The Conservative narrative built around Ignatieff was that he was “just visiting” and that “he’s only in it for himself”. Ignatieff found that while he may have been trying to shift focus off of himself and onto the other parties supporting the government in the House, he found that now he was getting too much sunlight. Subsequently, Ignatieff’s poll numbers were pecked at and the Conservatives got new space to grow while journalists started to mention “majority”.

And then Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament. For what seemed like a routine parliamentary procedure for anyone who, well, knows parliamentary procedure, the media-driven perception was that Mr. Harper was tempting the Tall Poppy prejudice of Canadians. Whereas Mr. Ignatieff sought power for no discernible reason, rightly or wrongly the prorogation of parliament was perceived by many observers as an arrogance of power. The narrative worked, the sunlight became too intense and the Prime Minister’s poll numbers wilted. This time, Stephen Harper’s poppies got a trim from the Canadian public.

Perhaps this is to be the lesson learned about Canadian politics in the past 16 months. The first example of slicing our politics back down to size during this period was the coalition attempt by the Liberals and NDP supported by the Bloc Quebecois in December of 2008. Just seven weeks after an election that had returned a Prime Minister to power, the opposition sought to reverse the perceived order that had come from ballots. This time, the arrogance and ambition of power befell the opposition. While many Canadians saw the Bloc’s involvement in brokering a government as poison, many others were appalled by the perceived unfairness of the move. The opposition tried to stand too tall and were trimmed.

Now, as Michael Ignatieff faces poll numbers on par with Stephen Harper, will he be tempted by power? How will he manage the perceptions of the Canadian electorate? Will a defeat of the government now be perceived to be opportunism?

Anyone that seeks power to govern possesses a certain arrogance and anyone that attains power possesses the strategic skill. Therefore, in Canadian politics, arrogance and crass raw political strategy must be seen to be the character of one’s opponent. When government falls to trigger an election, Ignatieff and Harper will do their best to let the other poppy be boastful and stand too tall.

The case for prorogation

Buzz about Ottawa these past two weeks (there’s really nothing else going on here) is talk about the Prime Minister asking the Governor General for a prorogation of this session of Parliament to recall MPs to the legislature in March of next year.

Opponents on the opposition benches and in the media have been cynical of such a move citing that Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament just last year and that like last year a prorogation would be a dodge rather than for anything substantive.

Indeed, the Prime Minister asked the Governor general for a suspension of Parliament last year after the coalition government attempt to replace a freshly elected Prime Minister and his cabinet just six weeks after an election, ahem, for no substantive reason beyond cynical bickering that the governing Conservatives were moving to remove public financing (read: party welfare) from all parties. The loudest opponents to this move were the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois, two parties that find that collecting tax monies is an easier option that appealing directly to their respective bases for funding.

And this year, what substantive reason exists for a reset of Parliament? The opposition will argue that because an Afghan detainee transfer was hit with a shoe by a Afghan prison guard and that problems may have existed with our trust of transfer of Afghan nationals to the sovereign national Afghan authorities was at times tested, the Prime Minister is again running away from his problems. They will say that prorogation is political despite the Conservative lead in the polls and despite the fact that this detainee issue isn’t doing too much of anything to affect the Prime Minister’s standing in the polls.

However, let’s step back and go outside of the Ottawa bubble wherein the last two weeks of reporting of any period contains the most important news stories ever told. In 50 years, when they look back at the prorogation of 2010, how will they recount this event (if at all)?

For the first time in twenty years, Conservatives will have a plurality in the Senate of Canada. Our parliament is a bicameral body consisting of a lower and upper house. While its activities may not be conducive to the lust of the cut and thrust of politics for the average Ottawa watcher — and who called whom “fat” on Twitter in committee this week — the Senate is constitutionally important to the parliament of Canada. When a new plurality exists in the lower House, the Governor General asks the party leader that can lead a stable government to form a cabinet. When a new plurality exists within the Senate, the government’s opponents accuse the Prime Minister of politics when the Prime Minister asks the Governor General for a chance to reset parliament so that its committees and functions may represent the new reality.

The case for prorogation is constitutional.The case against it is political.