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Bob Rae (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Bob Rae

(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Bob Rae

In 2014, searching for signs of life in Ottawa Add to ...

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison and emerged without bitterness. In Canada political parties spend a few years in opposition and govern as if it’s permanent pay-back time. If reconciliation is the watchword in South Africa, in Canada it’s retribution. The group in Canadian society to advance the anti-apartheid cause was the Canadian labour movement. They weren’t invited to the memorial in Johannesburg.

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The mess in the Senate has been a huge embarrassment for Stephen Harper, but do not expect any change in behaviour, any more than Rob Ford will suddenly change course. While no doubt Mr. Harper – and Mr. Ford – have been badly wounded, they are not done. “We have scotch’d the snake and not kill’d it”. Both the NDP and the Liberals have to engage more seriously on the policy front, and do so in more than the predictable ways. The Liberals, in particular, have had a good run since the election of 2011, but they can’t coast to victory in 2015 – or 2014, if Mr. Harper decides to go early.

All three parties have everything to play for, but Michael Chong’s Reform Act has rightly caught popular attention – Canadians are deeply dissatisfied, rightly so, with how Parliament isn’t working, and all the parties are afraid of an issue that might tie their hands when they’re in government. The need for reform must be addressed, but it will take more effort than we’ve seen to make it happen.

Mr. Harper could embrace the movement for parliamentary reform and turn the tables on everyone (if his current form is any indication, he’s unlikely to do it). But he must show some signs of life if he wants to be re-elected with a majority. And if he doesn’t get a majority he won’t be Prime Minister. It’s that simple.

The official story is that last year was a good year for the Canadian economy, and eliminating the federal deficit seems to be within our grasp. But next year will reveal how much meaner the federal government has had to become to get there. Canada is a federation and not a unitary state. The budgets and accounts we do in the late winter and spring should really be a “national accounting”, and not a parochial exercise for one government alone. Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and three Atlantic provinces are in rough shape financially, and are facing difficult choices as the federal government makes off like an absconding debtor. The federation will face much deeper strains financially, and this will deeply impact our politics. Canadian eyes will turn to Scotland’s referendum as that campaign takes shape in the spring and summer – and no doubt Pauline Marois will blame the federal government for the parlous state of Quebec’s finances, and rally around the truly ridiculous Charter of Quebec Values as a way of creating walls of hatred and stereotype as a substitute for political leadership.

South of the border, I think U.S. President Barack Obama will cut and run on Keystone, with the mistaken view that this will somehow create a legacy. He could have – and should have – done Keystone two years ago. He has now painted himself into a corner, and will describe himself as an environmental champion. Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Harper seem to be good at the intimate contact, the face to face arm holding persuasiveness that is the mark of every great deal-maker. Canada has not been able to get in Obama’s face so much that he’d have to come our way. As a result, the President’s decision will be a clinical one. That’s not good for Canada.

This decision will cast a sharp light – made sharper by Doug Eyford’s report earlier this month – on Canada’s dilemma: oil and gas everywhere, but can’t get it to market; again, because the people who have to be persuaded, the indigenous people of the country, have not been persuaded. And this will not happen without leadership, a willingness to listen, and a resolve to make decisions based emphatically on consultation. It is truly remarkable that an industry deemed by every politician as crucial for the future of the country has been marked by so little federal leadership. Everyone is waiting for leadership – on carbon pricing, on upgrading in Canada, on sharing revenue, jobs, and decision making with First Nations, but the leadership isn’t there – yet. Will it come in 2014 ? Seems unlikely on current form.

Can the CBC become a great public broadcaster again? Will the Leafs get past the first round in the play-offs? Will the Blue Jays find the magic of ’92 and ’93? Will Tiger win a major? There are some issues beyond my knowledge, although I shall follow all with keen interest. There is fire on the roof, as John Diefenbaker used to say, but plenty of fire down below.

Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.

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