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(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

J.L. Granatstein

Imagine Stephen Harper visiting the Liberal caucus Add to ...

I recently returned from a brief holiday in the United States and, when time passed slowly, I watched television. To do so is to conclude that many of our American neighbours are on the verge of national insanity. Reality shows follow reality shows, each more unreal than the last, while commercials pile on commercials without end. And then there is Fox News.

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To see the globe and the U.S. through Glenn Beck's and Bill O'Reilly's eyes is to live in a parallel world that seems almost as surreal as the most asinine of reality shows. There, President Barack Obama is almost always presented as a raving socialist ideologue, and his attempts to improve health care for Americans are only an effort to establish cost-controlling death panels to purge the elderly, much like in Britain. Or so a 93-year-old former surgeon-general appeared to say in a paid advertisement that was almost omnipresent.

At the same time, of course, there are rational voices aplenty on TV, not least that of Mr. Obama. I watched his State of the Union address (and the instant analysis on at least five channels by cadres of commentators with the most extraordinary interpretations of what had just been said). The speech struck me as genuinely fair and balanced, beautifully presented and, while not without partisanship, sensible in its measure of the problems facing America. If only a Canadian leader could speak so well.

More impressive still was Mr. Obama's conversation with the Republican caucus of the House of Representatives in Baltimore. To watch the President venture onto unfriendly turf and try to disarm his opponents was almost magical. No one could doubt this was an extraordinary moment. His skill, humour and grace as he responded to questions with facts and figures was stunning, and only the hardest congressional hearts could have been unmoved.

Unfortunately, there seemed to be such hard-hearted Republican representatives present. I doubt Mr. Obama won over many of his opponents, but his civilized gesture in attending the caucus, his recognition that his opponents were citizens entitled to their views, was unquestionably impressive. It really was a triumphant American moment.

Canadians like to believe we are less partisan than our American friends, our politics less divided, our national conversation more civilized. But could our national leaders engage in public as Mr. Obama did with the Republicans? Would Prime Minister Stephen Harper go to the Liberal caucus to discuss his plans and policies? Would the Conservatives, in turn, invite Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff to their caucus?

To ask the question is to answer it. No, it couldn't happen here. Our politics has become so partisan, so bitter, so contested, that the very idea of a civil public conversation with opponents is impossible to contemplate. Instead, we have Question Period in the House of Commons where scoring points is the game and insults substitute for answers.

Liberals, New Democrats and Bloquistes, of course, will say Mr. Harper is to blame for this state of affairs. It's his hidden agenda, after all, that drives the political game. For their part, Conservatives will point their fingers at obstructionist Liberal senators or at Denis Coderre and Ralph Goodale or even at Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair. It's all the opposition's fault, Tories will cry.

Almost no one inside or outside politics, however, would deny that Canada's political system is on life support. The wonder is that anyone could have become exercised by prorogation. Who wants those people deciding anything? The result is a growing public contempt - and worse, public indifference, the prorogation protests notwithstanding - for those who govern us. Mr. Ignatieff's language in pronouncing Mr. Harper undemocratic is just as debilitating to the political process as the Conservatives' TV ads that portrayed the Liberal Leader as "just visiting."

So why doesn't Mr. Harper ask for an invitation to speak to the Liberal caucus? Or Mr. Ignatieff to speak to Conservative MPs? Couldn't such appearances - open to the media and, ideally, televised - help reduce the rampant partisanship that has made Canadian politics such a blood sport? Perhaps not; perhaps nothing short of a majority government can reduce our debilitating political gamesmanship. But a party leader who tried to emulate Mr. Obama by dealing rationally and courteously with his political opponents might well be the beneficiary of a public mood desperate for a spark of civility. At the very least, the offer of such a meeting couldn't hurt.

J.L. Granatstein is a historian and senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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