Nature, the old adage goes, abhors a vacuum.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is currently being welcomed to the adage. He may well come to loathe it because he's the one who's filling the vacuum - with a big bull's-eye on his chest. With his prorogation move, he's given the opposition two months of free target practice.
There's ammunition for them aplenty. Here's a Prime Minister who has accused Michael Ignatieff of "just visiting." Pretty rich, they chuckle, coming from a leader who's going AWOL.
A cardinal rule of politics is that you don't give a negative story legs. Two months is quite leggy. Octopusian, you might say.
For a leader like Mr. Harper, who is so schooled in the game, it's curious. Here is a politician who exists in the realm of tactics. Policy is secondary. He has just offered proof of this again, his prorogation sending long-simmering legislation on his order paper to the dustbin. The degree of cynicism is striking. Governance reduced to a boxing match. But by and large, he has gotten away with it - at least until now.
In part, he's gotten away with it owing to low standards in the media. Many of us in Ottawa share in his unsophisticated approach. We treat politics like sports. What matters is the scoreboard. It dominates the discussion. It doesn't matter if you tear up the rule book, as long as your polling numbers are good.
Our year-end evaluations of Mr. Harper's performance concluded that he had a very good year. We based our judgment not on policy but on political numbers, as if your average Joe trying to make a buck cared about that. The supreme leader, we said, had maintained his lead over his rivals. Ergo, top marks. As for his record on the environment, the war, the economy, the deficit - barely a mention.
Our priorities, like the PM's, are somewhat upside-down and it has suited him just fine. But with his second prorogation in the space of a year, things may be changing. Although the move could easily be seen as an unprincipled manipulation of the democratic process, Mr. Harper likely figured that having gotten away with it before, he could get away with it again.
And some commentators did, indeed, award him points. As in, hey, never mind that he's seized the moral low ground again - how about those crafty politics! However, there are indications that anger over his act is spreading. A Facebook campaign against it is pulling in a large response. Newspapers that are normally in the Prime Minister's corner have protested. This paper ran a front-page editorial. An Ekos Research opinion poll appearing today will show a sag in support for the governing party.
Some, including a couple of pollsters, say the PM will breeze through it. But others, such as Ekos president Frank Graves, aren't so sure. He says Mr. Harper appears to have overstepped the bounds this time. "This one may be a game changer."
The question is how many times he can tempt fate and get away with it. What he's doing in avoiding a scheduled return to Parliament is putting his fundamental flaw, his autocratic arrogance, on parade.
His defenders look at the prorogation in isolation and say it's not so bad. Viewed in isolation, they're right. It is not entirely odious. It's only when you look at in combination with all the other examples of low-road behaviour (smearing opponents, shutting down committees, cutting off information channels etc ) that the true picture emerges. There's a cumulative effect that episodic media coverage hasn't brought across - and the cumulative effect isn't pretty.
Another line of defence is that Mr. Harper isn't the only proroguer. Liberal PM Jean Chrétien did it too, although none of his closings could match the desperation of Mr. Harper's prorogation of December, 2008. So what's the big deal? This is a common Conservative defence refrain. As in, the Liberal record on global warming was terrible too. So what's the big deal? As in, the Liberals sent disproportionate amounts of stimulus monies to their own ridings too. So what's the big deal?
One big deal is that we're supposed to be making progress, moving down the field, not staying on the 30-yard line.
Another is that we have a Prime Minister who thinks he can get away with anything, but who may well find out otherwise.
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