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Despite troubling trend line, Tories close book on banner year

Peter Van Loan, the Government House Leader, may have been rewriting history when he described the raucous fall sitting that ended Thursday as "productive, orderly and hard-working."

Nonetheless, the Conservatives have good reason to be happy with their first half-year of majority government. They are solidly in control of their agenda and on most major issues this government appears sure-footed.

There are clouds, however, glowering on the horizon, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper would be wise to watch them. Herewith a few parting shots – sorry, observations – on the fall sitting.

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For the Tories, it was a very good year: What's not to like about a big, fat majority government? The Conservatives got their budget finally and comfortably passed; the bill to enlarge the House of Commons by 30 seats – most of them favoured to go Tory in the next election – will soon clear the Senate and become law. The Wheat Board's monopoly will be toast, at least until the appellate courts have their say.

Most important, Mr. Van Loan was right to contrast a Canadian federal government that is making steady progress in eliminating the deficit and doing everything reasonably within its means to protect jobs and promote the economy, in contrast to the "gridlock," as he put it, that bedevils governments in Europe and the United States.

But next year may not be so good: By next summer, this government will have run out of legislative agenda to implement. The economy could seriously deteriorate, if the Europeans don't get their act together. Worst of all, for the Tories, are the encrusting barnacles of bad press that could stop this ship dead in the water if they're not scraped off: the repeated use of closure to force through bills; the doors the Tories increasingly close to keep committee business hidden from view; the high-and-often-flying Defence Minister.

Nothing sinks a majority government like a confirmed reputation for secrecy, arrogance and abuse of privileges. Mr. Harper would be wise to dedicate 2012 to making his government more open, accountable and modest. Nothing fatal has happened yet, but he should not like the trend line.

How many days is it till the NDP leadership convention? Name one good thing that happened to the Dippers this fall. Time's up. Nicole Turmel's performance as Interim Leader has been lacking. It's not really her fault; rookie MPs with an uncertain grasp of one official language should not be leading the Official Opposition in the House of Commons.

Much of her front bench has gone off to fight for the leadership. Support in Quebec is waning, according to the latest Harris Decima poll, leaving us all to wonder whether the party is returning to its roots as an English Canadian party of social protest – anything but a government in waiting.

The NDP's future will become clearer once it chooses a new, permanent leader March 24. One hundred days.

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The Liberals ain't dead yet: Bob Rae has shown how you do opposition in the House. As the NDP sags, anyone frightened by the Conservative agenda on crime, anyone who is convinced that this government elevates fear over facts, anyone who believes along with Jean Chrétien that Stephen Harper's plans to dismantle gay rights, abortion and even capital punishment will not long remain hidden, has good reason to look to the Grits for salvation.

The party is rising in the polls, starting to get serious about fundraising, and the proposed primary system for electing a new leader could create major buzz. They have a long way to go, even to crawl back into official-opposition status, but Peter C. Newman's book notwithstanding, the funeral notices for the Liberal Party might have proven premature.

What should we expect in 2012? The unexpected, because life's like that. There will doubtless be major developments on the economy; leadership issues will preoccupy the opposition; the Tories are signalling an interest in tax reform. The law-and-order bill will finally become law even as the gun registry finally dies. But who would have predicted that the conditions on first-nations reserves would become a crisis for which this government was not prepared and is scrambling to contain?

That's the beauty of politics. It unfolds in mysterious ways, turning every prognosticator into a fool. But we never learn.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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