Forgive them Canada; they know not what they do.
Not long after Stephen Harper took office as Canada's 22nd prime minister, a polar bear was born at the Berlin Zoo. Known as Knut, the cub was summarily rejected by his mother and so was nursed by human beings. Now, two years later, animal psychologists admit that he has become so addicted to human laughter and applause that, the instant those things disappear, he becomes desolate and cries for attention. This has led to irrational behaviour never before seen in a polar bear. Experts fear that, without constant applause, Knut could lose the will to live.
Enter Stephen Harper.
During the past week, while the nation wondered if the government would fall, junior Conservative staffers were ordered to be outside 24 Sussex Dr. by 6:15 in the morning. Their job was to stand there in the dark with the temperature well below zero and wait for the PM to appear. Their instructions were to applaud, wave and sing O Canada loudly as the motorcade pulled out of the gates and drove Stephen Harper to work.
Mr. Harper, by all accounts, actually believed that the young people were there of their own accord and represented a groundswell of love and support for his actions. Staffers in the Prime Minister's Office know that he is easier to handle when being applauded and not questioned. This way, nobody has to suffer at the hands of the inconsolable bear.
Enter Stéphane Dion.
Mr. Dion is a humiliated and beaten man. Nothing prepared him for the thrashing he took in the last election, and the subsequent rejection by his own party just made matters worse. For him, the applause and cheering stopped a long time ago. Given the chance to exact revenge, he seized it.
And so is it any surprise that these damaged, needy men are the architects of a parliamentary crisis the likes of which we have never seen? With leaders like this, we shouldn't be blamed for asking, "Why bother"
If this Parliament were a dog, it would be brought out behind the shed and shot. Rabid dogs aren't prorogued, reformed or trusted.
One game of hardball he couldn't lose
At first, this little crisis in Ottawa was good, old-fashioned fun - blood sport for political junkies that made for great entertainment.
It began, of course, with the government's economic statement, a colossal misstep for Mr. Harper. The nastiness and partisanship caught everyone off guard. Sane cabinet ministers had to grin and bear it as the leader revealed a strategy that not only highlighted the very worst elements of his personality, but reinforced the nagging cliché; that this Conservative Party cares more about inflicting pain on those they dislike than offering support for anyone in need.
Mr. Harper, the self-professed master strategist, figured this was one game of hardball he could not lose, but then a funny thing happened on the way to the vote in the House of Commons.
Mr. Dion may lack the basic skills needed by all political leaders, but he has a grasp of basic math, something the PM, an economist, seems to have lost. He crunched the numbers and realized that not only could the government fall, he could even become prime minister. Revenge like that comes once in five lifetimes.
In theory, a coalition could work. If aliens from outer space were running roughshod over the country, perhaps a Liberal, a socialist and a separatist could put their differences aside and work together to defeat the alien overlords. A global economic crisis, however, is probably not enough for these three wildly divergent visions of Canada to gel.
But whether the coalition can or will survive is irrelevant; what matters is that it can oust the PM.
Stephen Harper loves being the Prime Minister of Canada. Since he came to power, the motorcades have got longer, the office more presidential, the trappings more grand. The idea that he could suddenly find himself standing in line at the airport with regular Canadians, photo ID at the ready, attempting to board a Jazz flight to Moncton so he can explain to party faithful why he now travels in a Jiffy Taxi gnaws at his very being.
Knut the Polar Bear could not survive such a humiliation and neither could Mr. Harper. So he slapped his Finance Minister and tore up the economic update; he blinked and backtracked - behaviour not before seen in this political animal.
And this is where it should have ended; a substantial and unexpected victory for a lame-duck Liberal leader and a humiliating lesson to the Prime Minister. A nice little reminder to all involved that nobody was granted a majority in this Parliament, and we expect everyone to get along.
Tragically, Mr. Dion wasn't strong enough to put on the brakes. Or more likely, he was unwilling.
Enter the Governor-General of Canada.
Try explaining this one to those alien overlords: 35 million people in one of the greatest democracies on Earth stare at their television sets, waiting to see whether an unelected former TV broadcaster will choose to shut down our government for over a month or let it live just long enough to be killed by the opposition.
The drama that played out this week was many things: unimaginable, embarrassing and, yes, it made our parliamentary system look like a laughingstock. However, this situation was not, as Mr. Harper insisted, undemocratic, illegal or un-Canadian.
The facts are clear. He has a minority in the Commons - something he has never accepted. So he loves daring the opposition to defeat him, and prides himself on shaming them at every opportunity.
Them's the rules and he knows it. And yet, when faced with actually losing a confidence vote, he chooses to launch a full-fledged attack on the very institution he is sworn to protect.
He took to the airwaves saying that having him lose a vote would amount to a coup d'état. He knows this isn't true, but he said it anyway. Then his ministers fanned out and told everyone who would listen that an election was being stolen. They shouted from the rooftops that, as a nation, we elected Stephen Harper to lead us, that the 308 members of Parliament actually had no say in the matter.
Separatists: from wooed to whipping boys
Mr. Harper zeroed in on Quebec. The master strategist who has wooed that province for the past two years turned anything and anyone with a French name into a whipping boy. Memo to Quebec: Call Danny Williams; a world of hurt is coming your way.
And our Prime Minister suggested that, in a constitutional crisis, the Governor-General must not listen to constitutional advisers but to him and him alone. The PMO organized a protest at the Governor-General's residence. Staffers all over Ottawa were given the day off to stand there waving signs reading, "The Bloc Sucks" and "Stop the Coup." Surely the Queen was not amused.
Back on Parliament Hill, Minister of Bluster John Baird proudly announced that Conservatives would go over the head of Parliament and of the Governor-General. He planted the seed for what sounds like the Republic of Canada, in which Mr. Harper and not the monarch is the head of state.
One assumes that a Harper republic will differ from others in the world as he ostensibly will have majority powers without having that old-fashioned 50-per-cent support in either the country or the Commons.
All this made for a perfect storm. Our system works on the assumption that, regardless of whether we have a minority government, we will always be guaranteed of having a clear and decisive majority of rational men and women who will in times of crisis put nation over personal or party interests. It operates on the assumption that our leaders will put country before party.
Seems we are out of luck on that front - our bad.
The crisis has not ended but simply has been postponed.
In the new year, Mr. Harper will return with the biggest-spending budget in Canadian history. People who voted Conservative will be outraged - but their cries will be drowned out by the applause of the paid staffers again lining the sidewalk outside 24 Sussex. Knut the Polar Bear will bask in the adoration.
And, yes, the coalition may survive long enough to defeat them anyway - revenge being a dish best served at the first possible opportunity.
Meanwhile, this great democracy of ours has ceased to function. We have no government because they just can't get along. It is a mess that defies comprehension but has one simple solution.
We need one more strange-bedfellows event: a historic press conference at which Stephen Harper and Stéphane Dion apologize to their country and then to their parties. And then they resign - no questions please.
Because, quite frankly, they deserve one another - and Canada deserves better.
The Rick Mercer Report appears Tuesday nights on CBC
Special to The Globe and Mail