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(Bill Grimshaw)
(Bill Grimshaw)

Roy MacGregor

Passion over prorogation pales next to political apathy Add to ...

To hear the pollsters and tweeters tell it, Michael Ignatieff is only a prorogation or two away from becoming prime minister.

Those recent surveys, and Saturday's cross-country rallies, strongly suggest that the lupine-eyed Stephen Harper has seen his support collapse while he was busy with his annual ritual of filling the toilets with anti-freeze and closing up the House for winter.


In polling, there is a profound difference between tapping into an issue that looms large and constant in the public domain and one that rises only out of the question being asked. When one pollster calls up Canadians and suggests that "suspending Parliament is anti-democratic" - essentially baiting respondents - what other answer would you expect but agreement? Undoubtedly, those Saturday rallies and the daily Internet onslaught show that a great many Canadians are passionately engaged with the issue of the House not sitting, but far more are simply turned off, tuned out and have concluded that a pox on all their houses is today the only political position worth holding - at least for the time being.

In the period that Canadian politics has been pin-balling between threatened elections and the shutting down of supposedly "dysfunctional" Parliaments, the one undeniable change that has come about is that Stephen Harper, love him or hate him, has evolved from accidental prime minister (courtesy of Paul Martin) to temporary prime minister (at the discretion of the opposition parties) to the Prime Minister of Canada.

He is now seen as such, even by those who most wish him not to be.

However, in order for these non-election polls to tap into anything more telling than widespread anger at all things political, it is necessary that there be an alternative to what is being attacked or defended - and this may well be the true quandary of the current state of Canadian federal politics.

The Liberals' ill-chosen first alternative to Stephen Harper was a disaster we needn't revisit, surely. The Liberals' solution to the Stéphane Dion fiasco - the can't-miss Michael Ignatieff - didn't even require a leadership contest to have him declared, as Liberals so love to say in breakfast introductions, "The next prime minister of Canada." Well, he has now been there 13 months - and no one would dare suggest it has worked out as planned. His supporters' best hope, ironically, lies in the knowledge that Stephen Harper had a rather unimpressive run as opposition leader before he lucked into office.

The camel-eyebrowed Ignatieff, in fact, appears oddly less leader today than he did when he first ran for the leadership, and lost. He was, however, then widely taken to be brilliant, if untested. He now appears more like one of those curious people who are school smart but street stupid. And street smarts - as Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien have recently demonstrated - count for a great deal in Canadian politics.

If he is brilliant - as his résumé trumpets - Canadians have yet to see it.

It may, however, not entirely be Ignatieff's fault that he seems to find such little traction when Harper is thought to have hit a patch of black ice.

Talk to Liberals - office holders, party organizers, fundraisers - around the country and you will tap into a malaise that a good pollster could rout out with a single question: "What's happening?" "Nothin'," the vast majority would respond, with a margin of error of plus or minus very little.

"There is no Liberal Party," says one lifelong card carrier who has sat at cabinet tables.

"It died a long time ago. It's not completely extinct yet, but there's no there there." In this lifelong Liberal's eyes, the party has been stalled for years. No new energy, no new ideas, no vision of what it might like to do. The singular advantage of proroguing, this Liberal would say, is that it has put an end to the squirming every time the opposition pounces.

"The 'gotcha' stuff is out of control," says the Liberal. "They bring in all these nerdy keener kids from campus and it's some kind of game to them. They're turning politics into pro wrestling." The media concentrates on the top, Ignatieff, and on the Hill, but disenchanted Liberals say there is a story to be told far from the now-silenced sound bites of the Centre Block.

"Few Liberals," says an often-successful candidate, "have appreciated just how devastating the leadership races since 1984 have been. The party has been savaged by its own races." Steamroller politics replaced volunteer politics and the result was that, "The fun of it all, the socializing - it all disappeared. People asked themselves if they wanted to spend their volunteer time watching the Hatfields go at the McCoys and they decided, 'No, thanks.' They gave their volunteer time to something else." The result, this lifelong Liberal says, is that a great many constituency organizations became little more than Potemkin villages between elections and leadership races, false fronts with nothing behind.

With nothing of substance coming up and nothing of substance seeming to trickle down, the "party of ideas" kept slipping further and further into the past for these disenchanted loyalists.

"Why," asks one, "can't we have a coalition of men and women who believe in something and not just criticize everything?" A fair question.

And one that suggests an alternative be in order before anyone reads too much into these polls.

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