Going beyond rhetoric

At a time when Canada is headed for the political trenches for a take-no-prisoners fall election, the final sitting of the current Parliament would normally have been reduced to a venue for self-serving partisan rhetoric.

At a time when Canada is headed for the political trenches for a take-no-prisoners fall election, the final sitting of the current Parliament would normally have been reduced to a venue for self-serving partisan rhetoric.

But fate has decreed otherwise, with more adult policy conversation on the agenda of the House of Commons between now and Canada Day than voters or their politicians are accustomed to.

In the charged aftermath of last week’s terrorist episode in Paris, MPs are about to resume two defining security-related debates.

The government is expected to put forward its legislative followup to last fall’s Parliament Hill shooting soon after the House reopens at the end of the month.

The future of Canada’s six-month combat mission against Islamic State extremists in Iraq is also on the agenda.

Both debates cannot but be informed by the murderous attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo and the shored-up sense that the security issue — both internationally and domestically — will be a top of mind concern for the next federal government.

The upcoming discussion will offer Canadians some useful insights into the character of the leaders who will be vying for their support next fall.

Stephen Harper’s government did not choose to place global terrorism on its pre-election radar. But the issue does provide a potentially propitious focus for the last chapter of the prime minister’s third mandate.

When it comes to crises of international magnitude, even the most unloved government leader is, by virtue of his or her function, invested with more gravitas than his opposition rivals.

To wit, the unpopular François Hollande, whose dismal approval rating is widely expected to go up as France rallies behind its president.

Closer to home, one can only speculate as to how Jean Chrétien’s decade in office would have ended if the events of 9/11 and the international developments they set in motion had not intervened.

In the end, the whimper that could otherwise have attended the departure of a leader whose party would no longer unite behind him was lost to the bang of Chrétien’s decision to keep Canada out of the Iraq war.

For the Harper government and the opposition parties, the final pre-election sitting of Parliament will feature opportunities to raise their game or, alternatively, succumb once and for all to their partisan instincts.

With an election so imminent, it may be a challenge for the Liberals and the NDP to resist the temptation to demonize their Conservative rivals long enough to assess Harper’s policies on merit.

A significant segment of the electorate is more than willing to assume the worst of the ruling Conservatives. For the NDP and the Liberals, stoking the anti-Harper sentiment would be the path of least resistance.

That is not to say that the opposition parties should docilely fall in line with proposed government policies.

But the onus will be on both Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair to go beyond offering a critique of the government and put forward an alternative vision of the way forward. Voters deserve no less.

Harper will also have to make a strategic choice.

Time and time again, the instinct of his government has been to practise wedge politics.

Painting his rivals as weaklings in what he is portraying as a global war on terrorism may come more easily to the prime minister than attempting to co-opt the opposition into supporting a balanced approach to the security issue.

Still, opting for the latter should be a no-brainer.

Conservative electoral fortunes improved over the fall sitting of Parliament, a period that provided Harper with opportunities to break out of his partisan shell, especially in the hours and days after the Parliament Hill shooting.

If the past is any indication, there are more votes out there for Prime Minister Harper than for Conservative Leader Harper.

Four years ago, it was his handling of the global economic crisis that earned Harper his first majority mandate. With provincial governments of all stripes on side with his plan, it was also one of this prime minister’s more consensual moments.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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