Where is our PM taking Canada?

There’s accidental comedy in new Conservative ads attacking the Liberal leader as a globetrotter who doesn’t know the country and was only drawn home by opportunism.

There’s accidental comedy in new Conservative ads attacking the Liberal leader as a globetrotter who doesn’t know the country and was only drawn home by opportunism.

The dark laugh is that the Canada Stephen Harper is creating would be hard for Michael Ignatieff to recognize even if he had never wandered away.

If Ignatieff is just visiting the country, as new TV spots claim, Harper is more than simply tinkering with the way it works.

This prime minister’s Canada is as unfamiliar to those who stick close to the neighbourhood as it is to expatriates.

It grafts presidential powers and situational expediency to the Westminster democracy that has served well, if imperfectly, for 141 years and then wraps it in the rhetoric of Reform Party populism.

By incremental steps and leaps of logic, the prime minister is taking advantage of public confusion to advance a political hybrid. Worse, it’s being finessed with little public debate and no national consensus.

There’s nothing abstract about what’s happening here. Piecemeal changes that erode Parliament’s power are as recent as Ottawa’s response to the recession and as real as the coalition crisis.

Under cover of hard times, Conservatives are distributing $3 billion in stimulus spending from behind closed cabinet doors, further eroding Parliament’s defining duty to protect the public purse.

For policy and political purposes, that gives the prime minister spending freedom the envy of many presidents.

Less obvious, but at least as troubling, is how Harper used the Christmas crisis to paint a strikingly altered portrait of Canadian democracy on the dangerously blank canvas of public knowledge. With scant regard for process or national unity, he persuaded a remarkable number of Canadians that they directly elect prime ministers and that there can be no legitimate change of government without new elections.

Both are false. Both are also central to the populist Holy Grail of making as many public officials as possible as directly accountable to as many people as possible.

It’s an appealing theory; it’s just not the one that frames how Canadians consent to be governed.

Surprising as it is to those influenced by U.S. presidential contests, federal elections here are more than popularity contests for aspiring prime ministers. In our responsible way, voters decide who sits in the House of Commons and then leave to them all the messy stuff, including deciding which leader and party enjoys enough confidence among the elected members to rule and for how long.

Michaelle Jean, the otherwise effective Governor General, missed an opportunity to explain the nuts-and-bolts details of an elegantly simple, wonderfully flexible system. With Conservative ministers muttering about “coups” and threatening to somehow go over the head of the de facto head of state, Jean could have turned a roiling crisis into a unique teaching moment.

While hardly unique to Conservatives, extreme partisanship is now the Ottawa norm. It makes nonsense of those other populist principles of accountability and broad-spectrum participation in polishing public policy. After promising transparency and open democracy, Harper is delivering arguably the most closed and controlling government of modern times.

Jim Travers writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.

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