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PM gets his big break— Toronto

Preface

It’s no secret that Canadians are a little barmy about their hockey. In his spare time the prime minister, Stephen Harper, is writing a history of the sport.

Hockey, Stephen Harper

21 January 2010

It’s no secret that Canadians are a little barmy about their hockey. In his spare time the prime minister, Stephen Harper, is writing a history of the sport. He would have known then that 30 December promised to be a big day – it was the date Canada was scheduled to reveal its men’s ice hockey team for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

So perhaps Harper was hoping his own announcement that day would be overlooked amid debates over who should’ve been, but wasn’t, selected for the team. He had decided to grant legislators a longer holiday recess than planned. Invoking his constitutional privilege to prorogue, his office said parliament would stay closed for an additional six weeks – not returning until 3 March.

A spokesperson for the prime minister justified the decision by saying that the government needed time to “recalibrate” and focus on its next budget as the country lurches uncertainly out of recession. The prime minister himself supplied another unusual rationale when he remarked to a television interviewer that “parliament causes market instability”.

If it weren’t for the fresh ammo the opposition parties had acquired before the prorogation, Canada’s parliamentarians might have been glad to have their paid holiday extended to 12 weeks. Rather, the opposition is eager to return to work. An embarrassing inquiry into the abuse of detainees handed over by Canadian forces in Afghanistan to local authorities is among the government’s troubles. By suspending parliament Harper has disbanded the inquiry. Which everyone in the country, even Harper supporters, is convinced is the real reason he prorogued.

Since becoming prime minister in 2006, Harper has made a routine of such power plays, smartly outplaying his opponents at almost every turn. He’s created two successive minority governments by managing to split the leftish opposition parties, focusing on those voters he has the best shot at winning over, and ignoring the rest. Recent diplomatic trips to China, India and South Korea have bolstered his Conservative party’s fortunes among immigrant communities that have traditionally voted Liberal. Exploiting Canadians’ wariness at the prospect of yet another election, and disarray in Liberal party ranks, Harper has governed boldly with the confidence of someone with a big majority.

Has he miscalculated this time? According to polls conducted in October, Harper’s Conservatives were finally approaching the numbers they would need to win their long-sought majority. Now the Conservatives can claim only a slim, one-point margin over the Liberals. Although even now they have shown scant tactical finesse at exploiting Harper’s weaknesses.

Whenever the prime minister has looked vulnerable before, he’s managed to rebound. Another recovery is hardly a long shot. So while the new polls may express widespread disapproval with this latest manoeuvre, they don’t exactly show a groundswell of enthusiasm for the opposition parties either. That’s probably because, in the end, Canadians are not so easily surprised anymore by what happens in Ottawa. That the prime minister is high-handed, micro-manages the government’s communications, and can play dirty with his critics is not news.

A former Harper confidant and adviser recently called it “the politics of constant warfare”. Canadians may tell pollsters they dislike it, but apparently not enough to dislodge the Conservatives from power.

Anyway, the one party that could make that happen has basically agreed not to bother for now. After a year of constantly threatening to topple the minority government, the Liberals have decided to cool election talk for a while. Their leader, former Harvard and Oxford lecturer Michael Ignatieff, is instead getting a much-needed image reset. He’s reconstituted his office staff and gone are the attempts to mould this sometimes stuffy, public intellectual into a cuddly, sweater-sporting everyman. It seems “recalibrating” is this year’s resolution for Canadian politicians.

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