Quit fretting over party disunity

There's way too much stressing in Ottawa over loyalty to the leader and party unity. Can Justin afford to keep Jody and Jane in caucus? How can they bear to stay there? Does it betray weakness, loss of control? How brittle are our institutions? Do they deserve to survive if they crack under pressure? No other parliamentary system hyperventilates like ours.

(Random historical speculation: Canadians have an obsessive fear of disunity, grounded perhaps in the original French-English bifurcation plus animosity toward Indigenous populations. Then add the immigrations. All in the absence of a unifying mythology. So we often look to formal, legal or political guarantees of underlying solidity. We spy disintegration everywhere.)

But this panic about parties and governments imploding is unbecoming. Look to the U.K., mother of parliaments, for reassurance. They're in a constant state of political commotion. Theresa May is admired not for her iron control but her staying power in the drafts created by a revolving door of cabinet ministers and connivers. Jeremy Corbyn has been strengthened as Labour leader by beating back waves of attacks from his own MPs.

The iconic British parliamentarian, Churchill, changed parties not once but twice, proudly. It was always over serious issues -- free trade, royal abdication -- as are the issues here, now. In the U.S.'s cognate, though not parliamentary, system, parties rip themselves to shreds. Right now the Democrats are in a civil war over Mideast policy. It's about time. They needed it.

What's worrisome is the opposite: when the Liberal caucus chair says, "I have a feel for the caucus. I can tell you [it] is very united." That's a terrible, enfeebled symptom. They need to dump this guy for someone more disruptive.

And why do party leaders get to approve candidates anyway? It shows a frightening lack of democratic confidence. Leaders can even bypass local choices and appoint nominees themselves. It's pathetic. It leads to the barking farce of Question Period, (versus high entertainment in the U.K.). It breeds contempt for democracy.

When did Justin Trudeau look best in the past month? When he let Jody Wilson-Raybould speak. She looked good and so did he, saying, for instance, "This matter has generated a lot of important discussions … and concerns of this nature must be taken very seriously." Smells like leadership to me. Even Gerry Butts was impressive when he forsook background lurking and spoke out.

It's true, top civil servant Michael Wernick was an arrogant jerk but that's his role: to show he's smarter than the elected imbeciles. As Elizabeth May said, he's a non-partisan partisan. (His version: "I serve the government of the day.") Those guys are required to be obnoxious but they're apparently indispensable.

What are the benefits to the country of letting it all rip? The issues get aired. So where are we on that?

On its face, Butts' claim that Wilson-Raybould's demotion from justice had zero to do with SNC is ludicrous. He gets points for just saying it without cracking up. So she wins on rule of law, but rule of law isn't quite that simple. Everyone's for it and that's the problem, it's an abstraction.

In real life, rule of law is usually rule of cops, judges, crowns and, we've now learned, AGs and justice ministers. In law, as in theatre and film, casting is destiny. As someone always points out, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had rule of law too.

The Trudeau position, aside from really, really caring about law, prioritizes jobs over it. But that isn't simple either. When a juggernaut like SNC makes a demand, even without clear evidence for job losses, they get unbelievably swift action.

When Indigenous peoples call for jobs -- or just potable water -- the responses are glacial; the urgent demand is for their patience. If this disparity is implied in Wilson-Raybould's cold fury, I find it pretty compelling, even in the face of jobs.

So c'mon, isn't this an argument worth diving into, in the hope of coming out as a more aware, responsive and unified society -- despite the bone-chilling menace of caucus discord?

Anyway, the real winner of this week's episode was neither Justin nor Jody. It was the Toronto Sun, who came up with the headline, "Butts in Hot Seat."

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star

Image: Alix Guibord/Flickr

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