Yesterday morning, a nation stared in the face of political chaos for two hours and saw – a double glass door in Ottawa. No terrorists, no anthrax. But would we be saved from the dreaded coalition?

Yes! By a timeout, the Harper government’s term for salvation. And what did it need a timeout from? The possibility of a change of government that is negotiated, constitutional and peaceful. If that’s chaos, what would it make of Mumbai, 9/11, the Depression, a plant shutdown or an unexpected death in the family? Grow up. Life doesn’t give timeouts, and people cope anyway. Kids get timeouts and theirs don’t last seven weeks; it’s 20 minutes, max. Adults deal with problems, especially when homes and jobs are at stake or already lost.

Why did Stephen Harper create this fiasco? He seemed about to morph into a conciliator and a Keynesian. At APEC, he said deficits were "essential" now. Then he returned to Ottawa and issued an economic statement with no stimulus, a surplus, along with attacks on women workers, the right to strike and public funding for political parties. Huh? Why did he do a 180? It’s his nature.

(A scorpion asked a frog for a ride across the river. The frog said no, because he didn’t want to get stung and die. But I’d die, too, said the scorpion. So the frog agreed and, halfway there, got stung. As both sank, the frog said: You’ll die now. Yes, said the scorpion, but it’s my nature.)

I dislike psychological explanations in politics. I prefer the tradition that looks for socio-economic "root causes." But this one fits. I don’t think Stephen Harper’s problem is that he’s an ideologue. It’s that he’s one of those people who only feels truly alive when voicing hostility and contempt for his "enemies." Without that, he starts gasping for air. It’s his nature. Go find a better explanation for that self-destructive turnaround.

Most other politicians seem to get this about him now. I don’t think I’ve ever said a kind word for Jack Layton but, this week, he looked statesmanlike and genuinely furious over abandoning desperate people to take a "timeout." Gilles Duceppe, who knows the legal risks for calling someone a liar outside the House, did it anyway. Only Stéphane Dion, who said the PM might undergo a "monumental change," didn’t get it. But he gets nothing. "In that format," said a filmmaker about his Wednesday night video, "the only thing you could really do is take off your clothes." If the Liberal Party doesn’t find a way to ditch him in the next 10 minutes, it should lose its public funding.

So where’s the silver lining? Aha, there really is one. Jack Layton called this a great moment in Ottawa. He meant breaking the mould of 19th century, two-party, majority-only government through alliances that are more inclusive and democratic. It even has a name not widely used before: coalition. New words help think the unthinkable. This kind of basic renewal is always slow and painful. Its sign is often an immediate emotional shudder, followed by a rush for silly reasons to justify the fear, like an e-mailer who said a coalition "sends a clear message to our youth that their vote DOES NOT count." But it’s kids who vote Green now who see their votes don’t count.

Sociologist Thorstein Veblen said countries that industrialized late, such as Germany, had an advantage over manufacturing pioneers such as England, since they didn’t need to retool and rethink old methods. This also goes for democracy. Most European countries are at ease with coalitions or creative forms such as French cohabitation. Israel has never had a government that wasn’t a coalition. We’re still stuck, mentally, in the rotten and pocket boroughs of 200 years ago. The first step is always striking off the mental chains.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.