Who sets the parliamentary agenda?

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What Canada needs now is a Peter McKay of the left, ready to put two warring parties together for the benefit of both.

The late Dalton Camp, whose regular column in the Toronto Star (written from his home in New Brunswick) was much admired, once described the Paul Martin Liberals as the Reform Party with cufflinks. The point was that Preston Manning was setting the agenda for a Parliament dominated by Martin Liberals.

Reform waged a campaign to discredit the federal government that was carried through to fulfilment by the Martin budget of 1995, which abolished the commitments to health, welfare and education, administered by public servants working for the Canadian government, in Reform-speak, Ottawa. Manning was mouthing the lines previously worked out by big business through its lobby groups and think tanks, and made to sound like his own by Brian Mulroney as leader of the Conservative government.

When Canadians voted for change in 1993, they left two Mulroney Tories behind in Parliament, and got Mulroney-plus policies from their successors, the Chrétien/Martin Liberals, who were angling to keep Reform from building its support with big business, by winning it for themselves.

The reality of the parliamentary process is that governments see fit to borrow from the opposition, all the better to stay in power. Why vote for Reform when the Liberals have adopted their stance? In the 1960s the Liberals borrowed from the NDP, and did so again in the early 1970s. That helped the Liberals control Parliament.

Mulroney made his changes without worrying about the opposition, and this finally did him in, leaving office as the most unpopular Prime Minister in Canadian history.

So what are we to make of leading environmentalist Elizabeth May, fresh from organizing a dinner honouring Brian Mulroney as a green prime minister, seeking the Green Party leadership with the avowed intention of setting the political agenda?

Social movement activists are all too aware that political decision-making power resides in the hands of the inhabitant of 24 Sussex; parliamentary government is really prime ministerial government, but currying favour with a past occupant needs some explaining. And, making a decision, and setting the agenda are not the same thing.

A Prime Minister needs constituencies available to support policies. Leaders create those constituencies — that is what leadership is about; merely able politicians identify support and respond accordingly.

The undistinguished prime ministership of Jean Chrétien was notable for his recognition of the constituencies opposed to the invasion of Iraq, and ready to acknowledge equal marriage. In contrast, Pierre Trudeau created support for a Charter of Rights despite parliamentary traditions arguing against it, and support has continued to grow.

Elizabeth May is not seeking the leadership of the Liberal party, nor has she decided to take on a winnable NDP riding in Nova Scotia, so decision-making and Parliament are not her thing.

She wants to be the leader, but not a Liberal, or an elected New Democrat MP.

The Green Party agenda could do with some greening, let alone the parliamentary agenda. Governments lag behind the country in willingness to act in favour of the environment, just as they do in social development, or international peace.

We know why: business knows best. Brian Mulroney got to be a “greener” Prime Minister than the others because he had no competition among other Prime Ministers.

Working outside Parliament the Green Party is not going to set the agenda for public policy. In elections to come it will continue to be a spoiler, serving to enhance the chances of electing MP's hostile to its cause. The Green Party does not scare big business, or even understand why protecting the environment means undermining business control of public affairs.

However, there is a role for the Green Party. Should Elizabeth May take on a unite-the-left strategy, by creating a Green Democratic coalition with Jack Layton, then we could see a Green agenda in Parliament that would lead rather than lag behind public opinion on issues such as climate change.

What Canada needs now is a Peter McKay of the left, ready to put two warring parties together for the benefit of both. Except May could act openly, in good faith, for the benefit of the country, looking to create more space for green activism, through political acumen.

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