It took nerve to call what went on in the House of Commons over the past two weeks the Great Canadian Flag Debate. Great Canadian Pantomime, maybe. Take it out of the plush surroundings of the Commons and what you have is a schoolyard scrap, where the gobs of spittle, tears and taunts from MPs questioning each others’ patriotism ended up coating them all. There is no question that Parliament was diminished by the farce about whether flags could be brought into the Commons—and, if so, whether they could be unfurled in someone else’s face. The real mystery is why the Reform party pushed it on the country at this of all times.
When Preston Manning returned to Ottawa last fall as leader of the official Opposition, he emphasized Reform’s determination to show respect for the traditions and symbols of Parliament. The party’s populist roots would not be ignored, just kept under wraps. Reform might still be the party of casual clothes, but it would wear black tie if that was what was needed to prove it should someday be trusted with power—especially to skeptical voters in the crucial electoral battleground of Ontario. Some of this talk about respecting traditions may have been Manning’s way of justifying his move into the Opposition leader’s Stornoway residence after previously vowing to turn it into a bingo hall. But it was still in keeping with one of Reform’s founding values: to raise the level of debate in federal politics and bring civility to Parliament.
So much for that. Yahooism is back, thanks largely to Reform. The past month has seen Reform MPs in sombreros dancing to a mariachi band in the Senate lobby (to draw attention to the persistent absence of Liberal Senator Andrew Thompson, who prefers sunscreen to policy debates and won’t leave his Mexican home to attend sittings) and Reform MPs riding around Parliament Hill in a maple leafadorned convertible as an in-your-eye riposte to the Bloc Québécois. “It was not lost on any of us that the quiet approach was not getting us on the national news,” one Reform MP explained last week. “Much of the caucus realized—sadly—that
Reform’s flagwaving signals that it is still ready to divide the country in order to rule it
stunts are what get people to pay attention.” True, enough. When the Liberals were in opposition to Brian Mulroney’s Tories, they were hardly paragons of high politics. They made their points through the Rat Pack (jumping over tables to look for a fight did not keep Sheila Copps out of cabinet when the Liberals took power) and an obstructionist group of Liberal senators who mocked parliamentary decorum in their fight against the GST. But Reform has picked a strange moment in history to choose antics over seriousness. With the Tories about to embark on an uncertain, leaderless future, Manning has an extraordinary opportunity to woo conservative voters to his dream of a broad, united alternative to the Liberals. Ontario conservatives, especially, are now taking their hardest look ever at whether Reform has the gravitas for government. With his crusade for fiscal conservatism having become ruling practice across the country, Manning must demonstrate that Reform has other attractive ideas.
Questioning people’s patriotism and picking fights with a waning political force like the Bloc in order to score cheap points will not do it. The flag “debate” probably did not cost Reform a single vote from its core constituency. The feedback to MPs from home ridings was heavily in favor, and most Reformers will see the condemnation from the Ottawa political and media establishment as confirmation that their populist instincts were bang-on.
But Reform sent a signal last week that it is still ready to divide the country in order to rule it. In their bullying attempt to show that only Reform can stand up to the separatists, they even managed to make a victim out of Suzanne Tremblay, the Bloc MP whose odious linguistic politics deserve no sympathy. The flag-waving suggested that Reformers don’t believe they will ever win power unless the country slides into crisis and towards breakup. They forgot that rules banning MPs from stuffing flags and other props in each other’s faces is one reason why fistfights and pistols don’t feature in our Parliament the way they do in some other nations’. But then again, some Reform MPs have shown they like the idea of fistfights, too.
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