If you thought parliament was dysfunctional before...

Now it's time to govern. Oh dear. I'm not against minority governments in principle. The late Senator Eugene Forsey, a constitutional expert though a man of the left, thought they had many merits. As his daughter Helen reminded Citizen readers a week ago, he thought they could restore influence to ordinary MPs, generate real debates in Parliament, and were less able than majorities to head recklessly in a bad direction. In the past, Canada has had several left-Liberal minority governments that were, in those terms, highly successful: first William Lyon Mackenzie King with the Progressives in the 1920s, then Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau with the NDP from 1963 to '68 and 1972 to '74. But have we chosen one this time?

In one sense, "we" have not done anything. The final tally shows Liberal support at roughly 37 per cent, Tories at 30, NDP at 16, Bloc at 13 and Greens at four. Yet not one single voter, let alone all of us, cast 37 per cent of our ballot for the Liberals, 30 per cent for the Tories, etc. If we were one gigantic but not very intelligent entity, a sort of political stegosaurus, we could be accused of rejecting the Liberals' combination of arrogance and corruption with fiscal prudence by jettisoning the fiscal prudence. Yet even that may well overstate the Parliament that just resulted from the cumulative effects of our individual voting decisions.

I would certainly be worried on policy grounds if I thought the three social-democratic parties, who among them now hold more than two-thirds of the 308 seats in Parliament, could govern, however badly. But I don't. The Liberals and NDP went to bed on election night with a slim combined majority of MPs and woke up without it; 135 for the Liberals and 19 for the NDP leaves them one short of the 155 they need even before electing a speaker. And they say Mr. Martin does not get along with Mr. Layton (the debates will not have helped). But even if he did, what would they pass?

Much of the election featured a sort of comedy seduction scene, with Paul moving closer to Jack on the bench with a bouquet of progressive values, while Jack strove to get farther and farther away without falling off the left edge. And Bloc MPs may want to destroy Canada but are in other respects impeccable social democrats who favour massive social spending, gnawing at the Americans' ankles, gay marriage, abortion on demand, the Kyoto accord, gun control and everything else that makes Ed Broadbent go round. Come to think of it, how does the NDP platform differ from that of the Liberals, except on windmills and laser beams?

Paul Martin spent election night giving pompous pledges of vague marvels to come. And I grant that Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Layton are equally, in Monty Python's apt phrase, "pro-humanity and anti-bad-things." But what actual policies might such a coalition pursue? In Tuesday's Citizen, Charles Gordon noted that "some would say that the two successive minorities of Lester Pearson (1963-1968) produced some of the best government the country has seen. There are others, not many of them in Alberta, who liked the 1972-74 period, in which Pierre Trudeau brought in the Foreign Investment Review Act and the National Energy Program with the help of the NDP." But is this model now available?

Governments in Canada take 35 per cent of the GDP in taxes and another nine percent in fees, charges and sundry other sneaky raids on your wallet. There's no way it's going to get a lot bigger. So what are these progressive parties going to do, while they're not busy deferring to the courts on the radical social agenda? Clean up the tax code? Invest in boring infrastructure? Squabble colourfully and bring down the government so we can do it all again? (And please don't say "Implement the Kyoto Accord''; the science behind it is far too shaky to support even a bad implementation plan.)

Granted, the NDP could torpedo two of Paul Martin's top priorities. What could the prime minister do, or say, to repair relations with the United States or reduce western alienation while relying on Jack Layton or Gilles Duceppe to prop up his regime? Join the war on terror? Abolish the long-gun registry? Buy "aircraft carriers" (sorry, multi-purpose supply ships capable of carrying helicopters)?

It's hard to believe another election appeals to any of the parties. The Bloc just did as well as it possibly could while the others, exhausted and demoralized, can hardly think their platforms will taste better reheated than they did fresh from the oven. But a Parliament that can't conduct public business must dissolve.

Oh dear.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson