Story of the year
All this week, on CTV's Power Play, new host Don Martin is asking guests to choose the story of the year. It was my turn last night, so I'll explain my pick here in a bit further detail (and with bonus links -- you can't get those on TV!)
The Canadian political story of the year, I think, was the running controversy over whether the Harper government should finance abortions as part of its international aid focus on maternal health.
I remember well the first day this story burst on to the radar. It was during prorogation, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper had just published an op-ed in our paper, announcing his new aid priority. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and his party were holding daily policy sessions on Parliament Hill, as a way of filling the political vacuum caused by Harper's extremely unpopular decision to shut down the place until March.
Ignatieff issued the challenge to Harper in a scrum: would his maternal-health plan include financing for all forms of contraception, including abortion?
For a while, it seemed the Liberals had caught Harper out with the challenge, and were succeeding in opening up a schism in the Conservative party between the social conservatives and the more moderate progressives; between men and women as well. The Liberals had chosen this challenge very strategically: they were also trying to show Harper as a reconstituted George W. Bush Republican, since Bush and his father had specifically banned support for abortion in developing countries during their times in office.
But you may remember that the Liberals decided to push the issue when Parliament returned, forcing a vote in the Commons in favour of "all forms" of contraception in foreign aid. Harper was reportedly ready to tell his caucus to support the motion, based on his long-standing promise NOT to reopen the abortion debate in Canada. But the Liberal motion contained some strong language against Bush and the United States too, and to Harper's surprise, the Conservative caucus said this gave them another excuse to vote No when the Liberals forced the question in the House.
And surprise, surprise -- Liberals were divided on the issue, Conservatives were not, giving us a telling look at the state of caucus management in both parties. The Liberals lost their own vote, when a handful of members either didn't show up or voted with the Conservatives.
And then, an even bigger surprise: based on how his caucus had handled the matter, Harper announced that his government wouldn't be supporting abortions as part of its aid focus on maternal health. Just like the Bush presidents did. Here's a story I did after the dust had settled.
This not-so-little political skirmish had long-running implications. It earned us a public rebuke from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April. In May, thousands and thousands of pro-life supporters cheered the move in their annual rally on Parliament Hill -- the biggest, happiest rally they've ever held. It reverberated through the G8 and G20 meetings held in Ontario in June (though it was overshadowed by the protests, riots and the $1-billion-plus price tag.) It was seen as possibly part of the reason Canada lost its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. It forced the Liberals to get their act together on the gun registry; handling this touchy matter with far more strategy than they had with abortion. It was a rare glimpse into Harper's management of a fractious caucus and prompted new looks into how this government exercises social-conservative policies abroad that it can't put in place in Canada.
I can't think of another political story in Canada that has had so many twists and turns, and potentially so many implications, here and abroad. And I can't say any of us forecast those reverberations when Ignatieff tossed the debate on to the political agenda last January.