"Why hasn't Canada been given a TV series set on Parliament Hill?" tweeted a pal of mine the other day. "Americans had The West Wing. Brits had Yes, Minister. And us?"
For what it's worth, Americans also have House of Cards now, a Gothic Washington drama that's been the toast of the culturatti since its gimmicky Netflix-only debut last Friday. They've had quite the string of high-qual Hollywood poli-fiction recently, in fact, from The Contender to The Ides of March -- plus a bunch of inspired-by-true-events dramas like Game Change and Charlie Wilson's War. The Brits, for their part, came up with the whole House of Cards idea in the first place, and have filled the 2000s with a pile of fine political productions, notably Armando Iannucci's darkly comic series The Thick of It and its equally morbid 2009 silver screen spin-off, In the Loop.
The fact that Canada has spent the same decade creating nothing comparable is a shame, but hardly surprising. We're a plucky lot -- and certainly no slackers in the world of entertainment -- but this is one realm where we're hopelessly out-gunned. There's never been (and never will be) a compelling Canadian political drama for one simple reason: Canadian politics is not interesting.
Sure, Canadian politics matters. And it's obviously worth following, especially if you live here. But as far as drama and entertainment goes, a procedural about the Canadian federal government would make Parks and Recreation look like Macbeth.
The problem is conflict -- Canadian politics doesn't have nearly enough. And no, windbaggy question periods and feigned opposition outrage over imaginary scandals don't count. True political conflict, of the sort that's fun to watch and write, requires lots of anxious, simmering tension between rival poles of power -- something the Canadian political system, by its very design, does not permit.
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In the original British House of Cards, the drama begins in 1990, when a (real) Conservative caucus coup deposes Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A new PM is installed, but he quickly makes a powerful enemy after failing to reward one of the lead anti-Thatcher plotters with a prime cabinet spot. The American version is similar, only this time it's a scorned Democratic congressman seeking to undermine the legislative agenda of a same-party president who's been equally stingy with the patronage.
There's simply no conceivable Canadian equivalent to any of this. In America, the constitutionally enshrined tension between the country's equally powerful legislative and executive branches -- even when both are controlled by the same party -- is an endless source of Hollywood drama, while in England, much BBC-ready intrigue has been mined from Britain's proud tradition of rebellious parliamentary caucuses turning on their partisan bosses. Prime Minister Cameron's efforts this week to defy his own party and legalize gay marriage might make for a decent primetime script someday; ditto for President Obama's attempts to wrangle meaningful gun legislation out of a hostile House of Representatives.
Canadian politics? Not so much.
While the American and British political systems feature a diverse cast of coequal power players, from testy cabinet ministers to strutting House speakers to mutinous backbenchers, in Canada virtually all authority of importance is greedily monopolized by the prime minister. That we still have gay marriage in Canada was Harper's decision; that we no longer have a gun registry was also his. Whether we start a fresh war in Mali will be Harper's decision; the date we end our current one in Afghanistan will be his too. There's no doubt a Harper-made budget will be passed this spring, nor is there any ambiguity about the imminent approval of his future omnibus bills. As the PM himself once said, ours is a country whose ultra-whipped MPs guarantee "the same majority vote on every issue."
A strong system of checks and balances, complete with backroom deals and horse-trading, provides the uncertainty and tension from which good democratic theatre is made, whereas an accurate on-screen portrayal of how Canadian government works would more closely resemble a boring documentary on some loner dictator. And not a flamboyant, embattled one like Quaddaffi or Saddam, either, more like that guy who runs Belarus.
There's a reason directors aren't scrambling to produce Lukashenka: the Mini Series. "Yes sir, we'll get right on that, sir" isn't the sort of dialogue from which compelling scripts are made.
In theory, minority governments are supposed to provide a bit more dramatic tension, but as Duff Conacher noted in Tuesday's Globe and Mail, the same arbitrary, authoritarian tactics we associate with out-of-control majority regimes -- proroguing parliament, stacking the senate, etc -- are really just as common during minority governments. Just ask Brian Topp, who tried oh-so-hard to write a compelling drama about How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot via his party's botched "separatists-and-socialists" coalition of '08, but even his story had to end when the PM said so. (As a general rule, tales of high drama rarely feature the word "almost" in their titles, anyway.)
Canadians tend to feel a weird sense of guilt when it comes to admitting the dullness borne from all this authoritarian predictability. I can't count the number of times a friend has confided in me, voice low with shame, that "I just find American politics more interesting."
But interesting isn't always in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes there really is nothing worth watching.
And it's usually the fault of the actors.