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CANADA’S EMERGING POLITICS OF DESTRUCTION

John Chuckman

What would Pierre Trudeau say? He stopped the FLQ dead in its tracks only to have the nation’s future now toyed with by selfish, angry children.

This is a terrible time to force an election. I don’t say this because it’s only been a year since an election. I don’t say this because another election will cost as much or more than the sponsorship scandal. And I don’t say this because an election can only give us another minority government. The forces of separatism are more buoyant than they have been for years. Jean Charest’s conservative policies have made the Quebec Liberals very unpopular, and the Parti Québécois waits to resume power. The backlash in Quebec against the federal Liberals means the nihilistic Bloc Québécois will take even more seats.

One hopes Stephen Harper will show statesmanship in not forcing a new election, but the hope is slim. His party, though it has virtually no chance of winning a seat in Quebec, naturally wants to be christened by even a brief assumption of power. Peter MacKay, number-two man in the party, answers questions about his past broken promises with a description of politics as a “blood sport,” and judging from the language he uses during Question Period, he very much means it.

The Conservatives have no critical priorities, no desperately wished-for program, but they have the opportunity to exploit an unpleasant situation for a possible minority government. In doing this they would be upsetting a lot of important initiatives now underway. They would be appealing to people’s unhappiness over a scandal where all the information has not yet even been collected. They would be trying to remove a government that has done everything anyone could expect from government in setting things right. Judge the meaning of an election called under those circumstances. And judge, too, the fact that Stephen Harper’s Quebec lieutenant effectively must be Gilles Duceppe.

Duceppe is an almost asinine figure, a man with such a checkered political history that words about principles sound bizarre coming from his mouth. The Bloc Québécois, a bizarre separatist party acting in the federal arena where it can never achieve its objectives, basically serves as a place to park votes when people in Quebec are angry or frustrated as they are now. That is, except for the genuine opportunity a Conservative minority government would offer the Bloc to extract serious favours for its support. Now there’s a principled arrangement: the Conservatives assisting separatism in order to gain power.

I do love the Conservative claim to moral high ground in the current scandal. This is, after all, the party of Grant Devine, a premier who had ministers sent to prison for fraud and who to this day sounds like a weasel trying to explain away what happened. This is the party of wife-murderer Colin Thatcher. This is the party of Brian Mulroney, whose immense Airbus scandal remains successfully buried. This is the party of Stockwell Day whose unique blend of ignorance and mouth cost a provincial government the best part of a million dollars defending him before he had the grace to apologize. This is the party of Peter MacKay, a man whose word goes about as far as the tiny distance between his eyes.

Danny Williams set a fine example for Canadians by taking down the nation’s flag all over the Newfoundland because he didn’t get quite the deal on revenue-sharing he thought he deserved. What else could you compare Danny’s behaviour to except a child who bawls in the store to embarrass its mother into buying something? Taking down the flag of course has more serious implications than just bawling or holding your breath until you turn blue. It is damaging to people’s sense of national identity and purpose.

I am not a defender of America’s civic religion around its flag, something closer in spirit to brown-shirt demonstrations than pride in rights and freedoms, but, still, flags do mean something. Perhaps rather I should say Canada means something, something a bit more than getting just the financial deal you want. Canada is a genuinely decent country, a peaceful place, a place that does not make enemies in the world, a place where discrimination and hatred are about as minimal as you will find anywhere. The flag is a symbol for these qualities, not a symbol for a particular federal party or a particular financial arrangement. A political leader who uses it for a stunt deserves contempt and owes the nation an apology. Danny largely escaped the price of his ridiculous and destructive behaviour because people do have a certain expectation and tolerance for quaint ways in Newfoundland.

Ironically, and some would hold with considerable justice, an election would prevent Danny’s special concession from being legislated. If that were the only consequence of an election at this time, it might not be bad.

Danny’s stupid behaviour quickly drew the attention of Dalton McGuinty sniffing around for money. Dalton then stumbled upon the existence of a mysterious and monstrous gap in Ontario’s financial arrangements with Ottawa. Evidently, Dalton was unaware of the fact that Ontario pays out more than it receives over the course of his considerable political career, just as he was unaware that Ontario was running a substantial deficit during the last election campaign.

Dalton’s slogans about a “$23 billion gap” and a “$5 billion down payment” are as insidious, and potentially as destructive, as the poorly-defined promises of separatist leaders in Quebec. Not that Dalton is as effective a speaker. He is not, coming off rather like a gangly door-to-door salesman in love with the sound of his adenoidal voice.

No reasonable person would argue with Dalton’s raising focused issues with the national government over aspects of equalization financing. There may well be aspects of immigration or transportation or other areas where Ontario is today short-changed because the variables in any established formula become stressed by changing circumstances over time. Discussing such matters would simply be part of his job as premier.

But that is not what Dalton is doing. Instead he keeps repeating cheap slogans that question the basic idea of sharing in the Canadian Confederation. Dalton has said he is not questioning the general principle, but the effect upon the public of his advertising slogans can only reduce public respect for traditional Canadian arrangements. That’s precisely how advertising and propaganda work.

I won’t dwell on Ralph Klein’s being re-elected a while back in Alberta, his lifetime political achievement being holding office when oil prices exploded. For some mysterious reason people in Alberta are comfortable with this argumentative, unpleasant man who all too often behaves as though he’d just emptied a pitcher of martinis at the Petroleum club. I’ll only mention that in looking at the Alberta government Internet site recently, I discovered Klein listing himself under the heading, the Executive Branch. I think that pretty much sums up his understanding of parliamentary government and perhaps says a word about his dreams.

Which brings us back to Stephen Harper. Can he rise above Ralph Klein’s bar-room vision of Canada? Can he show the statesmanship and decency we knew from Joe Clark? Can he contribute genuinely to Canada’s precious integrity? Few of our contemporary politicians seem even slightly capable of passing such a test.

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