Reflections on an Interesting Canadian Election

John Chuckman

Hubris played an important role in the recent Canadian election.

Paul Martin’s assumption of power, after pushing aside a popular and successful, though aging, Liberal leader, was disconcerting to many. Then, despite Martin’s reputation as an able technocrat in Jean Chretien’s cabinet, he quickly demonstrated he was not an apt public speaker. It was not just the manner of his speech, but its content, often repeating generalities heard many times about new tax revenue for cities. The contrast with the clever and rough-hewn eloquence of Chretien could not have been more striking. Martin was promoted heavily in the press as a leader of considerable stature, but the quiet judgment of many listening to him was somewhat at odds with this puffed-up praise.

Unavoidably, too, there was a certain uneasiness about someone’s assuming power without an election, although this is a common enough event in parliamentary government. The uneasiness was exacerbated by all the publicity about Martin’s expecting an easy sweep of the next election.

When Canada’s Auditor General broke what would come to be called the sponsorship scandal, she displayed poor judgment, using highly colored language and playing directly to reporters keen for a juicy story rather than just rigorously reporting facts. The press’s incessant reportage disturbed voters far more than warranted. Many eventually came to recognize that the flap was out of proportion to the facts of what happened, but not all. The large exception, amongst those who had voted Liberal before, was Quebec whose people took the affair as an embarrassing insult. Quebec is a grande dame with a somewhat unsavory past, with many tales of questionable deals by questionable politicians lingering like hints of rare old perfume, and this reputation was something modern Quebeckers thought they had put behind them.

At first, Martin kept something of the dithering style he displayed after assuming power when he often spoke of putting choices on the table, words which seemed oblivious to the legitimate and expected function of a leader. When he decided to act forcefully, he did so by dismissing some old-line Liberals from their posts, exacerbating bad relations with the Chretien wing of the party, not a good thing to do when anticipating an election, although in at least one case the action seemed well deserved.

Martin’s approach to a principled stand in the scandal was to play tough guy with no tolerance for such activities, even though everyone was perfectly aware they occurred while he held a high cabinet post and was likely aware of them. Of course, he was not the leader then and perhaps could do little to change policies with which he disagreed, assuming he did disagree, other than tender his resignation, not something ambitious men like doing.

The principled stand he should have taken was that the activities, although mistaken, reflected his party’s fierce determination and commitment to prevent the separation of Quebec, which is pretty much exactly the case. Would any sensible Canadian focus on that relatively small amount of money misspent when the object was saving the great thing called Canada? There were opportunities here for fierce eloquence completely missed by Martin, opportunities that would not have been missed by Chretien. One unavoidably had a sense of a man being led by events rather than leading.

So, even before the election was called, there was a perception of Martin as, at one and the same time, a somewhat arrogant man and one maybe not up to dealing well with a political crisis. Then came Dalton McGuinty’s budget in Ontario.

Dalton McGuinty’s budget shook the public’s confidence in all Liberals, as it should have, even though McGuinty is not a national politician. Here was the new leader of Canada’s biggest province not just gently drifting away from his campaign platform, something many politicians do, but, shortly after taking office, breaking a forceful promise, a promise given in writing and staged with considerable public ceremony. Voters understand that campaign platforms are somewhat-vague expressions of intentions and beliefs, but such a show-case promise is not the same.

McGuinty’s behavior went to the heart of democracy. If politicians are free to make strong promises they immediately break, the disturbing question arises, why hold elections at all? The meaning of a ballot is nullified by actions like McGuinty’s.

McGuinty’s provincial election campaign reminded me of the lamentable Richard Nixon running for re-election in 1972. All the polls told McGuinty for months that Ontario voters were tired of the Conservative’s “Common Sense Revolution” with the damage it did to the province’s social fabric. Despite knowing this – just as Nixon clearly knew that Americans were not prepared to vote for George McGovern, a worthy man whose views were too far beyond the mainstream – McGuinty showed the same paranoia about winning that drove Nixon to the destructive behaviour known as Watergate.

McGuinty had seemed a decent-sounding man before the provincial election, offering valid criticism of Ontario’s Conservatives, but desperate to assure victory, he made frantic promises during the campaign. Apart from the written one on taxes, he made several inadequately-researched promises like the one about stopping development on the Oak Ridges Moraine, something which only saw him embarrassingly backing down in the face of legal action as soon as he took office.

No thoughtful person can believe McGuinty did not have a good estimate of the Conservative’s hidden deficit. Not long before election day, the Fraser Institute, a conservative economic institution thousands of miles away, forecast the deficit with some accuracy. If they understood the facts, why didn’t McGuinty? His almost daily public whining over the deficit, after a short stagey interval to discover it, seemed toe-scrunchingly insincere.

Martin went into a national election under very unhappy circumstances, many Liberals saying he should have waited to call it. Then, despite a good deal of talk about a “democratic deficit,” whatever that inelegant phrase meant, he appointed several candidates in key ridings. I think the psychological shock of Martin’s following that old and familiar parliamentary-government practice, under the special circumstances of the election, was underrated by Liberal strategists.

But in the last days of a very tough election, one in which Martin consumed generous portions of crow, he suddenly altered course, displaying the kind of grit and determination voters always admire. His voice became strong, losing its dithering quality, and he gave voters, confronted with the possibility of government by a party clearly influenced by religious-right extremists, a new sense of commitment to social justice. Martin showed admirable qualities in those last days, and he very much earned his minority. One hopes the bruising election experience was the making of a great Prime Minister.

Considering the high level voter discontent and confusion going into the election, the New Conservatives performed remarkably weakly in not making greater gains. The party’s co-founder, Peter McKay, doing his best to mimic Dalton McGuinty’s whining, complained immediately about negative advertising. But Liberal advertising was not particularly aggressive, and it was the public voices of New Conservative members themselves that gave its suggestions any force. Outbursts coming from members of the party resembled those of Texas Republicans, a group that doesn’t need advertising to scare people – Good God, recall the insane excesses of the Clinton impeachment or the virtual kidnapping of a poor Cuban boy from his father!

Stephen Harper talked constantly about restoring integrity to government, but I couldn’t help recalling a fast-food advertising slogan from years ago, where’s the beef? Harper’s party was born in the very-public breaking of a written promise by McKay.

Would Harper’s concept of integrity include the man who still holds an important post in his party, Stockwell Day? Day’s career has included many blundering and thoughtless remarks, but, early in his career, he made one when in a position of trust that ended costing taxpayers in his province a small fortune providing him with legal defence. Mr. Day never had the integrity or good grace to take responsibility for those costs.

While the national memory of former Prime Minister Mulroney’s shady practices is beginning to fade, Harper’s using him as an advisor suggested a considerable lack of judgment. Did Harper truly believe that associating himself with Mulroney, the man whose reputation caused voters virtually to destroy the old Progressive Conservative Party, made him seem main-stream?

Did Harper’s assertion that Martin had been soft on child pornography reflect integrity? The comment would be shameful at any time, but it came after courtroom revelations about a terrifyingly brutal crime in Toronto. Harper tried to direct the public’s disgust against a decent man and father. Is that integrity? The statement was loathsome, making any negative advertising the Liberals did seem positively innocuous.

There was in my mind another dimension to the pornography name-calling, concerning Harper’s early enthusiastic support for America’s invasion of Iraq. It is now known at least ten thousand innocent civilians were killed and many times that number were wounded or crippled by American bombs in a pointless war based entirely on lies. Many of the dead and maimed were children, for Iraq, like many Arab countries, has a very youthful population. I can’t speak for others, but children torn apart by bombs is about as pornographic an act as I can imagine. Again, going to Harper’s integrity, he tried during the campaign to weasel his way through the words of strong support he so plainly had given earlier.

It is simply a fact that Alberta has a quality in its politics unattractive to many other Canadians. Ralph Klein, multiple-term Premier of Alberta, is chief exemplar. His showing up drunk one night at a men’s shelter and hurling coins and insults at those less fortunate cannot be forgotten. This was not the act of a foolish young man, but a mature one, supposedly having gained some wisdom through years of politics. The act was fobbed off with pity-seeking stuff about a drinking problem, the kind of self-serving confession so popular in America, particularly in the South where redemption is almost a vocation, but the Romans laid down a sound principle when they said in vino veritas.

It was the act of an extremely mean-spirited man, as were Klein’s words, years ago at a time of energy problems, about letting Eastern bastards freeze in the dark. His recent insistence on prosecuting, instead of laughing off, the act of a student who threw a cream pie in his face – an act which countless politicians have managed to accept with some grace – only confirms how little he has changed.

Klein’s activities during the mad-cow trouble display the same qualities. He criticised the Prime Minister for not doing more in Washington, failing to give Ottawa any credit for substantial efforts against a rather slithery and self-righteous trading partner who took the flimsiest excuse – a single diseased cow – to halt a major and historic trade. Instead, Klein insisted on tripping down to Washington himself. He was poorly received by his ostensible friends, being granted meaningless minutes with secondary figures, and he had no influence on U.S. policy whatever, but his bellowing continued.

Eastern Canadians, in sympathy with Alberta’s plight, greatly increased their consumption of beef, despite high prices maintained by retailers and despite the fears of the disease promoted by American beef interests nicely profiting from high domestic prices induced by the trade ban. Did Klein ever have the grace to acknowledge this in a meaningful way? Not at all.

Well, Harper is not Klein, and reportedly Klein himself is not all that taken with Harper, but Klein’s angry-child approach to politics does provide a context for anyone outside Alberta to judge a new party based there. A Joe Clark, serving with distinction and honour as a Progressive Conservative, rose above this, but Harper not only didn’t, he frequently seemed not even to try.

Another refrain of Harper’s was western alienation and the West’s needing to have influence in Ottawa, parroting Klein’s regular blubbering about Alberta being left out. If Klein’s behaviours are examples of Western alienation, it is pretty clear that a great deal of the effort to correct the balance must come from Alberta itself.

I think many Canadians are open to new ideas about improving our democracy, although nonsense like “we want in,” an actual phrase used in Alberta, offers us nothing but attitude. Proportional representation should be carefully examined, although those who have thought about it know it offers no panacea, bringing perhaps as many new problems as those it might solve. A promising idea for reform is a ballot which allows voters to rank their choices. That way, voters are more likely to feel their ballots count, for even getting your second choice is more satisfying than the simple win-or-lose choice voters now have, and such a system of voting takes better account of the sometimes subtle differences between parties on important issues.

During the last portion of the campaign, at the very time Martin displayed a fierce new determination, Harper began puffed-up talk about a New Conservative majority government. This not only suggested hubris, it caused many ready to chastise the Liberals with their votes to re-consider the possibility of national government with the tone of Klein’s Alberta.

The frightening influence of views from Texas – views perhaps best exemplified by Tom DeLay, former entrepreneur roach exterminator (yes, that was his business) and Republican Congressional Whip – is seen clearly in Harper’s refrain about courts legislating instead of Parliament. This was a favorite of Old Tom’s on the Texas Top Ten for many years, but it is about the same kind of nonsense as the words to songs like “Stand by Your Man.”

When a nation chooses to govern itself by creating a Charter, or Bill, of Rights, it necessarily leaves the precise interpretation of the words to the courts. Otherwise, the Charter would have to read like a provincial highway code instead of a broad statement of human principles.

What Harper seemed to be saying was that he wants to cut back on the Charter, so that Courts would have little latitude in interpreting it – that is, he wants to move in the direction of a highway code specifying things like parking so many meters from a fire hydrant. Cutting back the Charter of Rights doesn’t make a very high-sounding campaign slogan. Blaming judges for overstepping their responsibility and legislating in place of a “democratically elected” Parliament does, at least in some circles.

Of course, another possible approach here is to follow the pattern of some American states in having judges elected. One hopes Harper’s supporters recognize the corrupt, legally incompetent, and politically-correct results this practice produces. America’s highest court, the ultimate interpreter of its Bill of Rights, remains appointed with very little chance of its ever being altered since it requires an immense effort to alter the American Constitution which was given the form of a law unlike any other law. The tactic used by the good old boys in Texas is to constantly spew their poison about the courts and get themselves elected to the offices that appoint the judges. Judges of that kind virtually appointed Bush as President.

Are we to expect an increasing chorus of yahoo rhetoric about the courts? I hope not because that is a very destructive practice, and it goes against the grain of Canadian social values, which are easily confirmed to be, on average, quite different to those of Americans.

Social values brings us back to the basic problem of Harper’s party simply being out of step. His is not a new conservative party in the sense most Canadians are used to thinking of the old Conservative party. His party is the former Alliance, a regional party swollen temporarily in size by public discontents. The election gave Martin, despite early doubts about him, a large minority. The same election gave us a large number of, whatever else they may be, socially-progressive Bloc members in Quebec and a healthy vote for the NDP. The total of these three parties holds more than twice the seats of the New Conservatives – a very strong vote for traditional, decent Canadian social values.