The distemper of these times

Par Peter C. Newman

Élections 2006


Mr. Harper Mr. Martin aren't the only vexations in this election. What if voters give the finger to democracy itself? asks PETER NEWMAN
In the final defining days of this Gilbert and Sullivan campaign, Stephen Harper's reincarnation as a mainstream politician has been traumatic to Canada's body politic. Last time around, the Conservative leader exuded the confused, walleyed aura of a policy wonk travelling on a forged passport, in charge of a party of misfits who had few independently programmed brain cells to rub together. Now, he is the last man standing in this contest of lesser evils, which is what Election 2006 has become.
In 2004, Paul Martin eked out a minority mandate, mainly because he wasn't Stephen Harper. Now, that phenomenon has reversed itself, so that the Tory leader holds a winning hand, mainly because he isn't Paul Martin. Mr. Harper remains the sum of his contradictions, but most voters have opted to treat him as our first postmodern politician, which is okay, since nobody really knows what that means.
Mr. Harper's impressive switch to the cautiously progressive, tenaciously pragmatic individualism that is Canada's state religion is on the verge of sending Mr. Martin back to Power Corp., where he started. A Robert Stanfield in turtleneck, the Conservative leader exudes zero charisma, which is more than made up for by his gut loathing for Liberals, of both large and small "l" varieties. He is the most successful disciple of the University of Calgary's political science brains trust, currently the fountainhead of the most influential political ferment in the nation. Contemptuous of Paul Martin's eastern Perrier agenda, these people don't believe in bubbly water. Rooted in western alienation, their ideology falls somewhere between Adam Smith's stern doctrines and Alberta's maverick Howdy-Doodyism of the open range. To them, it is no minor matter that if Mr. Harper makes it into 24 Sussex Drive, he will be the first western occupant (not counting those few Kim Campbell weekends) since John Diefenbaker was evicted in 1963. That's 43 years, pardner.
Meanwhile, Paul Martin's run, cursed by his good intentions, has turned him into the Inspector Clouseau of Canadian politics. He means well, but like the Peter Sellers character in that satirical detective film series, nothing works out the way it was supposed to. He is the victim of his advisers, who exhausted their energy and street smarts trying to assassinate Jean Chrétien. By now, the Liberal campaign feels as if Mr. Martin was auditioning for the pilot of a new TV series, Desperate Prime Ministers. Even the CBC will reject this script; it has no pathos, just stupidity and arrogance. For a Liberal to lose the party's home ground of Quebec takes daring usually associated with kamikaze pilots.
In another place, I wrote that what Canada desperately needs is the moral equivalent of building the CPR. What we've been getting during most of this campaign is the moral equivalent of the World Wrestling Federation. The underlying core issue is not whether Liberal corruption has become endemic. That's a given. The problem is that institutional authority at all levels is being rejected, as Canadians realize that the country's problems no longer have political solutions. If this process of accelerating disillusionment is not reversed, our society's animating ideas and most of the institutions that reflect its priorities (including the social contract itself) will be weakened to the point of being discarded. The middle ground between smugness and despair has grown dangerously narrow. Individual and regional aspirations have become more difficult to incorporate in the national will.
The seminal issue of this operetta of a campaign is the future of Canadian democracy, which comes down to individual participation in the political process. In the 2004 general election, a mere 60.9 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast their ballots; predictions I've seen for this year forecast that this pathetic total might drop another 10 per cent. If half of eligible voters decide to opt out of that sacred moment on Jan. 23 when they can choose who should govern, it won't be just because of the weather.
The problem is that most of the great issues troubling this miracle of a country of ours have been exhausted, not through the catharsis of solutions, but through the absence of decisive action and the lack of any sustaining vision. Each of the many political confrontations of the past decade has diminished the moral authority of the protagonists involved. This "end of ideology" crisis has drained Canadian democracy of its vitality. There is a consensual apathy adrift in the land that threatens not only the political parties and their hapless leaders, but the viability of the democratic system itself -- and that's the parlous attitude this country desperately needs to reverse.
Partial and largely makeshift salvation has emerged from an unexpected source: The Internet has been transformed into a giant blogosphere. Whatever else they represent, bloggers have emerged as an influential, if still primitive, force that has burst the political process wide open. Their messages relay this urgent war cry: "Here is what I believe -- judge for yourself." They are changing the nature of political discourse, partly because most of the recognized pundits who blog save their best material for their informal jottings, since it's them speaking out, not their publications. It's all part of the scary fact that access to computer screens has become almost universal and almost indiscriminate: Warren Kinsella can have an effect on as many Canadians as The New York Times.
At the same time, there is no better example of a people who appreciate democratic values than the 11 million Iraqis (75 per cent of registered voters) who turned out late last year to elect their first democratic parliament. The vote of Sunni Arabs, the minority group backing most of the insurgents, was so overwhelming that polling stations ran out of ballots. Whether they were Sunnis, Shiites or Kurds, those brave democrats knew they were risking their lives just by dipping their index finger in ink and participating in what was after all, an American initiative.
By not voting, Canadians will weaken an already vulnerable political system. Preservation of democracy demands that on Jan. 23 we slip on those pesky galoshes, trudge over to the polling booth and mark our ballots. Those ink-stained fingers on the other side of the world ought to be a dramatic reminder enough of democracy's value and vulnerability.
Peter C. Newman, who has interviewed nine prime ministers, is the author of The Distemper of Our Times (1968).


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