Letter to Berlin: The Best of All Possible Worse Worlds

By Stan Persky | February 3, 2006

VANCOUVER — When I’m in Berlin, I frequently post a “Letter from Berlin” to explain some of the ins and outs of German and European politics to my compatriots in North America. (I’m one of those people who “divides” his time between two cities — in my case, Vancouver and Berlin.) Given the oddities of the January 23, 2006 Canadian federal election, it might be a good idea to return the favour and post a “Letter to Berlin” in an attempt to explain some of the idiosyncracies of Canadian politics to Europeans. (Canadians, of course, are free to read over a Berlin shoulder, just in case they, too, are still puzzled by the twists and turns in their native land.)

Even though in Voltaire’s Candide, Dr. Pangloss famously and repeatedly assures young Candide that we’re living in “the best of all possible worlds,” few of us anywhere have been persuaded. But from a German perspective, in a post-Berlin Wall re-unified federal republic which has endured years of 10 per cent-plus unemployment, recurrent budget deficits, a half-decade of near-recession, and a noticeable if gradual unravelling of the country’s sensible social welfare and labour rights system, Canada may well look like one of the better possible worlds on the planet these days.

The Canadian economy is booming, unemployment is at its lowest rate in 30 years (there are “help wanted” signs up in shops and jobsites across the country), there’s been an annual large budget surplus for almost a decade now, the country is peaceful and not crime-or-terror-ridden, and if Canadians have any worries, it’s about an impending labour shortage, despite immigration rates of about a quarter of a million people a year. Plus, the country still abounds in expanses of pristine Natur that German tourists revel in.

It’s perfectly understandable that German voters elected a conservative plurality in federal elections last autumn — Christian Democratic Chancellor candidate Angela Merkel dethroned former Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, it will be recalled. But Germans might well be puzzled as to why Canadian voters last month turned out a four-term Liberal Party government headed by Prime Minister Paul Martin, and elected a Conservative Party minority government which will be led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, given that Canada seems to be one of the better possible worlds.

First, the numbers: the Conservatives polled 36.3 per cent of the popular votes (about a 6 per cent increase from the 2004 election), and won 124 of Canada’s 308 parliamentary seats (up from 99 in 2004), thus giving the Tories, as they’re known, a fairly narrow minority government, the first Conservative government in Canada since 1993.

The Liberal Party scored 30.1 per cent of the vote (about 6 per cent down from the last election) and gained 103 seats (down from the 135 seats that gave the Liberals a minority government in 2004). Canada’s social democrats, the New Democratic Party, won 2.6 million votes (including mine), or 17.5 per cent of the popular votes (an increase of about 2 per cent), but increased their seat total to 29 (up 10 seats from 2004’s 19 seats). Finally, there’s the Canadian idiosyncrasy, the Bloc Quebecois, a pro-Quebec-independence party that only runs candidates in la belle province, as we call it in the other official language. It won 51 seats (a loss of 3 seats from the last election) and polled 42 per cent of the vote in Quebec, something of a disappointment for its pro-sovereignty partisans. And, oh yes, there’s the Canadian Green Party, which received about 4 per cent of the vote nationally, and won no seats (more or less the same result as in 2004).

Since Canada, unlike Germany, has neither proportional representation (each seat is determined by a “first past the post” method) nor a tradition of forming coalition majorities, the result is a slender Conservative minority, indeed a smaller minority than was expected by the pollsters. Nonetheless, the instability of the minority government during the next period is mitigated by “convention,” namely the recognition that Canadians, having voted in 2004 and 2006, and produced minority governments in both elections, will not want another election for some time. Thus, narrow as the minority might be, it is likely to govern for a couple of years. Still, its room for maneuver is considerably hedged in, which is apparently what Canadians also want.

Second, the short explanation of the outcome: the election was largely driven by public disaffection caused by a 10-year-old Liberal Party financial scandal that occurred in Quebec in 1995 (but only came to light in recent years). There was also weariness with a governing party that many people felt had been in office too long, little affection for a frequently indecisive and “dithering” Prime Minister Martin, as he was dubbed in the media, and a sharp reduction of the “fear factor” — the fear that the election of the Conservative Party and its leader, Harper, would lead to immediate extreme or radical social policies akin to the American Republican Party regime of George W. Bush. In sum, Canadians recoiled from what was described as “the politics of entitlement,” a phrase generated by a former Liberal Party cabinet minister who told a parliamentary committee investigating his dubious personal expenditures, “I’m entitled to my ‘entitlements’,” referring to the various fiscal perks and advantages afforded to ruling politicians.

Okay, that’s the official version, and it’s more or less correct. Now that we’ve had a couple of weeks to ponder the outcome, we can turn to some of the nuances and meanings, and why Canadians will continue to be living in the best of all possible slightly worse worlds.

The three major party leaders all appeared in extended public question-and-answer sessions, in addition to a series of televised debates in both English and French. I watched most of the spectacle, and notwithstanding my social democratic inclinations, Conservative leader Stephen Harper, despite his physical awkwardnesses — he tends to be more than a bit robotic — proved to be surprisingly charming if low-keyed in interviews, and compared to his rivals, he was the only leader able to answer questions in a conversational tone of voice and actual sentences, as opposed to hortatory declamations. Harper’s intention of projecting a calming effect was perfectly pitched.

The Liberal Prime Minister, Martin, was hapless and strangely incoherent, although Liberal policies, if anyone could understand them, were mostly far saner than those of the Conservatives. Social democratic leader Jack Layton, a former Toronto urban politician, was the most physically attractive of the candidates — he sports a rakish mustache and a gleaming, well-shaped bald dome — but his theme of “lend us your vote” was repetitive, a bit desperate, and only confirmed that his NDP is a habitual also-ran in Canadian federal politics.

There was across the board agreement that Harper won the campaign, which was later reflected in his winning the election, however narrowly. Harper’s main obstacle was to overcome the lately re-unified Conservative Party’s reputation as a patched-together coalition dominated by right-wing religious fundamentalists and regional rednecks. Having been defeated in 2004 precisely because of voter fears of an extremist “hidden agenda,” this time Harper moved clearly to the centre, and ran a policy-a-day, disciplined, “on-message” campaign emphasizing good government and understandable economic policies.

Harper’s platform was amazingly simplistic. He promised to cut the national goods-and-services tax by 2 per cent, give families with children under 6 a hundred dollars a month to help with day care, and provide a tax rebate on monthly bus passes. In addition, he offered standard conservative fare in the form of a government “accountability” act to cure scandals and entitlement excess, a vague plan to get tough on crime, and a vaguer promise to reduce waiting for medical patients.

Economists pointed out that income tax cuts, proposed by the Liberals, were preferable to the reductions in sales taxes that Harper promised. Only the social democrats sensibly pointed out that there was no need to lower or raise taxes, that taxation rates are more or less right, and that the slush of surpluses they generate should be used to strenghten social welfare programs.

Day care advocates argued that the Conservative scheme of giving money directly to families was the opposite of the national day care program proposed by the Liberals, and if the same reasoning was applied to medicare, the country wouldn’t have a public medical insurance program. However the Liberal proposal for day care was considerably weakened by the fact that they had proposed it several times before and failed to deliver. Their proposal was also weakened when a Liberal aide sneered that the Conservative individual money plan would only lead to it being spent on “popcorn and beer,” thus insulting millions of families, and lending credibility to Harper’s claim that day care money should be given not to day care “expert” bureaucrats to establish a day care program, but to the “real” day care experts, parents themselves, who were the best people to decide on how their children should be cared for. This was the major emblematic ideological debate in the campaign, even if it was obscured by all the other campaign elements. It was the one issue where the Conservatives could effectively underscore their belief that economic life should be a matter of individual endeavour rather than a system of collectively shared values.

The main point of the Conservative economic promises, as far as their effect on the election, was that they were inoffensive, and understandable to individuals who have a hard time thinking beyond a notion of “what’s in it for me.” I was mildly amazed that the masses might be persuaded by the offer of such trinkets, but the point wasn’t so much the trinkets as their inoffensiveness, given that the electorate was considering turning out the Liberals. What Harper had to deliver was reassurance that he wasn’t a Bible-thumping rightwinger, and the inoffensiveness of his moderate-policy-a-day campaign did the trick of persuading people that it was safe to vote for regime change.

The only regressive social policy proposal made by Harper was his announcement that a free (or non-party) vote would be held in parliament to reconsider Canada’s recently passed law legalising same-sex marriages. Harper made the pledge on the first day of the campaign, and it was clear, even to his opponents, that this was offered as a sop to his social conservative supporters, and that his heart really wasn’t in it. Since the Canadian courts have already pretty much decided that same-sex marriage is protected by the Canadian Constitution, even a parliamentary vote to go back to the old definition of one-man-one-woman marriage is unlikely to have any practical effect. It’s also unlikely the new parliament would pass such a resolution and, in any case, polls indicate that a majority of Canadians feel that the issue shouldn’t be revisited. Having done his conservative duty, Harper seldom mentioned the same-sex marriage issue again. He also pledged that he had no intention of altering the country’s absence of abortion laws.

The winter campaign, stretching over the Christmas-New Year holidays, was a long one, extending some 8 weeks. Oddly, despite Harper’s successful reconfiguration as a moderate, the simplicity of his policies, and the well-oiled efficiency of his campaign machine, for the first four weeks of the campaign, voters were generally unmoved. Pollsters scratched their heads as they reported week after week that polling numbers were at a stasis, a dead-heat, or even a slight Liberal lead that would likely result in another Liberal minority government. Canadians would chastise their scandal-riddled Liberal government with a reduced minority, but otherwise we would continue to muddle along in our best of all possible worlds.

Then there was an odd incident of a dog barking in the night. Here’s what happened. A social democratic parliamentarian sent a note to the national police, the RCMP, asking them to investigate the rumour that a Liberal tax announcement, made shortly before the campaign, benefiting stock holders, had been improperly leaked and led to stock market shenanigans. In the midst of Christmas festivities and gorgings, the RCMP announced it would conduct a new criminal investigation into the Liberal government, even though it admitted it had no evidence and few credible suspicions. The RCMP could have waited to announce its investigation until after the election, thus not interfering with the people’s democratic business; oddly, it didn’t.

Instead of a Christmas campaign pause, the media screens and front pages were filled with screaming headline stories of yet another potential Liberal government scandal. And that was all it took. By the time the Christmas feast plates and turkey skeletons had been cleared away, the voters had made up their minds. The post-New Year pollsters cheerfully reported that the Conservatives had surged into the lead, and nobody knew how much their lead would swell. Pre-election day polls were even murmuring about a Conservative majority, the worst of all possible worse worlds.

Conspiracy theorists might pick the bones of this carcass for a while, but Canada is not much of a conspiracy country. No, the RCMP wasn’t turning the screws, they were merely covering their Royal Canadian asses, not wanting to be accused after the election of having buried a legitimate investigation for pro-Liberal political purposes. It was bad judgment on the part of the police, and fatal for the Liberals, but alas not a lively conspiracy in sedate Canada. Yet, given the old but real scandals, and the smugness of “entitlement” politics, the mere rumour of another possible scandal was more than enough to send the voter-lemmings over the cliff.

A good two weeks before the vote, we knew we were heading for a worse possible world. The only question was, How much worse? By then, Mr. Harper was reported by the media to be looking and acting “prime ministerial,” apparently an important consideration in this form of beauty contest.

As is now almost well-known, there is almost no story that can be told without including the story of the media telling the story. This, too, is not very conspiratorial. Canada has an oligopoly press that consists of two organizations, the Asper family’s CanWest corporation, which controls most of the daily newspaper circulation and TV viewership in the country, and The Globe and Mail corporation, which controls the rest. Both organizations forthrightly endorsed a Harper government. The one independent news organization, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, remained its earnest, slightly dull, reliable self, projecting an image of fairness, despite presenting a minimal number of left-of-centre commentators to “balance” the predominance of its right-of-centre or just plain dopey legion of pundits.

Perhaps more important are the subliminal media factors. The media tends to be childish and easily bored. Though an election was unnecessary, since we were living in one of the better possible worlds, nonetheless for months the media had egged on the public to anticipate an election. The media likes elections. It relieves their anxiety about what they’re going to be doing the next day in an uncertain news business, where anything might happen. Once the election is on, the bulk of every news gathering staff has the security of knowing what they’re going to be doing day after day. For some reason, news-types find it comforting.

Again, none of this is conspiracy. Still, the media in its most collective sense, tended to validate the idea that “the people want change,” and to reassure the public that change would not be disastrous because, after all, Mr. Harper was not “scary,” as he had been seen to be for the past decade or so, when he was intimate with right-wing populists, the right-wing Taxpayers’ Federation, and right-wing American think tanks. He had, in his own word, “evolved,” even if some of his followers regard all theories of evolution as a leftist secular humanist godless plot. The media did not control the outcome of the election, of course, they merely contributed to the mood for, and legitimacy of, that vague grail word, “change.”

Then there was election day and night. By then, I’d pretty much given up on “the wisdom of the people,” as I tend to do as election nights loom. The only question was whether we’d get the worst of all possible worse worlds, or something slightly less worse. At which point the wisdom of the people showed up, and none too soon.

No, no Conservative majority, thank non-God. Maybe next time. If the Harper Conservatives govern moderately for a couple of years, then they might be rewarded with a long-term majority government. For now, though, only a narrow minority, which will almost assure moderation in most things. Some of the worst, most religious fundamentalist, candidates of the Conservatives were defeated (so were some of the worst Liberals and New Democrats). While there will be more policies leaning toward economic libertarianism (or unregulated capitalism), totalitarian social proposals will probably be at a minimum. As midnight rolled across the land, most left-of-centrists sighed with relief. It would be one of the better worse possible worlds we would be waking up to in the morning.

Similarly, German mechanics, Polish plumbers, and Italian electricians who are currently twiddling their thumbs in European unemployment can also sigh with relief. It is still possible to immigrate to the one of the better worse possible worlds.


Vancouver, Feb. 3, 2006


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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