FRIDAY, MAY 20, SOMEWHERE OVER TORONTO –- Okay, you’ve read your Globe and Rick Salutin, Jeff Simpson, and shrewd old Meg Wente, and your Star, with cynical Richard Gwyn and hopeless Chantal Hebert (and you don’t read the Post because you aren’t a masochist, yet) and you still hope that Dooney’s will explain what the hell The Week That Wasn’t was all about. With pleasure.
It was supposed to be the week horribilis in which Stephen Harper’s snarling Reform-Alliance-Neo-Conservative Party, in cahoots with Gilles Duceppe’s not-so-charmant Bloc Quebecois brought down the dithering, slithering, scandal-spattered minority government of Prime Minister Paul Martin and the Liberal Party, now abetted by Smilin’ Jack Layton’s New Democracts, and drove us all into a late-June election, barely a year after the last inconclusive one. Didn’t happen. Good.
Before explaining What It All Means, just one passing observation: for a country sometimes regarded as a dull but pleasant backwater (that is, when the Economist magazine isn’t enthusing about “Cool Canada”), you have to admit that Canadada’s politicos put on a show better than Survivor/No-NHL/Desperate Housewives all rolled into one. At times, the floor of the House looked like something out of an episode of TV’s ER: Parliamentarians clutching their roiled guts (heroic indie MP Carolyn Parrish, possibly felled by appendicitis, ovarian cysts, or kidney stones, crying out, “I’m not going to let a frigging ovary bring this country down!”), MPs toppling over and being carted out on stretchers (turned out it was just heartburn; take your Tums), others staggering in fresh from chemo cancer treatment (ex-Reform now indie BC MP Chuck Cadman saving the day). Medic! Medic! Peter Milliken! (He’s the House Speaker who cast the tie-breaking 153-152 vote in favour of the guv.)
Plus soap-opera falselove, starring Belinda Stronach crossing the oily floor from the Neo-Tories to the Libs while ex-boyfriend Peter McKay wept in the potato patch, and of course no shortage of Christian-Tory fingernails trying to scratch Belinda’s eyes out with suitably sexist slimo. The only genuinely witty remark belonged to grumpy Stephen Harper after Belinda accused him of not understanding the complexity of the country: I never noticed her display much concern with complexity before. Finally, secret non-offers recorded on secret-but-not-for-long digital devices. Whew! What more do you want from The Week That Wasn’t. Go, Canada! Goodbye, Indecision 2005! (At least we won’t have to pry the Team Dooney’s Election bus out of the permafrost in Nunavit, where it was last sighted, buried to its axles.)
So, enough fun and games, let’s get down to work. What was it all about? Which is to say, What are we really arguing about in this country? What’s the issue at stake? Scandal? National Unity? Leadership? Same-sex something or other? Or is it something else?
Is it, or should it be, about the Sponsorship Scandal, aka AdScam? No. Truth is, It’s a minor scandal. Trust me on this. Yes, it’s illegal, immoral, slimy, and the bastards shouldn’t be stealing our money. And yes, if you rev up the pulse of the people with enough media saturation, heavy breathing, and hothouse Ottawa shouting, you can temporarily move the election polls enough points to get Stephen Harper mad-dog excited.
I remember when Auditor-General Sheila Fraser dropped the bombshell a year or so ago that the Chretien government had illegally greased a lot of Quebec palms, and that evening on CBC, the Pastor Peter Mansbridge pundits’ panel included veteran pollster Allen Gregg, columnist Chantal Hebert, and a token West Coaster. Mr. Gregg, who used to wear a leather jacket, a beard and a ponytail but now is more conventionally togged out, cuttingly remarked that Sheila was “a bit of a drama queen” and then opined the amount of money involved, while running to a hundred million or so, was a relatively small sum in relation to government budgets. What Gregg, who’s signed many a government contract, didn’t quite say, but clearly implied, was that it was the way business is and has been done in Quebec federal politics for about a half-century. Corrupt? Yes. Bearable? Aw-mmm-hem-haw-er-mmm. Should it be stopped? Sure. Should we get sanctimonious about it? I don’t think so.
More to the immediate point, Did Paul Martin, finance minister nearly a decade ago when the stuffed envelopes started changing suit jacket pockets, know about it? Well, tacitly, he did. Of course, not explicitly. He knew business was done, that it was part of Prime Minister Chretien’s home-turf machine, and he also knew that he didn’t want to know. To quote everybody, Let’s move on.
Is it or should it be about National Unity? Well, national unity’s sort of important, but it’s not the most important thing. The irony here is that while Stephen Harper is accusing Martin of moral failings, he’s making a deal with the Quebec separatist party to bring down the federal government, thereby increasing the possibility of National Disunity. What’s so morally admirable, or ethically edifying about that?
There’s an unspoken national secret that most people in primarily English-speaking Canada know but that is seldom mentioned in polite company. Most of us have known it every since Rene Levesque charmingly wept on TV the night of the 1980 Quebec referendum. It’s this: we could live with an independent, sovereignty-associated Quebec. We’d have a Federation des Deux Nations, and it wouldn’t be as charmant as the present uncomfortable relationship, but we’d survive. Insofar as we’re in the middle of a Quebec-based government money scandal which excites tempers and righteousness in La Belle Hellhole, we shouldn’t encourage the tempers, righteousness, or possible disunity by running an election.
Okay, so the squabble isn’t really about the scandal or national unity, and it’s not even about leadership. Yes, it would be nice to have leadership but, fact is, there’s not much of it around right now. We’re in the degeneracy of the Pearson-Trudeau Liberal leadership lineage, and talent is thin. But if I’m right about what this is all about (it’s in the next paragraph), then it doesn’t matter if the leader is Paul Martin, Jack Layton, Pierre Pettigrew, Irwin Cotler, Belinda Stronach or Olivia Chow.
What the week that wasn’t, and many other weeks in the national calendar, was/is/will be all about is whether we want to have a country shaped by the social democratic national policies of the Libs-NDP-Greens-old Progressive Conservatives, or if we want to have a country run by the neo-conservative policies of the Reform-Alliance-Neo-Conservative-FocusOnTheFamily-Xtian-Coalition. Astonishingly enough, and even though I’m a devout Elitist, the population seems to sense this, and when asked in recent weeks what they were concerned about, they said things like health care, education, and social issues, and not scandals, tax reduction, and phoney integrity. And though I’m less than sentimental about the vaunted “Wisdom of the People,” the people also said there was no need for an election now.
In case you’ve forgotten about what the policy differences are, they are as follows:
Social Democratic spectrum (Libs, NDP, PC ghosts, Greener-than-Thous): for public health care; separation of church and state; government regulation of the marketplace; liberal welfare, education and childcare policies; public broadcasting; and the state not poking its nose into people’s bedrooms or their dope baggies.
Neo-Conservative spectrum (Reform-Alliance-Neo-Con Party, Focus on the Family, Xtian Coalition, etc.): for privatized health care; unregulated marketplace; enforced social values on abortion, homosexuality, capital punishment; minimal government; and, if possible, religious opposition to evolution.
I know you don’t quite believe that it’s as bad as all that. But in a Jeff Simpson Globe column last week attempting to explain why Stronach couldn’t stomach it anymore, he mentioned in passing four recent Conservative Party nominations in B.C. One was a former Focus on the Family president, another was a Focus legal advisor who was part of the Christian Legal Fellowship, another was a socially conservative church pastor, and the fourth ran a “Christian” law firm. Simpson’s point was that the new Conservative coalition gave every sign of being dominated by that 15-20 per cent of the population that we politely call “social conservatives.”
Now, I know you hate to think that what This Is All About is social policy, substantive issues, and a vision of the nature of the nation.
It would be more fun to think it was about the old political horserace that provides the substance of most column-writing in this country, or the sneering gossip that makes up the news on the Asper Family’s Global TV. Well, some days it is, I suppose.
So, the reason it matters not to topple the present regime, for all its faults, is that it matters not to have a Reform-Alliance-Neo-Conservative government in Canada. It also matters to have a government that practices social democratic policies during a period of balanced budgets, relatively low unemployment, and decent cash flow. Any questions?