Here’s a proposition: A political crisis (like the Liberal Party’s) is emotionally gripping to the extent that it lacks real-life impact. The less content, the more drama, and vice versa. Drain politics of significant effects on the fate of the citizens, and its excitement quotient soars. U.S. politics is an extreme case, and proves the rule.

In American politics, virtually nothing is at stake. The parties don’t even claim to be different. Yet it’s great entertainment. Think of the Gore-Bush cliff-hanger. Add some content and the drama diminishes.

Take a Canadian example. The emotional impact of the split between Brian Mulroney and his long-time friend Lucien Bouchard was diluted by the fact that they really disagreed over something, i.e., relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Our attention drifted from their tension to that issue.

Now test the proposition on the current Liberal maelstrom. Consider the melodrama first, exemplified in the main characters. Jean Chrétien is Captain Queeg-like, a leader on the edge. This has been coming for years. In 1996, he reamed out a Montreal waitress on a TV town hall for not having read his campaign booklet closely enough. Not the style of the canny Chrétien we once knew. Then he mugged a protester.

He appeared to dwindle and hide under the pressure of the 1995 referendum. Or the intruder in his residence that year, when he seemed to unravel, though fortunately his wife didn’t. Lately he has sounded like Richard Nixon during The Last Days in power, when aides took turns tiptoeing in to try and expose the boss to some reality. Jean Chrétien has clearly linked up with the long chain of loopy Canadian leaders.

Personally, I also find Paul Martin an intriguing figure. He tries to be business-minded, clear-thinking, statesmanlike. An ideas guy, his acolytes say. But he is subject to Tourette’s-like outbursts of social and civic conscience, like the tormented Robert Redford character in The Candidate.

He had one last weekend when he said this clash isn’t about what happens to him but to the country. He blurts such stuff out too often and unpredictably for it to be just facile. He seems to mean it, yet it never amounts to anything; he doesn’t carry through, as if he hears echoes that impel him, then desert him.

The only real constituency he seems in touch with is the rich, and for their sake he can always find a reason to cancel part B of the plan, the part where the majority actually starts to benefit from the savage cuts he imposed in his ministerial role — but he feels bad.

Now turn to the other side of the proposition, the one that says the whole gaudy battle means stink for the citizenry. Well, tell me what Jean and Paul have done between them in nine years in power, with no big disagreements by their own testimony — besides extending the Mulroney agenda they were hell-bent to overthrow?

We’ve had more free trade, more social programs killed, more tax cuts for the rich, more privatising, deregulating — and nothing in sight except more of the same from both, if you exclude the Martin mewling about how some day we’ll turn the corner and public life will matter again, so help me dad. His great achievement was supposedly to slay the deficit, but that may well have happened had he done nothing, and it surely would have happened without his vast cuts that harrowed so many lives.

Between them, it’s hard to spy a difference. Paul Wells wrote in the National Post that the Liberal Party has split in two but the two parts are still, for policy purposes, as one.

This mix of high drama and absent content can lead to mixed feelings among the citizens. On the one hand, due to the lack of real divisions, there’s an impulse to say, “Frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn” — as The Toronto Star columnist Tom Walkom has done. I admire his sang froid but, on the other hand, it’s hard not to get hooked on the personalities. It’s like a shootout between two classic figures from Second World War U.S. Navy movies: Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) versus Mr. Roberts (Henry Fonda, whom Paul Martin kind of resembles). Who wouldn’t root for Roberts?

The guy with the real mixed feelings though, has to be Brian Mulroney, who’s been hissing and pissing from the sidelines this past week. He’s got a right. Speaking in woo-woo talk, you could say he didn’t so much leave government, as watch his spirit transmigrate into the body of the Chrétien-Martin Liberals, who then garnered great credit for not being the Mulroney Tories. (I think I’ve seen this movie, too; in the remake it starred Warren Beatty.)

The real indictment of both Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin is that they took us exactly where Brian Mulroney was going, but far more effectively, and got away with it by lying and claiming they were doing something else while replicating even his sleaze notes. No wonder it drives Brian bats. Shh, I think I hear him gnashing his teeth.

(As for renewal hitting the New Democratic Party, well, maybe next week. . .)


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.