Like so many others, my brain has been scrambled since Monday night. Too much, too fast, too unexpected to digest. Too many anomalies, too many surprises. And how do we possibly account for the appalling turnout — barely more than boring 2008 — given the drama of the last two weeks plus all those kids using social media, plus the high advanced poll?
Let me try to impose some order on my intellectual chaos.
First allow me to recall, with all due modesty, the headline on a column I wrote in this space before an election was certain: “Harper government will win majority in May 2 election.” That was when Mr. Harper could still have offered enough budget goodies to the NDP or Bloc to prevent an election. But despite the lie that underpinned the entire Conservative campaign, Stephen Harper wanted an election and made sure it happened.
Second, despite the sublime accuracy of the headline, I had no idea what I was talking about. None of the factors that finally accounted for the historic results were predictable in advance, above all Gilles Duceppe’s moral collapse, the impact of the TV debates, and Jackomania. No one could possibly have planned for the campaign to evolve the way it did.
Third, like so many of my dearest old friends, I reacted to the final results with a perfect mixture of exhilaration and dread. The reasons are self-evident: On the one hand, the unprecedented NDP breakthrough (in my first-ever national campaign, in 1957, the CCF won 10 per cent of the vote), and on the other the fact that Mr. Harper has his majority.
Fourth, I regret that Michael Ignatieff leaves his short stint in politics on such a low note. Even though I was shocked by his support of U.S. aggression against Iraq, he was among my favourite public intellectuals, and as Liberal Leader he grew enormously and comported himself with dignity and honour. There can be no doubt the Harperites — playing their usual U.S.-style, take-no-prisoners hardball — destroyed his reputation before he even had a chance. Still, it’s mystifying how he failed to understand in advance that the Liberal Party had become a hollow shell. I’ll eagerly await the inevitable book offering a unique glimpse into Canadian politics.
Fifth, the media is having a field day feasting on some of the new NDP MPs from Quebec. Cheap thrills. We can be sure that while some will emerge as splendid additions to a House that needs them desperately, others will prove less so. Quelle surprise! But let’s keep our criteria clear here. A cabinet made up solely of these new MPs would be guaranteed to do less harm to the country than the one Stephen Harper names. I’d trade the least of them for Tony Clement any day of the week. And I would teach them about Parliament by having them watch John Baird and instructing them do the exact opposite.
Sixth, I hope Le Bon Jack and his new team can help transform Parliament — above all the daily Question Period from the revolting, alienating spectacle it is to something vaguely dignified and positive. I understand that some terrible spell befalls even ordinary human beings when they step foot in that chamber. Still, I beg the NDP caucus to join Elizabeth May’s crusade against stupid heckling. Make us proud of you. If the government is incapable of civility, let Mr. Harper take the rap.
Seventh, unlike some, I don’t rejoice in the emergence of an ideologically polarized political system in this country because I’m not at all confident the left-of-centre party will be the winner. Of course if liberals, progressives, leftists, social democrats, socialists — call us what you will — continue to split the vote, as happened on Monday, our defeat in perpetuity is pretty much guaranteed.
But even if there were only two parties, one distinctly progressive, I’m not sure we could count on victory. There are two reasons.
One relates to Canada’s political culture. While a majority of Canadians may have what we can generously call social-democratic views on social issues, at the same time most (excepting perhaps in Quebec) support a business-oriented approach to running the economy. That’s why for years polls showed that while many Canadians appreciated the role of the NDP in keeping governments honest and pushing for more humane policies, the large majority did not want the NDP itself as government. The NDP couldn’t, so the phrase went, run the corner grocery store. To many, the Bob Rae government of Ontario was proof of the pudding.
Has that perception now changed? Did the NDP soar because of its modest progressive platform? However much the NDP tries to move to the centre on certain issues and tries to prove its smarts on the economy, can it escape its own transcendent raison d’etre: the use of the powers of government to achieve a more just and equal society?
Then there’s the less high-falutin business of down-and-dirty politics. Progressives of all stripes must never underestimate this little caper of Jack’s massage. The smear of Jack Layton by the powerful the Sun Media chain is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg of garbage that would be thrown at any liberal party that had the slightest chance of forming a government. The history of the Rae government is the model to study — a systematic, relentless gang-up of various media, businesses of all sizes, government-relations firms, bond-rating agencies, many professionals, and lots of insubordinate cops, including senior ones. Even respectable sources can be expected to join the fray, as shown by the recent story in this very paper agreeing that Mr. Layton was smeared by the Sun but insisting that, after all, it was a true smear.
The other side plays for keeps. They believe they’re in a war and act accordingly. They smear, lie, malign, distort, divide, terrify, destroy. They play it the American Way, as Michael Ignatieff can testify. It’s like Jon Stewart versus the Tea Party. He’s clever, knowledgeable and adorable and wins debating points. They’re vicious and unscrupulous and win the war.
This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.