Dull swords used in cut and thrust of debate

What rude men. While my unfortunate wife pondered the substance of Tuesday night’s Quebec political leaders’ debate, I concentrated on their demeanour. It was appalling. Pompous, windy and belligerent, they spent the evening jabbing fingers at one another, talking over one another and calling one another liars. Exactly how you provoke a fight in a bar. And they wonder why they get no respect.

I’m not saying politicians shouldn’t contradict one another. I’m saying the way they go about it is childish and disgraceful. From leaders’ debates to question period it’s all purple faces, mock indignation and pointing fingers. They all seem to dream of reliving Brian Mulroney’s ‘You had an option, sir’ crushing of John Turner over patronage, as if his subsequent conduct hadn’t made a mockery of those words and contributed to a further decline in the quality of our governance and the civility of our politics.

As G. K. Chesterton said, ‘it is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer.’ Which is regrettable, given the pressing need for rational debate in this country.

For instance, I spend a few minutes every morning reading British news online, and I think our policy-makers should openly discuss the disintegration of British health care, education and indeed apparently Great Britain itself. Especially as Canadian policies on hospitals, schools and disgruntled regions resemble those of Britain closely enough to offer serious grounds for concern to politicians … if they knew about it.

Speaking of world affairs, because Canada is evidently helpless even to rein in a thug such as Robert Mugabe, let alone stop the genocide in Darfur, there is scope intelligently to question the limits of our influence in the world, and what Roy Rempel has dubbed the “Dreamland” in which Canada is a moral superpower. And on fiscal policy, with a fresh federal budget about to slap us in the face, we need informed, civilized debate on why spending is so large, and why it so dependably grows faster than intended federally and in most provinces. It should be discussed intelligently because it is serious, and civilly because it happens regardless of the partisan stripe of the incumbent regime.

I realize the Harper government’s election promises of fiscal restraint have given way to runaway spending driven by transparently cynical political calculation. But opposition parties wondering “Where’s the outrage?” must recognize that the Liberal party, to whom the shrugging, glowering, stonewalling Jean Chrétien remains a model of statecraft, stands aghast before lowered public expectations like a sorcerer’s apprentice. And the NDP has not habitually given sound fiscal advice. No one is sufficiently innocent to sneer here. If only they could argue instead.

I have long given up on politicians reading, say, A. V. Dicey or even knowing who he is. I hardly expect them to get through C. D. Howe Institute studies (like the one my brother just coauthored on the chronic inaccuracy of budget projections). But can’t they at least watch TV? I picked up my Wednesday Citizen and found that Canada’s New Government plans to establish a centralized bureaucratic agency very much like the Department of Administrative Affairs over which Jim Hacker presided in the BBC’s wickedly funny political satire Yes Minister. In a more civilized age, it would have prompted Mr. Harper’s adversaries to wit, not stunned silence or empty bluster.

It is instructive and, thanks to the Internet, easy to compare today’s televised leaders’ debates with the 1960 set between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy that started it all. They were more formal, even stiff. But if the format has improved, the content has not. Never mind that JFK started by quoting Lincoln. Just note that the two men took turns speaking, and both were conspicuously courteous.

Nixon stressed his respect for Kennedy’s sincerity. Kennedy responded, “I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party. I hope he would grant me the same. The question before us is: Which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?” And Nixon came back with an observation with which we have yet to come to terms: “When we look at these programs, might I suggest that in evaluating them we often have a tendency to say that the test of a program is how much you’re spending.” Come our federal debates, look for a competition over who can spend more on every significant policy. Conducted with finger-jabbing, shouting down and disrespect.

As I’ve said before, I entertain no illusions about the quality of political discourse and conduct in days of yore. But when you can’t bring to public debate the decency of Richard M. Nixon it should surely cause you concern.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

UncategorizedJohn Robson