Electoral paralysis is only a symptom of our main maladies

My mother once heard a man stagger off the golf course gasping “Thank God that’s over.” Doubtless he played again soon. So shall we, politically. In this election we avoided one disaster. Liberal re-election after so much scandal, ineptitude and bombast would have made Western separatism a reality before Joe Clark could finish telling the CBC it was not to be taken seriously by serious people. But it is not obvious to me where we go from here. Except in one unsavoury particular.

The outcome was bad for all the parties and the nation. And perhaps my standing as a pundit; I predicted 14 too few Liberal seats (and nine too many Tories). The UBC electronic stock market (esm.ubc.ca) helped me get close. But I, and others, underestimated how divided Canada has become.

Forget “red” and “blue” America. The Liberals have an apparently unshakable hold on our major cities and, partly as a result, are increasingly unelectable elsewhere. Our politicians call themselves uniters, but have divided us so badly three social- democratic parties with a majority of Commons seats dislike one another so intensely the fourth gets to govern if it can find a suitable dance partner. And the differences among the Bloc, NDP and Liberals are, except on national standards versus provincial autonomy, largely cultural, not ideological. Some multiculturalism this turned out to be.

If the Conservatives can somehow govern for a while we are promised a respite from the failures of our political system. I find no joy. Many commentators are partisan in the sense of being fixated on winning in politics. I say endless instability is worse even than bad government, but must these really be our choices? And if so, what then?

Some claim the Conservatives have up to two years to push their program through because voters who just turfed the tired arrogant Liberals are in no mood for another election. A minority governing as if it had a majority? Say it ain’t so, Joe. Others tell the Tories to forge ahead boldly with a timid program because they don’t have a mandate for radical change. True. Moreover, they didn’t seek one. In Wednesday’s Globe and Mail, former Liberal party president Stephen LeDrew did a little victory dance, saying: “Harper’s victory actually confirms the triumph of liberalism in Canada. Mr. Harper built his victory on his ability to convince people that his Conservative party is now middle of the road, and therefore able to satisfy people’s obvious desire for a change in government -- without a change in the philosophical premises of that government.” It’s cause to celebrate if you are a liberal, philosophical or partisan. What if you’re not?

In 1984 the Mulroney Tories came in with a strong commitment to spending control and a massive majority and blew the lid off the budget. In 2006 the Harper Tories have a strong commitment to spending increases, a fragile minority and the lid is already stuck in the ceiling. A C.D. Howe Institute report co-authored by my brother said federal program spending went up by nearly double the planned $21 billion from 1997-98 to 2003-04. Budget documents say in 2004-05 alone the overshoot was $13.5 billion. And C.D. Howe president Jack Mintz warned of an “eye-popping” 15-per-cent program- spending increase last year. If the Tories even know of this problem their only discernable plan is to make it worse; they promised more new spending than anyone but the Greens. And economic conservatism is supposed to be where they didn’t compromise.

If our only problem was the Liberals’ corruption we’d be fine. If it was also bad governance we might be OK. But if it was way too much short-sighted spending, the longer such a government lasts the worse. Except the alternative is no different. Our politics is, in a very fundamental way, stagnant. Only failed remedies need apply. It’s tearing us apart.

Our biggest problem is our most fundamental divide. Large numbers of Quebecers, rightly or wrongly, refuse to be governed from Ottawa in the usual way, and elect enough Bloc MPs to make an otherwise divided nation ungovernable. People dismiss Jacques Parizeau as blunt, jovial and tactically inept. But as a strategist, remember his never-ending visit to the dentist. Now open wide. Wallet, not mouth.

If Stephen Harper meets Bloc demands he may retain power briefly; Mr. Duceppe says the door is open. But what will walk through it? Some English Canadians think giving votes, or parliamentary support, to a federalist party means Quebecers are willing to make concessions. Across the river those are the concessions, and must be paid for. If they are, it confirms the wisdom of electing Bloc MPs; if not it confirms the necessity. And fiddling the voting system to reduce Bloc influence would create winning conditions for separatism overnight.

It is not the path of statecraft to paper over cracks in the foundation wall. But it is the path of Canadian politics. >From gun registry to national finances to regional alienation, we encounter unwise policy, inept execution and windy self-congratulation. Our electoral paralysis is a symptom, not a cause, of massive problems festering untreated and undiscussed.

Thank God that’s over. When’s our next tee time?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson