Horror Flick Provides Relief From Leaders’ Debate

Right after the second English leader’s debate I watched the end of Boris Karloff’s 1932 The Mummy. The stilted speech, the atmosphere of gloom … it was a relief to get away from that to some classic cinema. OK, you saw that coming. But I saw a lot of things coming in the debate too, and they were horrible without being well done. Sort of Plan Nine from Outer War Room. For instance when Mr. Martin said his first act on being re-elected would be to amend the Constitution to eliminate the notwithstanding clause. How? And if it’s so important, why didn’t he do it before? Or ever even mention it until then? His justification, in essence, is no matter what fool thing the courts do, your elected representatives should be powerless to stop them. I’d like to hear him defend that position. For that matter, I’d like to hear the other leaders attack it. But of course I didn’t.

When confronted directly with the Supreme Court’s latest larky ruling, allowing swingers’ clubs because we secretly have a libertarian Constitution not even the court noticed before, all the leaders seemed to agree that some Canadian values should be upheld if challenged by judges. So they want a mechanism for overruling court Charter decisions just like the notwithstanding clause but that isn’t the notwithstanding clause because … um … uh … Meanwhile back in 1932, Karloff’s Imhotep got himself all wrapped up and smothered. And it was just the start of his misadventures.

Another chilling moment in the debate came when they lurched awkwardly around the subject of health care. For speaking of ancient terror, last year Dr. Charles Shaver wrote in the Citizen that almost one in five of Canada’s 60,859 doctors is between 55 and 64, and just over one in 10 is over 65 (in Ontario nearly one in eight). How old will you be in 15 years? Because by then three in 10 of our current doctors will be past 70 and medical schools graduate fewer than 1,800 new ones a year to replace them. The situation with nurses is at least as grim. And a million people in Ontario already don’t have a family doctor.

Did you notice that stalking ominously across the stage? It moved ve-e-ery quietly. But if Imhotep, a.k.a. “the father of medicine,” did return from the grave he’d probably get lots of offers from hospitals, despite his disquieting bedside manner. For absent the scroll of Thoth, it is hard to imagine where our leaders think they’re going to find the personnel to revive our mouldering medical system. Especially after hearing them discuss the matter.

When the mummy first comes to life, one of the archaeologists succumbs to hysterical laughter because it’s so dreadful. I know how he felt. Our health-care system is a government classic like deteriorating infrastructure. Because it gets quietly worse year after year, it can be smugly ignored until it quietly becomes a catastrophe impossible to cope with. By the way, the mummy eventually crumbled suddenly.

As may our economy. Stephen Harper, in a moment of comparative lucidity, mentioned that Canadians’ after-tax income has been stagnant over the past decade even though, as Paul Martin never fails to mention, we’ve had a roaring economy. Now there’s a fiscal imbalance for you: No matter how hard we work, the government swipes the entire gain. It’s also ominous because the economy may not boom forever and the underlying spending dynamics of the huge social programs will mostly get worse as the population ages. (Unless, of course, the unavailability of doctors to treat your ailments also cuts down on all that vexatious billing. At which point the state may, like Imhotep, develop an unwholesome urge to hustle you toward the embalming vat.)

Scary mysteries confront us here. If our social programs are efficient, how can they also be so voracious? If poverty causes crime and social programs cure poverty, why is there still so much crime? And so much poverty? And why is Mr. Martin so determined to launch universal day care as the first major social program of this generation, and so uncurious about how the last batch worked? But of course Mr. Harper didn’t get to the specifics of these points, because his party is promising way more spending and a magic solution to our health-care problems that would be cut from a horror flick script as too implausible.

Instead of staying where they belong, therefore, all these issues went for a little walk, leaving only ominous traces of big trouble to come. At least Imhotep’s victims could plead that his eyes had peculiar hypnotic power. Whereas Paul Martin can say “the fact of the matter is” for 3,700 years and all I’d feel is irritation. Gilles Duceppe can invoke collective rights, Jack Layton can invoke working families and Stephen Harper can invoke the delicate balance between the notwithstanding clause existing and him not using it until the pyramids fall and we still won’t have the scroll that raises meaningful discussion from its dusty tomb.

By the way, the end of Karloff’s classic is totally unexpected. Just when things look really grim the mummy’s self-absorption and presumption bring him down. As I say, a great relief.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson