It's more fun to run for office than to run the country

One curiosity about this election is that none of the parties seems much interested in governing. They are fixated on winning power. Like a compulsive seducer obsessed with getting the lady into bed but unwilling to take out the trash, they are fascinated with becoming the government but, as far as one can tell, literally uninterested in being it. There's no end of wine and roses about what they'll do in power. But they're frustratingly vague on how. I'm especially distressed by the lack of frank discussion of past failures. Never mind their own parties'; they don't even produce a serious analysis of what went wrong with their adversaries' attempts to govern.

It's not as if they don't know things have gone wrong. Consider this line from Stephen Harper on Paul Martin: "For 10 years, he chose his priorities. First they were cuts and downloading, then they were waste and scandal, then they were dithering and delay. Health care wasn't his priority of two months ago. How do we know it'll be his priority two months from now?"

Cute. But the trouble with such my-adversary-is-mindlessly-evil rhetoric is that quite evidently waste, scandal and dithering were not Mr. Martin's priorities. If they happened anyway, then clearly a politician can behave badly in office without intending to. Which ought to scare all candidates; if you were a plumber and couldn't figure out why the last job left a basement flooded, would you be confident you could stop it from happening again?

Jack Layton just said, "The Liberals promised in 1997 to bring in pharmacare. They looked at us and very seriously said, 'trust us.' And then they didn't do it. In 1993, they looked at us very seriously and said 'trust us, we're gong to increase health-care funding.' Paul Martin cut health-care funding more than anyone would have imagined." OK. But unless you subscribe to the mindlessly-evil explanation, you'd logically want to tell voters why, having intended these things, the Liberals found themselves unable to deliver at an acceptable cost. Then you could explain why, making the same promises with the same sincerity, you wouldn't wind up disappointing them, too.

In an ideal world, the Liberals would explain why, having run against the GST in 1993, they found they couldn't afford to abolish it. Hadn't they figured out the basic dynamics of the federal budget during nine years in opposition? The Tories would explain why under Brian Mulroney, despite their genuine and valid contempt for the fiscal irresponsibility of the Trudeau Liberals, they were serving up $30-billion deficits, not balanced budgets, even in their second term. Hadn't they figured out the basic dynamics of the federal budget during nine years in power?

And after telling us how he'd tax the rich to pay for his vast spending increases, Jack Layton would explain why Bob Rae and Glen Clark sounded equally plausible before being elected. Instead, one has the impression he does not know those two gentlemen.

In an imperfect world, I'd settle for any of them discussing the C.D. Howe Institute study this spring by Finn Poschmann and William Robson (my brother). It found that over the past six years federal budgets projected a spending increase of $21 billion but the real figure was over $40 billion. If they don't know why it happened, or that it did, I submit that they are interested in campaigning, not governing. Romance is fun; housework tedious.

Likewise, as the Citizen's Randall Denley just noted, Ontario government revenues are very close to what the McGuinty Liberals estimated before the election. It's their own spending that's $5 billion higher. Which makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that they truly didn't understand how government works after over a decade watching it, criticizing it and wanting to be it. Which suggests the subject never really interested them much anyway.

Some people might say the parties know far more than they are saying because they are determined never to give voters any bad news. I realize we're not exactly in "blood, toil, tears and sweat" territory but, given the catastrophes that everyone now knows overtake unprepared governments, I think if they saw tough sledding ahead they'd warn us. Since they don't discuss difficulties other than the inept vileness of their partisan opponents, I say that they don't believe in them.

The assurance by Liberal campaign co-chair David Herle right before the election that Paul Martin was "in a fabulous mental place," and his belief that we would care, suggests a level of self-absorption that creates impatience with tedious practical details.

Which one also finds in Don Juans, oddly enough.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson