It’s no fun being right all the time

Well, I told you so. On what topic? Let me see: Kyoto, homelessness, federal involvement in social programs. No, I’m not trying to inflate my ego. If it got any larger I’d need a bigger house. I’m trying to make a point about political philosophy. I realize Canada is overrun with pragmatists, not ideologues, people who are neither right nor left, socially liberal but fiscally conservative outside-the-box yip yip yip buzzword bingo artists. But the whole point of our ongoing conversation about public policy is to find out what consistently works and what doesn’t. Or at least it should be. I don’t care if you call it a philosophy, an ideology, a worldview or Plan 9 from Outer Space. The purpose of opinion writing is not an endless string of soothing, socially acceptable bromides that will be forgotten before they are exposed as trite, but surprising statements that turn out to be correct.

For instance, my Oct. 27, 1999, column complained that journalists cited a wide variety of incompatible numbers for the homeless without any apparent interest in where they came from or how reliable they were. One 1996 estimate put 50,000 people on the streets of Toronto; a 1999 guess had 10,000 to 12,000 homeless kids there. But a major attempt to count them just came up with, um, 5,042. Almost every one, I concede, is a tragic story. But before denouncing society as this giant evil callous bourgeois thing because it doesn’t find each of them a bed, note John Geiger’s comment last week in the National Post that Toronto has 4,500 shelter spots and its municipal government spends $31,000 a year on each homeless person. So we may not be short of will. We may be short of way.

Now take Kyoto … please. In September 2002, after Jean Chrétien announced that Canada would ratify the treaty, I wrote that while others huffed about how grand it was or puffed about how it would level the economy, I didn’t care because the science was so shaky that, for better or worse, our government would never produce an implementation plan. And by golly it never did. (Former Liberal environment minister Stéphane Dion just said that if he becomes prime minister “in 2008, I will be part of Kyoto, but I will say to the world I don’t think I will make it.” Fine, you’re a splendid caring chap, do you have anything useful to suggest?)

Finally I confess to taking grim satisfaction in attending the June 6 dinner launch of Volume 3 of Preston Manning and Mike Harris’s A Canada Strong and Free series for the Fraser Institute. Some of their ideas are better than others, but I applaud their attempt to start a conversation on governance in Canada, which must (another prediction here) be a key element of the progressive agenda all the pragmatists now desperately seek. But 12 long years ago I was briefly social-policy researcher for the Reform party. Briefly, because my big idea for the federal government to get out of social programs as unaffordable, counterproductive and jurisdictionally messy didn’t sit well with the pragmatist heading the party, Mr. Manning. And didn’t the man who would shortly become premier of Ontario, Mr. Harris, want more federal money (whatever that is) for health care? Where are they now? Yoo hoo!

Note that the issue in all three cases was not what sounds or feels good, but what works. Any number of politicians and commentators will tell you that all you need is political will, including Brian Mulroney, who, in being named greener than the colour green itself, just said “Where political will prevails, solutions will follow.” Really? Then why couldn’t you balance the budget?

What we need in this country isn’t political will, it’s political won’t. We need politicians willing to tell constituents and interest groups: “That’s a sad story, now move along.” For (as I have also said before) the good thing about being a conservative is you are eventually proved right. The bad thing is you are eventually proved right. Conservatism is not on the whole very jolly. It’s about tradeoffs and practical obstacles and the need to reform your own character instead of saving the world by turning your personal problems into public catastrophes. But no one ever promised the job would be easy.

Canada needs less social science and more common sense; less ethics and more virtue; less cleverness and more wisdom. And since, as author Richard Weaver said, “ideas have consequences,” let’s first toss the pragmatism, with its aggressively self-satisfied claim to have no ideas, and get more idealism. Of the good kind. The kind that generates successful predictions, not warm fuzzies.

And yes, I can quote me on that.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson