Policy is an afterthought for too many politicians

One very strange thing about Canadian politics is how many people are so keen to govern yet have so little interest in how government works. You would be surprised, and offended, if your car mechanic spent years seeking his job, then popped your hood and went "Whoa Nelly, there's a lot of wires in here." So why do we take it in stride from our politicians? Last May, I complained that the federal parties were campaigning on wine and roses about what they'd do if elected, and skunk juice and cabbage about their opponents' characters and intentions, but had almost nothing to say about how they would do things right and how their opponents would not or had not. As usual, the good thing about being a conservative is you're eventually proved right; the bad thing is you're eventually proved right.

Consider the admission last week by the vice-chief of the defence staff, that the military have not tried to recruit the 5,000 new regular-force members and 3,000 reservists Paul Martin promised in the June election. His explanation was perfectly sensible: DND has no money to train or house them, so it's not signing them up. But what about the people around Mr. Martin or the great man himself? Didn't they think about such things before making the promise? Or after?

Well, David Collenette, Jean Chretien's first defence minister, just told the Commons defence committee that yes, his government had cut military spending too much. But, he explained, "We had some tough discussions with the minister of finance, who is the current prime minister. You have to use your political judgment as to whether or not Canadians would have accepted to lay out that kind of money and make that kind of commitment in 1995 when the health-care system was being cut." Of course policies need explanations. But you should not devise the explanation before making the policy, let alone instead of it.

Wednesday's National Post reports a new government pledge to do everything necessary to protect Arctic sovereignty except act. But maybe Liberals just aren't interested in national security. So what about global warming? Three months ago, the deputy minister of natural resources told a conference in Australia that Canada wouldn't get two-thirds of the way to its Kyoto commitments and "there is even a question of how we are going to move forward on this plan." Some people might think it matters. Why not the ones in office?

Equally baffling is Dalton McGuinty's campaign pledge to shut down Ontario's coal-fired power plants by 2007. How did he expect to replace the lost generating capacity? What about construction costs and lead times? Are policy details for losers? And when the prime minister and premiers saved health care for a decade this fall, I wanted to ask them: "How? How are you going to do that? Don't you understand that this question matters?" But evidently they had no interest in mucking about with all that petty nonsense about stethoscopes and nurses and scalpels.

The Liberals are conspicuous because they hold power. But look at the Conservatives on gay marriage. Stephen Harper claims governments can pass laws incompatible with court rulings without invoking the notwithstanding clause, a position Jeffrey Simpson rightly calls "unsettling." But not compared to Mr. Harper's proposal to give homosexuals an institution legally identical to marriage except with a different name. You can't get much less substantial than that.

Mind you, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler tried, saying the proposed gay-marriage legislation should let public officials refuse to marry gays if they don't want to. If he doesn't know what a law is, what else doesn't he know? Oh, yeah. What rights are. He just dismissed criticism of the government's anti-terror legislation with: "One cannot consider rights or limitations on rights in the abstract, only in the context in which they arise." As in, we don't feel like letting you see a lawyer so you can't? King Charles I would say yes. But some people thought, pretty much on those grounds, that he was a very bad king.

Having read Thomas Sowell, I think there's far more vacuity than cynicism at work here. I fear that our politicians despise chatter about methods because they think only good intentions matter and they pride themselves on possessing those in unlimited quantity. In that sense, they are interested in government, I suppose, but in a very Land of Oz way quite unlike your mechanic's fixation on alternators and transmissions and stuff.

I notice that your car works.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson