Stronach's vacuity is not unique

It's funny how Belinda Stronach's entry into the Conservative Party of Canada leadership race fell flat. What's wrong with a 314? Huh? you say. Surely you know the one about the guy who visits his friend's joke-lovers' club and the members keep shouting out numbers and then everyone cracks up. His friend explains that they all know every joke so it's more convenient just to number them. "Mind if I tell one?" he asks. His friend says "Sure," so he shouts "314" but there's dead silence. Then his friend explains "You didn't tell it right."

So there's poor Ms. Stronach, fiscally conservative but socially liberal, relentlessly on-message, a personable outsider, and people accuse her of being shallow and clichéd. She's also been accused of resorting to the gimmick of being a female kind of girl, so let's deal with that one before baking a bigger pie of clichés.

Before she decided to enter the race the newspapers were full of columns on how great it would be if she did, none of which as far as I could tell had anything to do with enthusiasm for her policies since she didn't have any yet. It was all about having a fresh face or, between the lines, how much more fun this party would be if a rich pretty blond entered the room. Then she did, and everyone started saying Hey, you're just here because you're a rich pretty blond. If so, it's not her fault, it's ours. But people, if the race is full of unprepossessing men with policies not merely as vacuous as hers, but vacuous in the same way, you can't ascribe hers to age, sex or appearance.

Paul Martin, for instance, can hardly plead the folly of youth. But there he is, seeking desperately for some way to make the cities $1 billion richer without making the feds $1 billion poorer. Maybe if we gave them $1 billion of our gas tax ... no, that won't work, we'd be out the $1 billion. What if we didn't collect $1 billion in GST from them ... no, that won't work, we'd be out the $1 billion. Maybe if we ...

More broadly, Ms. Stronach seems to be jeered at because she's socially liberal but fiscally conservative. Oh, that's original. No one has said that since Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, Ernie Eves, and Tony Clement were in politics. Except maybe Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Scott Brison, Peter MacKay, Gordon Campbell, Lorne Calvert and a few tens of thousands of others. But why should the commentators nod sagely as candidate after candidate trots out this tired cliché and then whirl snarling on Belinda Stronach for doing the exact same thing?

She was subjected to a good deal of ridicule for her vague promise to cut taxes, raise social-program spending especially on health, and hope like heck the economy grows fast enough to cover the gap. Why? When Stephen Harper announced his bid for the Conservative party leadership, his first specific policy pronouncement was "I wouldn't have slashed the health-care system to balance the budget." It doesn't commit him to anything, since it concerns the past not the future. It certainly doesn't commit him to anything conservative.

The only candidate I can think of who doesn't offer exactly this tired old novelty, now that the Yogic Fliers have bailed on us, is Jack Layton. Sure, the NDP leader wants to spend more, especially on health, but he doesn't want to cut taxes. However, as he frequently notes, he got his practical political training at the municipal level where you can't spend money you ain't got and hope it's all right in the morning. Just possibly he (or Jean Chrétien) is the most fiscally conservative of them all. As for social liberalism, does anyone seriously think the CPC, if elected, would invoke the notwithstanding clause and vote against gay marriage? No, it's just rhetoric to keep the rubes happy.

More than a decade ago, Ted Byfield wrote that: "The 'economic conservative' demands that the cost of government be cut, the deficit reduced and the debts paid. But he does not face the fact that it was the pursuit of social liberalism that caused the deficit, the debt and the growth of government to begin with." We should be debating whether constant demands that the state do for us the things we should do, but can no longer be bothered to do, for ourselves is not necessarily unaffordable. I for one say there's nothing government can't do half as well for twice the cost. But regrettably pundits are almost all (wait for it) economically conservative but socially liberal. So we mostly get catty remarks about Belinda's shoes.

As far as I can see, Ms. Stronach's platform is let's be nice to everyone, hope there aren't tough choices, give the middle class more boodle, and gosh I wish it weren't so expensive but let's keep spending anyway. Which is unquestionably ridiculous. But why blame her for telling it wrong?

The real problem is that it's a stupid joke.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson