Why are we going Tory?

A new poll shows the Conservatives within reach of a majority after their scandalous decision to put party logos on government cheques, and the Liberals within reach of the ocean floor after their scandalous decision to offer us rule by a philosopher klunk. I don't know whether to laugh at the Grits or cry at the Tories.

I'm inclined to chuckle because I spent the Chrétien years clinging to Robert Louis Stevenson's claim that "wicked men and fools ... both get paid in the end; but the fools first." And the Liberals are now reaping a bitter harvest of the same mean-spirited arrogance they assiduously sowed during their long period in office.

My dislike of what recent federal Liberal governments did was, I struggled to convince myself, just part of democratic life. But I was profoundly bothered by the way they did it; their brutal arrogance seemed to me to cheapen our political discourse to no constructive or even discernable purpose. Had they carried out the very same policies in a more generous tone what would have been lost, by them or Canada?

I can tell you what was lost by their failure to do so. Their brass-knuckled approach to the Reform/Alliance Party left their adversaries calloused and burning with a visceral desire for revenge if the opportunity presented itself.

It now has, and I dismiss the Liberals' pious laments with a tight-lipped reference to Romans 6:12. The tragedy is that the majority of voters who did not support Chrétien a second or third time, or Martin once, are being served the same cold thistle stew. And polls suggest we like it.

I reach this depressing conclusion because of a depressing reflection on what idiots insist on calling "Chequegate." (Look, the Watergate Complex is past its sell date and so is this cliché; I know people have headlines to write, but "scandal" is not a very long word so please show this suffix the gate.)

It is not much of a scandal by international standards. Another example of cheap politicization seems more crass than sinister. But here's what worries me.

What if the Tories are popular not despite this conduct but because of it? What if the moral and intellectual tone of our politics has now sunk to the point that a reliable reputation for rewarding supporters and punishing adversaries has become a key political asset?

The question is by no means fanciful. In much of the world it is the alpha and omega of politics that it is lucrative to back the winner and unsafe to do anything else. We could go there too, and if we did, it is not evident how we could get back.

As so often, I must insist that I am not naive. The politics of patronage has always existed in Canada, particularly in certain regions no one with political aspirations would name out loud but every single reader identified instantly. And I know Sir John A. Macdonald's main defence was that his overt roguishness made him even more lovable. But there is an important difference.

Canadians inherited, and long cherished, a conviction that electoral bribery, directly at the polls or indirectly through programs, was shameful even when unavoidable. Citizens and politicians alike generally regarded it with distaste. So if the governors got too brazen, as in Macdonald's railway scandal (mercifully not known as CPRgate), voters punished them. And if the governed got too greedy, politicians at least attempted to recall them to their principles.

Regrettably this sort of thing is all too susceptible to slow erosion. Political integrity is hard to accumulate and easy to dissipate and once it's gone voters and politicians routinely pull one another back into the mire rather than out of it. And I think the federal Liberals bear much blame here. Remember the seedy push by Paul Martin's acolytes to oust Jean Chrétien for no reason anyone can now recall, and Chrétien's open admission that he stayed longer just to spite them. Can anyone tell me who benefited from any of that savage cunning? Not them and not us.

I'd enjoy the Grits' slow roasting over open polls a lot more if the Tories weren't doing it between bouts of reckless spending and nastily vacuous partisanship deeply harmful to Canada. At this point, I regret profoundly that they can't all lose. (The time is ideal for someone in a convent to seek office: Put "Nun of the Above" on the ballot and two minor misunderstandings could spell a landslide. But sister, be sure to take a vow of poverty beforehand because with today's deficits you're sure to need it before you're done.)

One question remains. Are we shifting Tory-wards because the Ignatieff Liberals are at once unbearably conceited and manifestly incompetent, or because we've become a greedy rabble? If it's the former, I'll manage to laugh. If the latter, pass the handkerchief. In fact, pass the whole box.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson