Monday, October 20, 2008

Post Mortem

Now that the dust has settled, it's time to take stock. As just about every commentator has noted, this election was, while not quite a debacle, nevertheless a sound defeat for the Liberals. And for that Stephane Dion will shoulder the blame. As Susan Riley wrote last week in The Ottawa Citizen, he deserved better. For, like it or not, the most effective way to slow global warming is to tax carbon. George Soros -- who has for some time been predicting the present financial calamity -- made that point two weeks ago to Bill Moyers. Furthermore, the way out of this mess is to tax consumption, not incomes. If the last two months illustrate anything it is that, when you make consumption effortless, you encourage unsustainable debt.

Unfortunately, Mr. Dion has difficulty connecting with ordinary citizens. They see him as a good and decent man who is too shrill and too schoolmarmish. And there is, also unfortunately, simple minded prejudice at work about a man who has trouble wrapping his tongue around the words of his second language. Those who fault him for that should go back and listen to John Diefenbaker's French. Dion's English may be awkward. Diefenbaker's French was excruciating. Be that as it may, the time when a Canadian prime minister needed to function well in only one language has long since passed. Anyone seeking to lead this country must be able to slip effortlessly between English and French.

The Conservatives made hay out of Dion's linguistic weakness. They certainly played and replayed the beginning of that CTV interview, where Dion had difficulty understanding a question. And their attack ads -- complete with pooping puffins -- were shameful. But this has been standard fare for some time now. Anyone who has watched Mr. Harper operate over the last two and a half years was not surprised by the Conservative campaign.

And, because we were not surprised, we have lived through a national Ground Hog Day, where we were before Mr. Harper broke his own law because (he said) the country needed an election. Canadians knew that while the Conservatives tried to make Dion look like an egghead and Harper look like (Bob Rae said) Perry Como, there really was a tyrant behind the facade.

Quebecers understood this better than anyone else. When Harper trashed arts galas and suggested a get tough approach to youth crime, they knew he really didn't understand them. Quebecois irascibility is a legitimate source of concern. Jeffrey Simpson noted in the Globe and Mail that "By voting Bloc for six consecutive elections the largest number of francophones in Quebec turned their backs on Canada, while not expecting that the rest of Canada would ever turn its back on Quebec."

The problem, of course, is that the "open federalism" Harper practices makes that possibility more likely. For while Mr. Harper has a clear idea of how he wishes Canada would work, he truly doesn't understand how either Quebec or Canada really works. His central governing philosophy is not John A. MacDonald's or Dalton Camp's conservatism. Under the tutelage of Tom Flanagan -- born in the United States, with a doctorate in political science from Duke University -- Harper has tried to import American neo-liberalism into the country. Both MacDonald and Camp understood that in the world's second largest country, with one of the world's thinnest but most diverse populations, both American Republicanism and pure British parliamentary government would not work. And in the United States, where the consequences of neo-liberalism are now on full display, one can argue that it has been a spectacular failure.

It was Harper's ignorance of how his own country functions that both Jack Layton, Elizabeth May and -- most importantly -- Gilles Duceppe impugned. And, when Mr. Harper suggested that ordinary Canadians should use the stock market meltdown as an opportunity to buy stocks, he displayed a truly indecent ignorance of how most of his fellow citizens live. Harper is a shrewd technocrat who knows a lot about a narrow slice of human experience. And it was what he didn't know that led Canadians to the conclusion -- for the second time -- that giving the man a majority was unwise.

So we're back where we started -- except Stephane Dion will be leaving the stage, perhaps as early as today. That means another leadership convention for the Liberals. Mr. Dion's leadership was the direct result of the uncivil war between Mr. Chretien and Mr. Martin. Whoever the party chooses, he or she must unite its left and right wings. There is no time and no room for an interim or a default leader.

The problems we face at home and abroad are extraordinary. Turnout for this election was 59% -- the lowest in Canadian history. Clearly, in a country where 75% of the citizens used to regularly go to the polls, none of the leaders on offer struck Canadians as extraordinary. One can only hope that, next time around, the leaders and the campaigns will be extraordinarily different.

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