“I made a vow to God . . . that’s stronger than a Texas handshake.”—Rick Perry
“What if [poor kids] became assistant janitors and their job was to mop the floor and clean the bathroom.”—Newt Gingrich
“I’ll bet you $10,000!”—Mitt Romney
“WIN, WIN, WIN!”—Michele Bachmann
“I distinguish between nationalism and patriotism.”—Michael Ignatieff
The first four quotes above are my favourite sound bites from the American Republican party primaries, currently under way. The fifth is from the ex-leader of the Canadian Liberal party. Taken together, they are proof, hands down, that there is no better time to be a Canadian than right now. From this side of the border, the Republican primaries can be seen as an unearned Christmas gift: more than a year-long period of observing some of our eccentric neighbours, and giving thanks that we don’t live in their yard.
Our own politics may not be riveting—“Tunagate” made the CBC’s top 10 list of worst Canadian political scandals of all time—but that’s exactly the point. As the Chinese curse goes (“curse” being the operative word): “May you live in interesting times.” In other words, interesting places—such as the so-called land of liberty—are nice for visiting, not for living. When it comes to politics, boring is better; it’s also the Canadian MO. Or as one contributor to the popular travel forum The Lonely Planet put it: “The country is dull as s–t.” And we’re glad it is.
You know you live in a dull and blessed place when not even one of your political leaders was advised by God to become a tax lawyer (Michele Bachmann); was unaware of the fact that China has nuclear weapons (Herman Cain); believes that extending marriage rights to gays will lead to “you know . . . man on dog” (Rick Santorum); or once took a road trip with the family dog strapped to the roof of his car (Mitt Romney). On the other hand, not one American politician was asked in the past year to apologize for his poor French proficiency (Nova Scotia NDP MP Robert Chisholm) or incurred public wrath for going to his cottage instead of a gay pride parade (Toronto Mayor Rob Ford).
In Canadian politics you have to dig to get the dirt. In American politics you have to dig to get out of it.
The temptation is to chalk it up to the fact that our population is 10 times smaller than theirs (and arguably 10 times less crazy); but York University public policy professor Ian Greene has another theory: most of our scandals are, maybe regrettably, not of the sex-intrigue variety, and in order to understand them—and more, become indignant about them—“you have to be familiar with basic constitutional principles.”
Unlike U.S. politics, which are so theatrical at times that you wonder if putting on a show trumps running the country, Canadian politics are, to the untrained eye, infinitely more dry. If the White House is all about show business, 24 Sussex Drive is about business, plain and simple. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t shady. Greene believes Canada’s “abysmal civic education” is to blame for the lack of public outrage to many of the issues he finds intriguing or appalling. “The kinds of things I get excited about don’t hit the radar system of most people,” he says, referencing the Insite decision and the Wheat Board, “because most Canadians are not aware [of them]. Even when it’s written up in the media, it’s a topic considered very boring.” Greene argues that because a certain amount of civic savvy is required to break down a lot of major political controversies in our country, “governments exploit our lack of knowledge” and are inclined “to get away with more” corrupt behaviour. Or maybe they’re just actually, naturally, very boring.
The bigger question is: are we? Canada has long been thought of by the outside world as America’s colder, kinder (i.e., duller) backyard. I remember watching an episode of That ’70s Show as a kid and being offended when one of the characters made a joke to the effect of: “In Canada everything closes at 9 p.m.” Of course it doesn’t—things close at roughly 2 or 3 and in Quebec, they often don’t close at all. And it’s not as though we don’t have our share of notably clueless or uppity politicians—remember former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman and his remark about cannibals, and Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s recent helicopter ride—but for some reason we can’t catch a scandalous break. And maybe our undeserved reputation for terminal lameness is a blessing in disguise. Maybe that’s the secret to our success—our perceived lack of it.
“There’s a tendency in Canada to think we’re not as good as other countries,” says Greene. “I think we’re better”.
You might think so, too. Just keep it to yourself.