A country gets its back up

WELLS: Even if Jack Layton fades in the stretch, something permanent will remain

A country  gets its  back up

Andrew Vaughan/CP

Maybe now we can stop telling ourselves Canadian elections are predictable.

It is fashionable in Ottawa circles before every election campaign to draw oneself back from the lunch table, let one’s gaze wander toward the ceiling, and announce to the room, “I don’t know why we’re even bothering to have an election, anyway. It’s not like it’ll change anything.” More often than not these weary predictions are wildly wrong.

The 2000 election killed the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and—because Jean Chrétien was able to win a plurality in Quebec less than a year after he passed the Clarity Act—the political career of Lucien Bouchard. In 2004, Paul Martin came within an ace of losing power to an upstart Calgarian whom Liberals had viewed with contempt. In 2006, Stephen Harper took Martin down. In 2008, Harper confirmed his hold on the seats he’d won and drove Stéphane Dion’s Liberals to their lowest share of the popular vote since Confederation.

This year was set to be a rerun of 2008 in less vivid colours. Harper would run as the guy who’s serious about the economy. The Liberals would run apologetically as Conservatives who weren’t quite so conservative. Both sides would flood the airwaves with negative ads while all our putative leaders ignored or muzzled big debates on hard questions. A bored nation would then return a new House full of MPs in roughly the same proportions as last time.

But that’s not how it’s working out.

The rise of Jack Layton’s NDP was the story of the campaign’s fourth week. At this writing I have no way to guess whether the NDP will keep rising, or fade away as it has done more than once before. But at any rate, the Layton phenomenon is hardly the only way Canadian voters have stubbornly refused to stick to their assigned role. Conversations are breaking out all over, honest-to-goodness debates, and all the campaign pros in all the war rooms won’t be able to herd us back into our tidy demographic stables again. Just look at the issues that have raised their heads.

Parliamentary democracy. Stephen Harper wanted to frame the election as a choice between a Conservative majority and a reckless opposition coalition. It took less than a day for that to turn into a lot of questions about what Harper was planning when he conspired with Layton and Gilles Duceppe after the 2004 election. Suddenly the discussion about Parliament’s role in selecting a government was a little messier than Harper would have liked.

The cost of health care. Comically eager to avoid being caught offside on this key file, the parties spent April 8 rushing to commit to an annual six per cent increase in health care financing, even after the current deal with the provinces runs out in 2014. Michael Ignatieff sent out an open letter pledging to extend the funding increases, even though there’s not a line about that in his platform. Stephen Harper, same thing. But then a few pesky observers pointed out that provincial health care costs haven’t been rising as fast as six per cent a year. Do we need to spend this money? Is there a better way? What can’t we afford to do if we do this?

The role of the state. Questions like that lead inevitably to questions about how much government we need in our lives. Harper is sure he knows: we need less. There are no good taxes, he says. Ignatieff has been tentative in his response. And baffled at the result: growing numbers of Canadians who are damned sure there are good taxes and good government have moved right past the Liberals to the NDP.

The place of Quebec. Will the province at the centre of so many of our debates continue to elect MPs who only oppose? What vision of Canada attracts Quebecers as they flirt with returning to large-scale support of pan-Canadian parties? The Parti Québécois may return to power; how should Ottawa respond?

The tone of our politics. This is the subtlest driver of change in this campaign but perhaps the most powerful. For more than half a decade our national politics has been characterized by insult and denigration. The Liberals thought they could simply wait for Canadians to share their disdain for the Harper Conservatives. Harper viewed his large and stable minority of the electorate, a bit more than a third, as the only part of the country he needed to hear or even to address with any respect. He spent a king’s ransom destroying Michael Ignatieff’s reputation. He has spent a month delivering warnings about his opponents and shooing away strangers. Ignatieff’s polish cannot hide his preference for decrying Harper’s ideas instead of promoting his own. As for Gilles Duceppe, resentment and defensiveness have always been all he had to peddle.

Layton is not perfect. His ideas for the country will leave many unpersuaded. But he rises because he at least acts like a guy who would rather fix problems than fix blame. Even if he fades in the stretch, something permanent will remain. A whole country has remembered that it does not like to be told what it may talk about and how it may react. And when a country gets its back up the way this one has, it will not go back to sleepy predictability any time soon.

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