No wonder the TV networks had so much trouble trying to pick defining moments from last week’s debates. There weren’t any.
The reason was simple enough. None of the party leaders—except for Lucien Bouchard who advocated national breakup—projected any vision of the country they wanted to govern. Instead of setting out agendas of maximum hope, they fought each other for the privilege of laying out menus of minimum despair.
This was the fatal flaw of the debate, and it’s the reason why most Canadians in this election would prefer to vote for Michael Jordan (now that he’s given up his day job) than for any of the available candidates. There is no sense of magic in this campaign, no feeling that something enchanting—or even vaguely desirable—might happen after Oct. 25.
People don’t vote for what they already have, and they no longer believe promises attached to the stench of party politics. What they need is a window into the future that leaves open the interplay of possibilities and doesn’t eliminate hope. To exude that quality of hope or at least grace, a leader needs to be touched by a sense of magic. (The Natural Law Party is touched, but not by genuine magic.) That brand of magic requires going beyond feeling what the issues that touch people really are—instead of taking polls to divine what they might be. Once we start spending more money on day care than on helicopters; as soon as single moms get the same tax breaks as single fathers; once safeguarding the environment becomes at least as important as throwing a hunk of cement across the Northumberland Strait to turn Prince Edward Island from an island to a destination resort—once a few enlightened measures like that come seeping through the system, Canadians may start trusting it again. As soon as people begin to realize that human energy can lead not only to misdirected rage but to psychic healing, then we
Once a few enlightened measures are adopted, like spending more on day care than on helicopters, Canadians may trust the system again can start fixing things between us. Balancing the deficit is a necessary part of any future commitment, but it’s only a bureaucratic beginning, not a spiritual destination.
If our leaders honestly believe that the Canadian economy is so deep in the Dumpster that they cannot offer voters realistic reassurances, then the least they owe us is honesty and the presumption that we should be addressed as adults who can make up our own minds and vote accordingly.
This was hardly the mood of the TV debates.
The worst offender was Preston Manning, who speaks almost entirely in slogans, smooth as seaside boulders. Any guy who wears ties as awful as his can’t be all bad, but his pinched, boyish sincerity soon wears thin. Watching him reminds the viewer of HowdyDoody; the hinged chin never stops. Listening to him, he sounds exactly like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
No matter how much Manning denies it, his party represents the kind of racist rednecks who are currently raising $350,000 around Lethbridge, Alta., to finance a court battle against the RCMP allowing its members to wear turbans. The Reform party is not, as Manning maintains, about a “New Canada.” It’s about a very old Canada when European immigrants settled the plains. They were then at the very forefront of Canadian civilization, gathering bountiful harvests from the new land. They have long since lost their pre-eminence. The Reformers’ politics is a cry from the heart, a protest against a contemporary world they never made.
Lucien Bouchard is reminiscent of one of those portly opera villains whose stage entry is inevitably accompanied by a profundo chorus of low-register trombones. His perfunctory manner seems devoid of wisdom, serenity or humor. At one point, he admits he was a Liberal in the 1970s, which means that the former Tory cabinet minister has pledged allegiance to at least three parties. He seems impatient with the whole process, exasperated by the notion that he, the future President of Quebec, should have to put up with this charade. He projects no charm, offering only the intensity of an ideologue. At one point, he attacks “the imperialistic ambitions of the federalist government.” What’s this, a Marxist with a cowlick?
Audrey McLaughlin seems the most comfortable in her sensible shoes. Maybe she knows she nothing to lose. More likely she feels so balanced and collected because she alone of the candidates speaks out of conscience rather than obligation. She owes nothing to anybody. Not even the unions. She’s the only free spirit on the stage.
As usual, Kim Campbell talks far too fast for any human mind to follow. “I have a very clear plan to eliminate the deficit!” she bellows every five minutes or so. The repetition of this meaningless mantra makes it sound like some worn lepers’ bell, tolling for her. Kim is drowning. Visibly angry that it takes all this guff to win an election. Who needs it? There should be a tenure track for prime ministers—so she wouldn’t have to be exposed to all this sniping from people who haven’t even seen the 28 different ways we keep our national books.
When the national economy is shutting down, a light, any light, at the end of the tunnel is precious. When Kim Campbell ruminated that there was no hope of any significant influx of new jobs until the end of the decade, she not only turned off that light but boarded up the tunnel. That’s what people will remember, not her sometimes feisty contribution to the television debate.
Jean Chretien’s eyes give off a distant lunar glow as he tries to concentrate on the questions he’s being asked. When in doubt, like an old-time preacher getting into theological difficulties, he looks heavenward and intones: “It's in the book! It’s in the book!” and waves his little red pamphlet. (Mao would have been proud.) Chrétien would make a great diplomat because he is incomprehensible with conviction. One wonders what language he dreams in. Does he understand what he’s thinking? Does he think?
All in all, the television debates were not the highlight of a low-life campaign.
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