ANOTHER VIEW

The sign of mean times

In sunnier times, either the name of the leader or the party would figure prominently in an Ontario election

CHARLES GORDON May 22 1995
ANOTHER VIEW

The sign of mean times

In sunnier times, either the name of the leader or the party would figure prominently in an Ontario election

CHARLES GORDON May 22 1995

The sign of mean times

In sunnier times, either the name of the leader or the party would figure prominently in an Ontario election

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

Ontario’s gardens sprout flowers, and the lawns around them sprout political signs in honor of a provincial election scheduled for June. At least, they are probably political signs. These days, it is not always easy to know.

There are big red signs with the word Liberal quite prominently displayed. So it is possible to infer that the blue signs on nearby lawns are probably Conservative and those neon-orange ones are probably NDP. Indeed, if you look closely under the large letters of somebody’s name on some of them, you can see. some smaller words— “New Democrats.”

And on the blue signs, at the bottom right comer there is a logo of some kind, of the type that might adorn a supermarket’s storebrand sauce. Memories of Ralph Klein, it could be. On the other hand, it could be the PC logo, signifying the party of the rather conservative Mike Harris.

In other times, sunnier times for politicians and political parties, either the party’s name or the leader’s name would figure prominently on those lawn signs. The party might decide—as Ontario’s Tories did under Bill Davis—that the leader was more popular than the party. So the signs would feature “The Davis Team.” Or a party might decide to low-bridge the leader, as they say, and play up the party identification. But one or the other, at least—the leader or the party— was prominent. In today’s case, the signs for two of Ontario’s three major political parties can’t be said to feature either.

What does this mean? It is too easy to blame it, entirely, on the reputation of Bob Rae or Mike Harris, or Rae’s party, or Harris’s. What it may mean, however, is that the people running election campaigns figure that what is unpopular is politics itself.

That explains the understated quality of the signs. Take a typical provincial voter. She is walking along the street and sees a sign urging her to support SMITH. It’s a nice blue sign

and SMITH is a nice enough person, or at least a nice enough name. But something is nagging at her and suddenly it hits. ‘Wait a second,” she exclaims. “This SMITH sign, it hasn’t got anything to do with politics, has it?” After that, all is lost, the parties must think.

The only way to prevent that is to make the name of the party as small as the law allows, keep the name of the leader off it entirely and hope for the best. Maybe people will look at the signs and think they mean a lot of lawns have just been sprayed with pesticides.

Of course, it doesn’t bode particularly well for our democracy if political parties try not to be political parties because they are afraid people don’t like political parties. And it doesn’t bode well for our democracy if the people blame all their troubles on politics— instead of, to take an extreme example, themselves—and refuse to involve themselves in anything that smacks of political activity.

But this is the way things have been going for more than a decade. Politicians run for office on the grounds of not being real politicians, of not knowing much about how politics works and not being interested either. Look at the success of Ronald Reagan and

Preston Manning. Behind it is the idea that politics is the most unclean of pursuits—less clean than business, or banking, or the law, or even journalism—and that if you are not a professional politician you are somehow morally superior to those who are. It would be interesting to find out where this idea came from.

Clearly, it is not true. Some of our most effective leaders, the people who accomplished the most, have been people steeped in the political arts. Think of Mackenzie King, Bill Davis, Tommy Douglas. And some of the people who have done the least good have been well-intentioned political virgins. Think of Reagan. And think of the unimpressive performance in Ottawa of Preston Manning’s Reform crew. Surely they would have been better able to serve those who put their trust in them if they made the effort to learn the ropes a bit.

As for all the damage politicians and political parties have allegedly done, they did not create the recession, nor the worldwide trend towards merger and downsizing that have cost us so many jobs and so much hope. That came from our global economic system.

Nor did the politicians create the meanspirited and selfish obsession with group interests that prevents anyone from acting in the national interest. That came from us.

True, the political parties could have worked against that. With some courage, they could have persuaded interest groups to cool it and compromise occasionally. By and large, politicians have refused to try that. Instead, they have played one group off against another. The result is a political system in which the politicians are afraid to act, and the people either stand on the sidelines or align themselves into single-issue interest groups, with their hands out, saying, “My way or the highway.”

None of which means that politics is not an honorable profession or that political parties shouldn’t be proud to have their names prominently displayed on signs. Doctors don’t take the rap for the existence of diseases, or lawyers for the existence of lawbreakers, or ministers for the existence of sin. As for corruption, which is known to exist in the political world, it is also known to exist in other walks of life. Yet it is for politics that citizens reserve a special revulsion.

In trying to understand why that is, we can also wonder why the word Liberal is so big on those other signs. It must also have something to do with the continued popularity of the federal Liberals under Jean Chrétien. Despite everything—and there is quite a lot of everything—people want to like Chrétien and his government. Somehow, the people are willing to forgive the fact that this particular government is composed of politicians and Chrétien is one himself.

Chrétien is past the point where he benefits solely from the fact that he is not Brian Mulroney. He has his own mandate now, his own ... well, call it a sacred trust. He should bottle it so that others, who fear to put their affiliation on the signs, can study what it is.