In the first few hectic days after the October 30 election, when the politicians were meeting in hushed conclaves, the bureaucrats were wringing their hands and the constitutional experts were plumbing their precedents, everybody seemed to forget one thing: that the people had spoken and what they’d said was, we will not be conned.
To party insiders, who tend to become oblivious between elections to what democracy is all about, the results were nothing but an untidy mess, perpetrated by an electorate that didn’t know its own mind. But the electorate knew its mind very well. Canadians had had enough of manipulation, of fancy theories, meaningless slogans, election goodies and all the other nonsense that goes with image-making and the engineering of consent. It’s not that the land was strong but that the people were smart. They knew that they’d been had and they were determined not to find themselves in that position again. (There’s an old homily that’s part of the folk wisdom of this country: “He fools me once, shame on him. He fools me twice, shame on me.”)
The message of this collective wisdom, expressed in the minority situation we’re now enduring, was that the politicians should concern themselves with real problems that confront real people: the terrifyingly high cost of living, the lack of jobs even for the skilled and educated, and a tax structure that gives free rides to the corporate rich and the plainly lazy.
The roots of power still lie close to the ground in this country. The candidates who won their ridings were mainly those who ran on their own merits, the men and women most aware of local issues, most attuned to the changes that will be required to make our economy and society perform for the benefit of the greatest number of people. It was such an eccentric election because the official campaign seemed to touch so few voters. It was fought in rented arenas, aboard chartered jets, inside the echoing confines of open-line radio shows and in the backs of limousines escorted by sleek police outriders waving them through intersections. The campaign became a tumble of events that savaged the leaders’ composures.
As they were being pushed and pummeled in and out of the howling halls, where they promised everything except a federal subsidy for motherhood (which we already have), the party leaders seemed, curiously, to become even further removed from the real concerns of the voters. In the last onrushing days of October they drew into themselves, and when they smiled it was only by pulling in their cheek muscles. Nothing danced in their eyes.
As Pierre Trudeau wearily proclaimed his second coming, he appeared to freeze in the aspic of his self-esteem. Robert Stanfield stolidly pushed himself across the land, reminding the blinking natives that he stood squarely in the creative centre of Canadian politics, making legions of reluctant converts. David Lewis, giving off the cold breeze of digested facts, found an issue that caught the headlines. But he didn’t make any really dramatic breakthroughs with the people because he tends to create a good first impression and a lousy seventeenth. (It’s important to realize when you hear talk of an opening to the left that Lewis got about the same percentage of the popular vote in 1972 as the NDP did the last two times around.)
Nobody went into a polling booth on October 30 and voted for the kind of parliament we’ve got. What most of us felt was a variation of a plague on all your houses, and the Commons we now have is an expression of that discontent. What we need to remember is that a minority government is not by definition a bad thing. We’ve elected five in the past 15 years and the last four (in ’57, ’62, ’63 and ’65) were among the most productive parliaments in our history. The two majority governments in that period — Diefenbaker’s in 1958 and Trudeau’s in 1968 — complacently let the country drift into serious economic difficulties.
I remember, during the last De Gaulle referendum, hearing a French woman respond to the question “How did you vote?”with the answer“I voted for France.” And that’s what happened with this election. People voted for Canada — for plain talk and real action. The politicians who ignore that mandate in the next parliament will do so at their peril. ■
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