COLUMN

A call to stop the drift

Barbara Amiel December 20 1982
COLUMN

A call to stop the drift

Barbara Amiel December 20 1982

A call to stop the drift

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

It might have taken place in any one of those fetid countries ruled by colonels in sunglasses. There on the television screen were the familiar pictures. Citizens pushing and shoving to get close to the elusive ballot box. There was a small, angry woman shouting into the camera, “I’ve got a right to vote.” And there in the background were the large figures of the police.

Except. The police were from the Metropolitan Toronto force and they were there not to break heads but to make sure everyone had access to the hall in which the meeting was being held. The would-be voters were not citizens of a banana republic, they were members of Toronto’s BroadviewGreenwood Progressive Conservative riding association.

The occasion was another episode in the bizarre story of Peter Worthington, the right-of-centre editor of The Toronto Sun, and his crusade to get into politics. Though defeated for the Conservative nomination in last October’s byelection, Worthington went on to run as an Independent, outpolling the official Tory candidate by a margin of close to 2 to 1. Ten days ago, while Worthington was traipsing through Africa on assignment, his supporters in Broadview-Greenwood came to the riding association’s meeting to elect delegates to January’s PC meeting in Winnipeg.

When they arrived the hall was barred to them. Ugly scenes of shoving began. It took the police to guarantee their access to the hall, where, after heated debate, Worthington and his supporters were duly elected to go to Winnipeg committed to vote for a leadership review of Joe Clark. The next day Conservative organizers seemed equally committed to blocking Worthington as a voting delegate.

It was another chapter in a year of unconventional politics in Canada. Conservatives have been treated to the spectacle of Edmonton tycoon Peter Pocklington announcing his candidacy to “save” the PC party. Liberals have had to contend with a group of rebellious young party members, offended by the March, 1982, reconfirmation of Trudeau intimate Jim Coutts as official Liberal candidate for the downtown Toronto riding of Spadina, going to Ottawa to push through an amendment deploring the influence of backroom manoeuvring in the party.

It has been conventional wisdom for years that Canadians, by and large, have been an apolitical lot. This has often been regarded as a fault. In fact, this reflected one of the great strengths of Canada. For most of its history, the marvellous thing about Canadian politics was that the game was a given. We knew what we were playing. We were playing free-enterprise liberal democracy.

There were modifications, of course, as in any game. Either of the two major parties might create the odd Crown corporation, such as the CBC or Canadian National. But this was more a question of rules than any abrupt change in the essential policy—akin to a debate over whether we should have four downs for a 10-yard gain or three downs.

At election time the only choice was who the players should be—not what game they should be playing. Canadians could rightfully be apolitical. There was

‘Canadians have been an apolitical lot Seeing the comfy complacency, government gathered more power unto itself

nothing to be political about. It was a question of whether the Liberals or Conservatives would carry out the relatively small number of policies that are carried out by a government in a free society. To use an analogy: why is it that most people are not fired up about the election of a dogcatcher? Because, as important as this position may be to the competing individuals, it has a fairly minimal effect on the lives of most other people—as government once did. In those halcyon days in Canada, even in the absence of a written constitution, there was common agreement about the nature of this society that found its expression in the cliché, “This is a free country.”

The change was gradual and took place in Canada—perhaps in all the Western World—over a period of a couple of decades. As with all gradual change, people barely noticed. Seeing this comfy complacent society, government quietly moved toward gathering more power unto itself. Areas that had traditionally been beyond its domainhow people conducted their businesses, from hiring to firing, how we conducted

our personal lives, from our opinions to the values we give our children— slipped into the hands of a regulatory bureaucracy. By now the question has legitimately arisen over what game we are actually playing. Is this to be a freeenterprise liberal democracy, or are we to change to democratic socialism?

It is a separate question that, for some of us, socialism at its best can only be quasi-democratic, given the intrinsic nature of the planned society. A planned society can range from the brutal coercion of the Gulag to the so-called moral suasion of the human rights commissions. Between this “good” and “bad” socialism there is a range determined by: (1) the extent of the coercion, and (2) whether you are free to choose your coercers at election time.

It is a great mistake to assume that freedom and democracy are the same thing. Democracy simply allows one to go and vote. Freedom pertains to the constraints put on the powers of those who govern. For myself, for example, I would prefer to have a Pierre Elliott Trudeau confirmed as prime minister for life, provided the powers he exercised were restricted to those areas that allowed me the traditional freedoms I used to enjoy under liberal democracy.

Meanwhile, Canada changed. If change is gradual, people carry on with their businesses, love lives and discovering a cure for cancer without noticing what is happening until matters reach what scientists refer to as a critical mass. At that point, even the most apolitical citizen realizes that government policies are affecting the most personal areas of his life. Citizens can no longer afford the luxury of being disinterested. And if, as in Canada, it is perceived that the mainstream parties are less interested in ideas than in the maintenance of power, scenarios like Broadview-Greenwood begin to take place as people seek to find a means to vote on the ideas animating society— not simply the players.

Statism or socialism, or whatever this new game in town is, should not be stopped at any cost. Some costs, like fascism, would be too great. But the message of Broadview-Greenwood and similar phenomena is clear: the game should be stopped or challenged at the cost of some politicians’ private ambitions, whether their names be Joe Clark or Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

On Jan. 1, 1983, Barbara Amiel becomes the editor of The Toronto Sun.