An answer to the government

Barbara Amiel June 10 1985

An answer to the government

Barbara Amiel June 10 1985

An answer to the government


Barbara Amiel

Last month External Affairs Minister Joe Clark announced that the Canadian government would de-

lay its decision on whether to participate in the United States’ Strategic Defense Initiative—known colloquially as “Star Wars.” Furthermore, said Clark expansively, he would like to hear the views of ordinary Canadians before his government made a decision.

One would have liked to be a fly on the wall when civil servants nipped into Maggie Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s offices to explain this Canadian initiative in governing. Canadians can only pray that this new pulse-taking will apply to other topics, such as capital punishment and income taxes. All the same, Clark’s statement does pose a genuine dilemma. How does the “ordinary Canadian” arrive at a decision on a matter as technically complex as Star Wars?

There is a strong argument that says governments are elected to govern and it is a government’s job to make decisions. It is true that the Strategic Defense Initiative—SDI—has unforeseeable consequences, but unforeseeable consequences are a condition of many government decisions—such as whether to inflate or deflate the economy, whether to make an alliance or declare a détente or which social policy to legislate. So long as governments act in good faith, the people can expect their elected representatives to formulate policies and take the responsiblity for them. Canadians might be forgiven for wondering why they keep their representatives in limousines and expense accounts, if politicians simply throw questions back in citizens’ laps instead of making a decision and living with it.

Having said all that, what matters is whether the government will be honest in this latest avowal to consult the people, or whether it is using popular consultation as a smoke screen in order to distribute the responsibility for a decision on Star Wars that it knows will be highly unpopular with certain segments of the population whichever way it goes.

If we are heading toward a referendum, it will be crucial to make sure the question is put fairly to the people. The government can’t simply ask, “Are you in favor of Canada’s supporting an escalation of the arms race by joining Star Wars?”

This sort of stacked question is not unlikely. We have the notorious exam-

ple in the Toronto municipal election when voters were asked if they were in favor of their city council negotiating for peace and disarmament. To vote no on a question put that way could only be done by those in favor of nuking excess commuters in downtown Toronto.

If, on the other hand, the government decides against a referendum and asks citizens to give their views in individual briefs, it will have to decide what values will be assigned to which briefs. We all know that groups on either end of the political spectrum will react to SDI in predictable gut ways. The various peace movements have given ample evidence that they regard any Western defensive action as a potential threat to peace. No doubt the responses of groups on the far right, though less organized, would be equally rigid. Star Wars, in their minds, would end war, famine, German measles and poverty. If the government truly wanted to be fair, it would have to assign

How does the ordinary Canadian arrive at a decision on a matter as technically complex as Star Wars?

minimal value to those whose response to Star Wars is sloganeering.

For those of us who fit in between the extremes, there are genuine problems to resolve. While I would be classified as a right winger on the issue of East-West relations, I cannot blindly accept any defence plan simply because the West suggests it. Should I be shown a plan that would guarantee wiping international communism off the face of this earth at a cost of some hundreds of thousands of ordinary civilian Soviet lives, I would obviously have to vote against it because of moral considerations.

The duty of the ordinary citizen will first and foremost be to decide whether or not he can possibly have an informed opinion on the question. An informed opinion regarding SDI does not mean scientific knowledge—though that may be part of it. Personally, I have no way of evaluating which set of experts is correct in its estimate of the effectiveness of Reagan’s Star Wars defence plan. But an informed opinion can also be based on all the available evidence—political, psychological, historical—and an as-

sessment of the likely results of this particular course of action. An informed citizen would have to be able to answer such questions as: “What are the likely results of this defence scheme or any other form of defence?”; “What is the history of the Soviet Union in living up to agreements? In geopolitical aggression?” And so on.

If, after considering all these matters, a citizen can look in the mirror and say that he has reached a truly informed decision, then he must pass it on to the government. But I suggest that there will be very few citizens who can do this. A great many will be able at best to express only their sentiments. If one is an honest citizen, the correct course of action would then be to tell the government that he has no opinion and cannot do the work necessary to genuinely arrive at one. But we all know, and the government knows, that this is not going to happen, and therefore we may be excused for regarding Joe Clark’s offer as a cynical exercise in pretence.

I come down cautiously in favor of SDI. My opinion is bolstered by a report from Moscow last week in which the Soviets seemed to contemptuously dismiss Star Wars, saying that “ it is rather easy to puncture a small hole in the space umbrella and launch all missiles through it.” If the Soviets had found a way to “easily” puncture the Star Wars defence plan, they would have let the U.S. bankrupt themselves by building another Maginot Line. They would not have announced their breakthrough in advance.

For my part, having considered the question in a historical and psychological context, it seems to me that SDI is more likely to avert nuclear war than to cause it, and at the same time its very existence might check Soviet adventurism. Weakness never deters bullies; it only incites them. If history has shown us one thing, it is that the actions of the Soviet Union are those of a bully. It has picked on weak nations like Afghanistan or Poland. Only the combined powers of NATO have been able to check Soviet expansionism. Of course, conclusions about SDi’s value cannot be written in stone, one can only assemble as much information as possible and try to choose a policy that would retain a world in which our children will share the freedoms and liberty we have all enjoyed. The truth shall set mankind free—but only the truth, not propaganda, weakness and wishful thinking.

I shall submit my brief. What about the rest of the ordinary Canadians?