ANOTHER VIEW

Stop the debate—and start governing

Some things are more important than the Constitution; changing the Constitution will not change them

CHARLES GORDON October 14 1991
ANOTHER VIEW

Stop the debate—and start governing

Some things are more important than the Constitution; changing the Constitution will not change them

CHARLES GORDON October 14 1991

Stop the debate—and start governing

Some things are more important than the Constitution; changing the Constitution will not change them

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

The polls on the new constitutional package are out and they say about what you would expect. Mainly they show that the Mulroney government won’t have an easy time of it, although some parts of the package are not too unpopular. Such polls always strengthen the thought, accurate within five percentage points 19 out of 20 times, that polls are not always necessary.

A question that wasn’t asked could have been helpful to Canadians: How anxious are you to be rid of the constitutional question and talk about something else?

(a) Extremely.

(b) Very.

(c) Quite a bit.

(d) Lots.

The answer to that question might give a clue to the outcome this time. Meech Lake was a new experience for many of us. It was exciting to see the premiers stop at the microphone and make pronouncements. It was gripping drama to see The Journal link leaders by satellite and have them yell at each other. But it went on too long and had an unhappy ending. What we see now is like the long-unawaited sequel to a not-very-popular movie. Somehow, we find ourselves in the theatre, but we quickly realize we want the show to be over so we can get out and do something else.

It is the fatigue factor. That didn’t exist to the same extent in the days of Meech. People were excited and angry. For many, important principles were at stake. They could stay up until all hours for days at a time arguing about those principles. This time it is different. We are too tired to argue. We want it to be over. Perhaps we won’t be so picky now.

Not all of us are equally fatigued. Quebec has always been good at staying up all night. But among many Canadians, the fatigue factor will work in the federal government’s favor. In order to put the debate behind us, we will accept some ideas that troubled us the first time around.

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.

What a lot of us really want to think about is what happens next—what happens after the Constitution debate is over. The first political party that turns its attention to that will earn the gratitude of the electorate, with all that entails.

The country has real problems that have not been given the full attention of either federal or provincial governments while the diversion of the Constitution debate was on. The country has real opportunities to innovate, to do exciting things, particularly in the international sphere. But, preoccupied with the Constitution, we have not been doing much of anything.

It is time to move on, or at least begin a plan for moving on. The people would like that. Many of us suspect, for one thing, that nonconstitutional matters—poverty, crime, inequality of opportunity, the erosion of our culture—are more important than the Constitution. That is heretical to say in a time when the spin doctors arrive every day to administer our daily constitutional, and when pollsters take our constitutional temperature every few hours, but there it is. Some things are more important than the Constitution; changing the Constitution will not change them.

But they have to be changed. International-

ly, we have to first collect, then spend, our peace dividend. Something has to be done about overpopulation, about worldwide pollution, about strengthening the United Nations to make the New World Order something beyond Pax Americana. It is embarrassing that we are quibbling about distinct society when distinct societies around the world are having difficulty feeding their people.

At home, we see the continuing Americanization of our economy and of our culture, seemingly unopposed (some would say encouraged) by a federal government bent on cutbacks, and too distracted to notice their effect. Factories are closing, industries moving south. Farms are going under because our farmers cannot compete in an unfair international trade environment.

The fishing industry, too, is suffering from unfair competition. Cities are choked with cars and pollution while mass-transit systems go underfunded. Schools and universities are underfunded. Hospitals are closing beds. And what is distracting the government? Senate reform. Yes. And the all-important question of how many E’s the reformed Senate should have.

The native issue is a vivid example of what happens when the constitutional mind-set takes over. The self-government issue is important, certainly, but the presence or absence of self-government is not going to produce either the ideas or the money to improve the lives of Canada’s native peoples. For that matter, making Quebec a distinct society is not going to reduce unemployment in Quebec or stop the decline of Montreal.

The political parties should be thinking right now about unemployment in Quebec, poverty on and off the reserve, the underfunding of the CBC, traffic in Toronto, overfishing off Newfoundland, portable classrooms, crime in shopping malls, the threat of racial prejudice, the struggles of women. We are not all that far from a federal election. No one wants it to be fought on the Constitution.

We don’t have to look back too far in our history to know that some of the legislation having the biggest impact on our lives had nothing to do with the Constitution. In fact, some landmark measures, such as medicare, were enacted in spite of the Constitution. In the present political climate, medicare would not be passed. It is fair to say that it would not even be attempted.

Obviously, there is a challenge for the government here. There is also a challenge for the opposition parties, which have been casting about, rather unsuccessfully, for something to do. In the past couple of years, the federal Liberals and New Democrats have distinguished themselves mainly by being undistinguished. Now, they have an opportunity to help themselves and their country.

Creating a post-Constitution agenda could be an exciting, as well as politically appealing, process. They should set their minds to it. To those who say there is no point in thinking about the future if the country breaks up, the reply is simple: Someone has to make sure that the country is worth holding together.