COLUMN

Something to be optimistic about

BARBARA AMIEL November 15 1993
COLUMN

Something to be optimistic about

BARBARA AMIEL November 15 1993

Something to be optimistic about

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

My husband has been on the book circuit flogging his memoirs, Conrad Black: A Life in Progress, and it is bracing to see him have to face interviewers and be polite when they ask him lunatic questions. I think it was Mordecai Richler who wrote the best piece on the horrors of the book tour, but never is the agony of suffering fools gladly made manifest more than on the CanLit road show. My favorite moment so far has been Toronto’s Andy Barrie, on radio station CFRB, trying to pin “mental illness” on the young Conrad Black, which as a diagnostic procedure makes telling the future from the color of avian blood seem accurate.

Still, I think it’s all in a good cause, selling a fine book and letting a newspaper proprietor know what we hacks actually go through. I tried to explain to Conrad once how frightful it was to battle with brain-challenged copy editors, and he remarked that he had never encountered anything but the greatest politeness when sending his copy into a newspaper. “It helps,” I remarked trenchantly, “to own the newspaper.”

As luck would have it, not long after he faxed one of his columns to a paper in which he had a financial interest, and it was received by a hapless dimwit who seemed not to recognize the byline of C. Black, the copy was returned all marked up with those infuriating things editors do, such as putting question marks in the margin next to really good sentences and writing smarty suggestions like “explain” and “don’t understand.” The comments ended with a note that the copy person thought a snappy opening would freshen up the piece. After five minutes of dutifully attempting to follow the impenetrable processes of the copy-editor mind, Conrad pulled out his fountain pen. ‘You can run it as is or not, as you please,” he wrote “and it matters not a whit to me which you choose.” It was heartwarming.

These thoughts have nothing to do with

If the Reform party, essentially small-c conservative, grows and develops, we are halfway to becoming a mature country

what this column ought to be about—postelection Canadian politics—but that subject so bores me that I nod off whenever I hear intimations of “The Future of Canada.” Being in love, however, I did not nod off when my husband spoke on that rivetting topic at a joint meeting of the Canadian and Empire clubs in Toronto last week. As I watched, wearing my best spousal look, I thought I heard him say he was an “optimist.” About what, I wondered?

Black’s diagnosis of the Canadian Disease was accurate, all right—a virus made up of special-interest-group politics, bad political leadership, danegeld to Quebec and so on— but his identification of the carrier of the virus was a little short. He was laying the whole mess in this country on the failure of the elites—rotten political leaders, less-than-rigorous journalists, hopeless academics, churches with their attention on moral relativism, and that sort of thing. As far as he was concerned, the election results showed that the jig was up: Canadians had given a message to their elites and wanted a new political order.

But, surely, a small voice inside me whispered, the fault is with the Canadian people, not only the elites; the fault is with our com-

placent citizens who don’t read, don’t think, don’t want to face reality and don’t want to know. Voters who are afraid of real change because the warm bath of Canadian life with its equity this and unemployment that is still better than the hot or cold of tough measures that would fix the deficit and ultimately our high-tax, stagnant economy. I’ll bet most Canadians still haven’t a clue why their country is in a mess and, if you told them what has to be done, namely, end universality of benefit programs, minimum wage laws and transfer payments to harder-up regions of Canada, dismantle labor legislation that makes Canadian costs uncompetitive and strangles the producers of wealth—in a word, end Canada living beyond its means— they’d mumble some dishonest mantra about the compassionate caring Canada and disinter the CCF. Canadians have elected leaders from Trudeau to Mulroney, acclaim them and then turn against them. This passing the buck can’t hold forever. One can’t keep embracing leaders and their policies, then, when reaping the dire consequences of those policies, moan “betrayed.”

This analysis of mine is a half-truth, or at least a third-truth. One-third of Canadians actually did vote for real change when they marked their ballots for the Bloc Québécois and the Reform party. The Bloc, mind you, has more in common with Eastern European politics as a special tribal phenomenon motivated by nationalism and ethnic factors. But the Reform party, which took nearly onethird of the vote outside Quebec, is something to be optimistic about. This is a party that, essentially, is a small-c conservative party and if it grows and develops, we are halfway to becoming a mature country.

The other half is to see the Liberal party transformed into a small-1 liberal party. I haven’t much hope that Jean Chrétien will do that (let alone understand it), nor that he will have the courage to undertake the policies necessary to stir this country. Unless he has done a quick jog down the road to Damascus, he is a nice fellow with some pretty nasty ideas about an interventionist state. I hope I’m dead wrong, but the betting form is that he will be a complete disaster and destroy his party just as Campbell destroyed hers. There would then be no one left to blame, and the old order would finally crash. That would be the next necessary step towards reconstituting the politics of this country. In my view, what we would then need are the fiscal and social policies of Preston Manning, the constitutional stance of Pierre Trudeau and the foreign policies of Brian Mulroney.

Still, there’s always a silver lining to bad times. A cheerful financier in London told me recently how well his American firm is doing repackaging Canadian foreign debt and selling it to overseas Chinese. “We love Canada,” he said. “They’ve got lots of debt, will tax their people to death to pay it and then look kindly upon investors who buy up their bonds and want Canadian passports.” Good to know Canadian compassion and caring pays off.