The positive side of the politics of rage

CHARLES GORDON November 8 1993

The positive side of the politics of rage

CHARLES GORDON November 8 1993

The positive side of the politics of rage




If we can be patient, ignoring for a moment the people screaming into our ears about the doom just ahead, there are some things even non-Liberals can enjoy about this election.

First and foremost, of course, is the fact that it happened at all, that it was done honestly and that a peaceful change of government will occur. Those are not things to be shrugged off in this world.

Then there is Jean Chretien’s victory. It should appeal to our Canadian underdog mentality that this man, who has been sneered at by pundits, reviled by intellectuals, criticized for his accent in both languages, kissed off as yesterday’s man, should win such a massive victory. There was a nice symbolism in Chretien’s rather simple victory appearance, contrasted with the elaborate Mulroney-era celebrations, the music, the endless waving and the balloons falling from the ceiling.

Much of the rest of it is bad news, but not beyond hope of recovery. The NDP sort of survived but was pushed to the brink of extinction because it forgot, from Meech Lake on, how to be a protest party. The Tories, aside from losing seats to the Liberals, lost seats to themselves—in the form of the Bloc Québécois and Reform, two groups that represent lost Tory faith. It would be too sanguine to see that as a passing fancy, but not unrealistic to see the possibility of a rebuilt Tory party coming back.

The election is the culmination of several years of rage. The Parliament represents that rage, almost in the way that the referendum on the Charlottetown accord represented it. There is the Establishment, in the form of the Liberals and—yes—the NDP (plus two Tories); and there is the No vote, in the form of Reform and the Bloc. Now, we can see the problem. Now, we are forced to deal with it.

If you can see past the gloom, hear beyond the shrieks of pain, you should be able to see that at least six good things can come out of this peculiar result.

I fit is true, politically, that you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, this is the Parliament of broken eggs

1) The people of Canada will have to face the result of their rage, see it operate, or not operate, in Parliament day after day. That will be good, forcing us to see that a country cannot run on sheer anger alone; that voting against everything has no value beyond the immediate catharsis.

Having the opportunity to watch what happens when the Bloc and Reform hit the nation’s capital, trailed after by the odd little interest groups that love them, we may belatedly rediscover the virtues of large umbrella parties, built on compromise, accommodation and all the other words that have fallen out of fashion in the ’90s.

If it is true, politically, that you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, this is the Parliament of broken eggs.

2) The political parties, too, will have to face the consequences. The cussedness of the ordinary Canadian is not the only reason we have broken eggs all over the Commons floor. Somehow the Conservatives and the NDP lost the ability to attract support across a broad range. There were young voters, old voters, ethnic voters, new voters, angry voters—and those two traditional parties had nothing for them. They will have to find some-

thing for them now—the Tories, to replace the pseudo-nationalists who kept them alive for a decade in Quebec; the NDP, to regain its position as the voice of the disadvantaged.

3) As part of that process of accommodation, the Bloc and Reform will be forced into the mainstream by their instinct for political survival. They know that merely being vehicles for rage will not work the next time. Reformers will quickly discover that merely squeaking virtuously at the supposed mess in Ottawa will not make the mess in Ottawa go away.

Out on the fringes, some supporters and candidates of parties such as the Greens and the National party will become hooked on democracy and increase their day-to-day involvement. The upshot will be greater youth participation and a widening of the circle that customarily does politics, as somebody used to say.

4) Politicians will be forced to recognize that the voters are, in many ways, a lot smarter than they were the last go-around. This is not because the Tories lost; it is because the increased political street-smarts of the voters made them less vulnerable to manipulative campaign strategies, particularly advertising. The attempt by the Tories to use negative advertising against Chrétien worked against them so immediately and so powerfully that it helped to turn the campaign. At a lower level of impact, the slick attempt of NDP advertising to appropriate anger for itself had Madison Avenue written all over it and the voters were not buying.

That being said, the campaign revealed, as last year’s referendum campaign also revealed, large gaps in the understanding of our system of government. A lot of people would have been a lot less angry at the system if they knew how it worked, what they had a right to expect from it and what they didn’t. An important lesson of the 1993 campaign might be that the schools could do a better job of teaching young people what kind of political society they live in. Parliamentary democracy is not about the immediate satisfaction of every interest group’s needs, and more voters should know that.

5) The demise of the Tories, archenemy of the bureaucracy, could give Canada’s public service a chance to regain respect. The new government can dismantle the expensive alternative bureaucracy set up by the Tories, with their chiefs of staff and imported consultants and lobbyists. Without politicians calling it names all the time, perhaps the public service will be able to operate effectively. This also brings hope for some of the institutions that have been under fire in recent years—such as the CBC.

6) Finally, the sheer novelty of a new government could bring about a certain enthusiasm for change, for action. We may not exactly be singing Happy Days Are Here Again—will we ever?—but we may, as a substitute, permit ourselves the luxury of risking the thought that things have been worse before. From there, who knows what heights we can reach?