COLUMN

An argument for more argument

‘It is hard to believe that the only Tory criticism of the Tory budget is that it hasn’t gone far enough in cutting the deficit’

CHARLES GORDON May 17 1993
COLUMN

An argument for more argument

‘It is hard to believe that the only Tory criticism of the Tory budget is that it hasn’t gone far enough in cutting the deficit’

CHARLES GORDON May 17 1993

An argument for more argument

COLUMN

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

Delicate souls that we are, we hate the sound of conflict, the sight of blood. Actually, that is not true. We love hockey. But we hate conflict in politics. From the moment House of Commons debates began appearing on television, viewers began complaining. There was too much arguing, they said, too much disagreement. Why couldn’t politicians cooperate instead of bickering all the time?

A case could be made that politicians got the message and began co-operating more. Now, a case can be made that they should get back to bickering as soon as possible.

The case in point: Steven Langdon and his status within the New Democratic Party. Langdon, the federal party’s finance critic, decided that he could no longer stand for the economic policies of the New Democratic government of Ontario, led by Bob Rae. That might have been all right, had it not been for a second decision Langdon made—to go public with his first point.

When he went public, holding a news conference two days after the presentation of a federal budget, he said that Rae, with his policy of spending cuts and deficit reduction, was betraying party philosophy. Langdon’s leader, Audrey McLaughlin, slapped Langdon down, taking away his finance critic’s role. Of course, she had every right to do so: Langdon’s judgment, in taking the spotlight away from a dreary and quite attackable federal budget was questionable; and he could hardly continue as the party’s finance critic if his financial view of the world was at odd with his party’s.

On the other hand, the NDP should not be as embarrassed as it seems to be. Langdon’s disagreement was honorable and is in an honorable tradition. Since few New Democrats were elected, either to Queen’s Park or to the House of Commons, on a policy of spending cutbacks and reductions in social services, it would have been surprising—and, in fact, disappointing—had some-

‘It is hard to believe that the only Tory criticism of the Tory budget is that it hasn’t gone far enough in cutting the deficit’

one not spoken out against the Rae policy.

That does not mean the Rae approach is wrong, rather that it should at least be debated by New Democrats. That the debate is public is a sign of openness, contrasting sharply with the rumors of rifts that halfemerge from under the closed doors of the Tories and liberals. Debate within the party, then, should be regarded as a positive rather than a negative.

It is true that the party establishment, both in Toronto and Ottawa, could do with a bit fewer positives. The same week that Langdon showed his rebellious streak, a Queen’s Park New Democrat, Dennis Drainville, quit the party caucus to sit as an Independent, citing Ontario government policies in support of casinos and Sunday shopping, among others. Drainville, an Anglican priest, was also in a fine party tradition, an upholder of the social gospel, and he too went public.

Such public disarray accompanies some depressing poll figures for both the federal and Ontario New Democrats, but it does not cause them. The public, when it has the opportunity to express it, is not as much in favor of united fronts as you might have thought.

Another case in point: the Charlottetown accord. Like the Meech Lake accord before it, the agreement was supported by all the major political parties. Unlike Meech Lake, Charlottetown was supported by all the premiers.

Since both documents contained some potentially troublesome elements, it is logical to assume that many federal politicians within the established parties had strong reservations. But they suppressed them, kept quiet for the sake of some conception of national unity. They reasoned, presumably, that any public disagreement would jeopardize the accord’s chances.

You can see how much good their silence did them. You can see how much good it did for national unity. The people, perhaps thinking that something was being put over on them, probably suspicious of any deal that could have the support of everybody and possibly wishing that someone would spell out the cons so that they could measure them against the pros—the people rejected all the political co-operation, all that unity and dumped the accord in last year’s referendum.

Many lessons were drawn from that debacle. It is widely alleged, as well as conceded by the Yes advocates, that they didn’t do a good job of “selling” the accord. The hard fact is that there was probably too much selling and not enough debating. Anyone who has studied the theory of democracy knows that a good idea only gains strength when subjected to debate.

Which brings us to the race to succeed Brian Mulroney as prime minister and Conservative party leader. There are some differences among the candidates, but precious few—at least insofar as public expression of them is concerned.

There are various reasons for that, one being that the Tories want to avoid the kind of public embarrassment that has shaken the NDP, and another being that they want to avoid embarrassing Brian Mulroney by disassociating themselves from his policies of the past eight years.

Still another reason is that they may agree with those policies. Some undoubtedly do, but it is difficult to believe that the only criticism of Tory budgeting from Tories is that it hasn’t gone far enough in cutting the deficit. In a party with a strong Red Tory tradition, a party of Joe Clark and Robert Stanfield, it is inconceivable that no one of any consequence believes in trying something different. The successors to Clark and Stanfield are silent, while business attacks the Tories for not cutting the deficit more. You can laugh at the irony of that, but it doesn’t help us face the difficult days ahead.

What will help is some good old-fashioned arguing. Let’s not be afraid of it. The Constitution, a crucial subject, did not get debated, at least by the major federal parties. An even more crucial subject, Tory economics, is not being debated either, at least by the Tories, who could use less co-operation and the presence of someone like Steven Langdon. We already know how many votes unity is worth.