It is one of those unhappy coincidences that we find our problems multiplying at the same time as we find our will to solve them disappearing. Each new horror is met with, first, a rash of headlines, then, a shrugging of the societal shoulder, as if to say, “Well, too bad, but what can we do?” Outrage has greeted the recent wave of shootings in Canadian cities: a drive-by killing in Ottawa, a young woman gunned down by a stranger in a trendy Toronto café. But pessimism greets the outrage: What will we really be able to do about it? people ask. Isn’t this just what life in the Nineties is going to be like? Hadn’t we best just hunker down, stay at home, rent movies and get used to it?
If that is our attitude, then that is what we will have to do. Because there is almost no suggested solution that does not involve the spending of public money, that doesn’t involve the exercise of political will. The two commodities—political will and public money—have been notably scarce in recent years.
When you look at it, even the simplistic notion of wiping out the Young Offenders Act and throwing more young people into jail for longer terms is not consistent with the fiscal stinginess that has characterized our age. Where are the courtrooms, the judges who will preside over this new swift justice? What prisons will the young criminals go to? Where are the empty cells? Where are the rehabilitation programs that will give them a chance, however small, to do something useful when they come out? All of these things will cost money. Find the politician, federal or provincial, who will stand in front of the electors and propose spending millions on criminals.
At the other end of the ideological spectrum are those who say society, rather than the Young Offenders Act, is to blame. Even accepting that idea—that vicious criminal acts are the fault of society rather than vicious criminals—means accepting a societal
There is almost no solution that does not involve the spending of public money, that doesn’t involve the exercise of political will
responsibility and a larger societal burden. Have we, perchance, been spending a growing amount on social workers, on low-cost housing, on job training, on drug and alcohol treatment programs? Guess again. And do our leaders dare suggest that we increase those amounts? Guess one more time.
You don’t have to be a bleeding heart to run head on into the listlessness and defeatism that block those who want to solve problems. The recent killings have made more Canadians into hard-liners who want to see more vigorous law enforcement, more police on the street. And are there more police on the street? Don’t be silly. In fact, try to find the mayor, premier or, for that matter, prime minister who has the guts to recommend bigger police budgets. These are tough times, those mayors, premiers and prime ministers are more likely to say, and we all have to make sacrifices—as if, somehow, sacrifices made by the police (or the social workers, or the drug-treatment workers or even the judges) are going to make this a better society.
Yet that seems to be the logic that drives public policy, a logic best exemplified in the recent reaction of a Reform MP to the unveil-
ing of a modest Liberal spending initiative to combat youth summer unemployment. The young people would be better served, the Reformer said, if the government cut the deficit instead. Yeah, as the young people might say. Yeah, right.
But it has not been an untypical thought, that the only way to solve problems is to pay less attention to them. Since the advent of the deficit-bashers of the Eighties—the Reagans, Thatchers and Mulroneys—the idea has come to be accepted that the least risky form of political action is inaction. No matter what unemployment, poverty, famine or insurrection follows, history will somehow forgive you if you keep government spending down. This mentality has been aided by the collapse of the reformist left. Not only has it virtually disappeared from the federal Parliament, it has also vanished in provincial legislatures, even where the New Democratic Party holds power. The instinct to reform has been replaced by an instinct to build casinos. The weariness of the left is so complete that even the word “reform” is gone—appropriated by a political party that uses it to support the status quo of some long-forgotten decade.
Those who support the philosophy of inaction, justify it with the timeworn analogy of the household: You can’t run a household, they say, if you are constantly spending more money than you are taking in. Even accepting such an argument (it overlooks, for one thing, the fact that households can’t issue Canada Savings Bonds; it also overlooks the fact that perfectly respectable households have mortgages), the logic of it does not support the ethic of nonsupport. If you were running a household and a child or an aged parent needed money for university or to get through some financial emergency, would you borrow it, or would you say: Sorry, we’ve decided that the best thing we can do for you is to keep our bank account balanced.
There was a hope, when the deficit-obsessed Tories were replaced by the pragmatic and politically expedient Liberals, that the political paralysis might end. And it is too early to say that it won’t. But the early indications are not good, and the continuing indications from the provincial capitals and city halls are even worse. One does not want to be too gloomy about this, but should the leaderless NDP really be waiting two years for a new leader? Doesn’t anybody feel strongly enough to want the job?
The trouble with political timidity in one area is that it leads to political timidity in others, until all political will is lost. When governments decide they can’t afford expensive solutions, it is not long before they fear to attempt solutions whose only cost is political. Watch the Liberals on gun control, for example. Even though it is not, as these things go, an expensive measure, it carries some political pain. Will governments that have grown used to avoiding risk be able to take this one? And if governments don’t, how long will it be before the people begin to think that all problems are unsolvable? And then what?
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