On Oct. 22, when Jean Chrétien called his premature election, the trees were a russet glow, waiting for the final departure of green. By Nov. 27, when that devilish campaign was over, much of the land was caught in the grip of winter. That was less a seasonal change than a shift in mood: the winter of the nation's soul.
Never have Canadians been subjected to an election like this one: none of the essential issues were resolved or even debated—not the looming crisis in health care, not the future of a declining economy, not the unresolved national unity issue, not the plummeting value of the Canadian dollar. Instead, the campaign became a killing field for politicians bent on rhetorical assassination, with the party leaders accusing their opponents of every crime except spreading locusts through the land.
An air of unreality hung over the proceedings. The campaign jets that crisscrossed the country landed in friendly constituencies, where their occupants participated in political “events,” staged only so they could be reported.
A good case can be made that what we witnessed wasn’t a general election at all, but 301 byelections that happened to fall on the same day. Faced with the predicament of trying to decide which of our leaders represented the lesser evil, voters opted to support their best local candidates, which was why, despite the actual seat count, no party was able to mobilize the semblance of a meaningful national mandate. The electorate s astounding volatility was best documented by a Léger poll that estimated that nearly one-third of Canadian voters remained undecided only 48 hours before they cast their ballots.
By election day, only one issue had legs: Jean Chrétiens future. The dilemma of undecided voters was best caught by Bob Krieger, cartoonist for the Vancouver Province, whose editorial-page drawing showed a puzzled voter asking herself: “Will Chrétien resign sooner if I vote for or against him?” Instead of exercising their quadrennial proclivity for “throwing the rascals out,” Canadians decided to throw the rascals back in.
The Liberals had waged as shallow and dishonest a campaign as any in Canadian history, which takes in a lot of territory. Chrétiens defence of his strong-arming of the Business Development Bank to make loans for the Auberge GrandMère in his constituency, approved by an ethics counsellor beholden to him for his job, was total farce. “I have no need for an inquiry, when I have nothing to reproach myself for,” he declared, disregarding the facts, as well as due process. His defence reminded me of the comedian Groucho Marx who, when he was caught in an obvious lie, indignantly shot back:
“Who are you going to believe? Me or your own eyes?” The voters opted for Groucho.
Despite their decisive victory, during the campaign the Liberals sacrificed light for heat. When Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan branded Canadian Alliance supporters as “Holocaust-deniers, prominent bigots and racists,” she was attempting to legitimize an accusation that was not only wrong, but stupid. Such defamation of character was particularly ironic, since the previous week Stockwell Day had, alone among party leaders, stood up against the Liberals’ backing of an anti-Semitic UN resolution blaming the current round of Middle East troubles on Israel alone.
Day was fatally burdened throughout this bedevilling election with the worst staff work since Mussolini’s tank corps. Great politicians appropriate their surroundings, reaching for those electric moments that define a campaign. Stock never did. At almost every rally, he found himself on the defensive, trying to explain yet another political faux pas by his advisers and followers, who, in earlier incarnations, must have belonged to Japanese kamikaze squadrons, whose members flew suicide missions against American warships. (Watching films of their exploits, I used to wonder why kamikazes wore helmets. Now I know. So they could, in another life, come back as Canadian Alliance strategists.)
Gilles Duceppe proved that he’s no dummy when he prepared for the election’s Great TV Debate not by poring through briefing books, but by going to a local gym and working out. Still, it wasn’t enough to help his party gain support. The results were a timely warning for Lucien Bouchards dream of independence. The NDP diluted its clout because it failed to define itself as the safest haven for anti-Alliance votes. Only Joe Clark covered himself in glory, surviving to fail another day.
Any election freezes the political landscape of a nation at a given moment in time, its results providing a snapshot of the emotions, tensions and aspirations of its people. Reason fights impulse, the tug of the past competes with the pull of the future, as voters cast their ballots and elect a fresh government. This time around we do not have a fresh government, and the campaign ended as it had begun, on a tentative note with issues unjoined, principles unclarified and the country held hostage to a leader who now justifiably believes himself invincible.
For those of us who follow politics with a passionate eye and a hopeful spirit, this bitter campaign will linger as a reminder that the politicians may have got our votes on Nov. 27, but they have yet to earn our tmst.
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