If there’s one thing everyone who ever attended high school has in common, its memories of the class smart-ass. They come in different sizes and genders, but share the same characteristics: they’re first to volunteer answers, never doubt their own wisdom, won’t consider other points of view and figure the way to win arguments is to talk louder and longer than anyone else. When smart-asses win, it’s because of two reasons: either they’re right, so logic prevails—or they wear everyone else out by refusing to admit they’re wrong.
Similarly, you see smart-asses practically everywhere on the political spectrum these days. You could say Jean Chrétien is one, because of his refusal to ever admit he makes mistakes. But the PM doesn’t necessarily qualify, because he lacks another quality that defines a political smart-ass: he’s not an ideologue. Rather, the Liberals mix and match causes and programs borrowed from other parties. The GST and free trade come from the previous Conservative government, tough talk on the deficit and tax cuts were part of Reform’s platform well before the Libs’, and the wringing of hands over social policy was always part of the NDP’s playbook.
That flexibility on policy has stood the Liberals in good stead, based on the last three election results. By contrast, there’s the mess that members of Canada’s leftand rightleaning parties find themselves in. Neither side is in shape to fight anyone else because their supporters are so busy bickering internally. Open grumbling within the Canadian Alliance about Stockwell Day’s leadership may mark the fastest meltdown of support for a leader of a major political party in modern history. (Kim Campbell’s 1993 implosion doesn’t really count because she left the Tories holding two seats— which meant they were no longer a factor.) And Joe Clark’s leadership is uncontested only because he has made it clear he’ll move on before another election. On the left, Alexa McDonough may continue as NDP leader by default—if no one credible can be found who wants the job.
There’s nothing new about defeated parties rethinking their leadership, but this time around the dilemma on the left and right has as much to do with mixed messages as with the messenger. The Alliance’s big problem is that it’s made up of two separate ideological groups whose goals sometimes conflict with each other. The first group is the social conservatives, who care deeply about the role that government can and should play in regulating and moderating the lifestyle of Canadians. They’re anti-abortion, strongly favour harsher penalties for lawbreakers, are opposed to any enhancement of gay rights and like to talk about how much better values used to be. They’re part of the core constituency of the old Reform party. Layered uncomfortably alongside are the so-
cial libertarians, who think lifestyle is a matter of individual taste—and should largely be kept free of government intervention. Think here of the Mike Harris Tories. Those are two quite different ways of looking at the world, as Day has discovered: by trying to walk the line between both, he pleases neither.
The NDP is also split into two groups. One is the dwindling lot of party members, while the second consists of disaffected people who would have supported the NDP in droves two decades ago, but don’t see their interests reflected today in traditional, unchanging party policies. The core group of NDP supporters still sees government action as the answer for every problem—whether that is new spending programs, or legislation that dictates employment-equity hiring levels or other imposed forms of social or workplace behaviour. The other group—onetime supporters who have turned their backs on the NDP—includes unionized autoworkers, young people, the dispossessed and people of any age worried about mega-mergers and the effects of globalization. Not to mention employees in the retail and high-tech sectors who see the buying power of their paycheques shrinking while their work hours grow.
A huge problem with the NDP is that it seems interested in talking at those groups, in finger-wagging, lecturing style, rather than with them. It’s pointless to continue criticizing the effects of free trade when it’s clearly here to stay— and many mobile young people benefit from it. And it’s easy to see why autoworkers tune out when McDonough says a $60,000 annual income is “middle-class” and should be taxed accordingly: a lot of them make that kind of money, and still find it tough to make ends meet.
But the left’s short-term prospects for improvement may be better federally than those of the right. People like former leader Ed Broadbent and smart, left-leaning media commentators like Naomi Klein and Rick Salutin admit the existing problems—and have proposed rethinking traditional dogma. The right, meanwhile, remains in denial of its problems—or angrily blames the Libs for “tricking voters.” It’s time to drive on. And the NDP remains—outside Quebec—the only credible alternative for social democrats, while the right remains split. With the gap between rich and poor growing and with signs of a coming economic downturn ahead, many traditional conditions for a political revival of the left are at hand. For that to happen requires admitting mistakes, rather than repeating them. It also means acknowledging that being smart and being a smart-ass are absolutely not the same thing. On that score, partisans of the left and right have much more in common than either cares to admit.
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