The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Friday, October 03, 2008

A tale of two languages

The primary impression I was left with, during and after both debates, was a deep relief that in these challenging times, I would be able to respect every one of our nation's leaders. No matter what the polemic would have you believe, we have no idiots among our federal party leaders -- quite the opposite. Let us be grateful.

The second, only a little behind, was that what we had here was a failure of translation. Two different languages were being spoken at these tables, and for once they were not French and English.

Stephen Harper spoke fluently the language of the laissez faire economist, the language of sweeping global trends beyond any single individual's ability to control, only to interfere (and make things worse). Fortunately for us, the Canadian patterns of investment and risk have always been such as to maintain a high level of fiscal reliability in the financial institutions which are the foundations of our modern economic system.

(For example, although it could not be mentioned within a debate format, Canadian banks have among the highest required capital-on-hand in the world: which had kept every one of them solvent during the Great Depression and continues to do so today ... for precisely the same reason that many Canadian bankers were complaining, not so very long ago, that Canadian regulation kept them from growing to be truly world-class. In parallel, no Canadian institution would ever consider offering negative-interest mortgages, and even if they did, the vast majority of Canadians would refuse to enter into them. For most of us, the maximum tolerance of personal risk appears to be the personal vehicle balloon payment.)

Harper kept trying to explain these patterns to his counterparts and to the television audience, but these explanations fell not so much on deaf ears as on uncomprehending ears -- and I think maybe not deliberately uncomprehending. Economic theory demonstrates how optimal monetary growth in a given society can be achieved only through minimal governing and monopolist interference. In this view, to try to step in, for example with a bail-out package, is to prolong and magnify the downswing of a natural economic cycle: a major reason why most economists believe that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Depression-era economic reforms may have prolonged the effects of the Great Depression.

However, economic theory is also independent of social justice, and especially of individual outcome. It counts only the total labour market, not personal time investment in an assembly line skillset having gone utterly to waste. It finds perfectly acceptable the failure of nearly the entire Canadian automotive industry, so long as it is replaced by a more viable industry such as aeronautics: which is why Harper places such emphasis on encouraging plants to retool with modern equipment (and if they are not in a fiscal position to retool, they are not long-term viable in any case). Economic theory looks only at the net result, and loses all the fine detail of the individual tragedy.

Jack Layton takes the opposite polemic: utterly losing the larger scope against the individual tragedy. Thus his argument consists almost entirely of what a federal government ought to do to protect individual jobs. If Harper ignores individual jobs entirely, so Layton ignores the delayed effects of protecting a dinosaur industry. As any number of communities which have invested government money into luring multinational corporations into building and maintaining local factories can attest, no amount of government money can override a corporation's primary incentive: the bottom-line dividend. Should a government try to compete, all it will do is to end up funding the corporation indefinitely, at an ever-increasing level.

What Layton did do, and that very successfully, was to force re-branding upon Harper, along with communicating to the television audience the awareness that exclusive focus on three issues does not a policy make. ("Where is your platform, Mr. Harper? Under the sweater?") For the first time in this campaign, the potent Mr. Roger's family man image had been seriously challenged. I have not seen any of those commercials since.

(Curiously, no one brought up the point that Harper's five-point platform from the previous election had quietly morphed to allow for a full checklist. The fifth point had been a wait-time guarantee, which had never been within federal jurisdiction to begin with.)

It becomes evident at this point that the seating plan was a spark of sheer genius. The round table format allowed a personable approach, neither the ultra-stiff structure of opposing podiums nor the ultra-casual of a pseudo-town hall meeting. Above all, it creates the impression of people able to work together (at least in theory) for the greater good: all to the good in a probable minority situation. In practice, we know that in minority government alliances will be formed and dissolved, and that no alliance is utterly improbable. At different points in the previous session of Parliament, every party has voted with the Conservatives and every party has voted against them: and at the same time Harper has been careful to encourage only such legislation as allowed compromise -- seriously alienating a few of his own backbenchers in the process. Only in the final countdown to the election call has Harper deviated from this pattern, increasingly trying for votes he hoped would be struck down in a vote of no confidence ... and not getting them.

The round-table format requires a division of three and two and the moderator in-between, with Harper, as prime minister, necessarily being among the two facing the three. (Let me take a moment to applaud the very clean, very fair moderation.) Whoever is seated beside Harper is thus visually "allied" with the Conservatives, whatever the truth of the situation. Given their voting record, for each of the Liberals, Bloc Qu├ębecois, and NDP, even the appearance of alliance with the Conservatives could be extremely damaging. The solution was to place Harper beside Elizabeth May, the leader of the newly-seated Green Party. Being new to both debate and House of Commons voting, for now May still stands outside alliances, and (having as yet no parliamentary record) was also likely to stand outside most challenge and counter-challenge. Separate the two French leaders, and this leaves Layton directly opposite Harper: as indeed his polemic turned out to be the most directly contrasted to Harper's.

St├ęphane Dion's position was perhaps the hardest to tie down for a non-partisan viewer, mostly because Dion was in the awkward position where to interrupt would also be to interrupt a desirable point made against Harper by one of the other three leaders. I was left with the idle hope that those who organise debates could also come up with a structure which would allow one-on-ones between the prime minister and the leaders of all other parties with sitting members. Alone of all the leaders, he repeatedly addressed the camera/television audience directly when making a point.

What did come across clearly to any non-biased observer was a very clear Liberal platform that did not draw on extremes, and which, contrary to the relentless Conservative spin, did not create a net increase in taxes. (Extremes play much better in a debate format.) He was also able to raise the point that if Harper had a government with a sound economic basis, it was because of the several balanced Liberal budgets which had preceded that government: and that it was Harper's own government which had begun eroding the positive balance. Interestingly, he was the only one of the five leaders to answer absolutely clearly the "no bull feathers" question:
I'm a retiree building my shed in the backyard here and I have a question for all of you potential prime ministers. My question is if I should elect you prime minister, what's the very first thing you'll do when you get into office. And I don't want any bull feathers, baffled brains answer, I just want the real issue you're going to tackle.
Dion said directly that the very first priority of his government would be to tackle the current economic crisis, giving a very specific approach which took care not to overstep public-private boundaries.

(For two people with clear agendas, both Harper and Layton somewhat bafflingly chose to respond to this question with a broad gloss rather than reiterating any of their major points. In fact, despite his determined pounding of the Afghanistan issue and his own determination to withdraw Canadian soldiers at once until a clear United Nations mandate could be reached, Layton did not mention an Afghanistan priority at all in answer to this question. That absence stood out almost as glaringly as Harper's own dodging of his earlier willingness to commit Canadian troops to the conflict in Afghanistan: which has to stand as one of the most brilliant uses of positive-spin words I have ever heard in a debate. "That's why we're not sending anybody to Iraq" is not the same as "We never had the intention to send anybody to Iraq" and avoids entirely "We originally argued in favour of sending our soldiers to Iraq, but our assumption that there were weapons of mass destruction was proven wrong". Here, the point was re-worded into a positive and technically accurate slant; however, the mission-blur into "It's the mission of the United Nations" happens not to be at all accurate, as May wasted no time in pointing out.)

The only other person who came close to answering this question as clearly was May:
First I'd like to say I'd love to come help you finishing the shed, but as a woman and a single mom, I'm really good at multitasking, so there will be more than one thing. First we have to fix the electoral system. We have to put ourselves on the path to proportional representation so we don't run the risk of false majorities, such as a majority of the seats with the minority of support. We also need to move forward on the plan to deal with carbon and carbon emission, that makes the future more secure. It's the top priorities for Greens, top priorities for 80% of Canadians who realise we have a moral obligation to the future to act.
Two things, not one, but fair enough; and because she had earlier linked in environmental priorities as not being counter to economic concerns but supporting and building the economy of countries committed to them, her answer also demonstrated an economic priority. (She had repeatedly lambasted Harper for his environmental unconcern during earlier parts of the debate.) Nothing in her answers, however, suggested that she found the current economic meltdown a real and present danger to the Canadian economic security. In this, she helped reinforce the visual irony of sitting on the right side of the table along with Harper: remove the single difference of whether environmental concerns counter or drive a solid laissez faire economy, and her views seem startlingly similar to his. Extending the circle of the table, this would place Dion just to her left: in the "centre" of the political map.

Of all the leaders, May repeatedly came across as having learned, absorbed, and understood the greatest amount of background research. To me, she also came across as being the most rehearsed. I could almost visualise her training with a stopwatch to pack in the optimal amount of information in the allotted time, in true Snakes and Ladders fashion.

And Gilles Duceppe? He may not be running in English Canada, but I found his presence in the English language debate invaluable: not least because he alone was able to keep pointing out the limits of federal authority without sounding either wishy-washy or powerless. In a "do something!" environment, it seems we need to be constantly reminded that there are built-in limits to power, and that there may be a reason for them.

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