Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Autopsy 2011

This is the story of a deficit, an election, and the men who would be Prime Minister. It's about all of these things in the reverse order.

Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has the dubious blessing of being able to watch his own autopsy. We knew that the pen was mightier than the sword, but this week it has proved itself the scalpel's equal; every pundit has busily - and sometimes not so carefully - peeled another layer off this candidate's carcass to be put under the microscope. When all is said and done, what secrets will the investigation yield to us? Just where did Michael Ignatieff go wrong? At this point, we have several prevailing narratives of the election. The Toronto Star seems to believe that the turning point was during the English leaders' debate, when Layton asked Ignatieff to explain his dismal voting record in the House of Commons. Much of what I have heard on CBC radio seems to focus on the arrogance - perceived and actual - of the Liberal leader. On the radio and in the Ottawa Citizen, I heard it said that Ignatieff's moderate messages fell on increasingly polarized - and ultimately deaf - ears. And then there is the matter of the Conservatives' smear campaign against Mr. Ignatieff, which has been going on to various degrees since he took the job of party leader.

The story I wanted to tell about the election is that of the deficit. Possibly two (or even three) deficits, although I hope to show that they are, at least symbolically, linked. Throughout the
election, Harper's promises revolved around the economy, and the fiscal deficit that he hopes to eliminate. Ignatieff also proposed to eliminate a deficit, but one of a different sort: the so-called
"democratic deficit" that has plagued Canada for more than a decade. The common element of both deficits was, and is, trust. At the basest level, consider that in a society where fiat currency is
used, money is trust. Trust not only in the mint and the state and the government, but in other people. The mortgages and loans which, when their holders defaulted, sent the world economy spiraling into a recession, were the product of too much trust. Stephen Harper's rationale for keeping Canadian corporate taxes low was that it would earn the trust (in the form of investment and jobs) of corporations. A functioning democracy (indeed any just society) is also built on trust: trust in the system, trust in authority, and - most importantly - trust in candidates as it is measured at the polls.

Ignatieff argued, I would say correctly, that Harper had yet to earn a majority government because Canadians did not trust him. This, he said, was because Harper did not trust Canadians: he didn't trust them to ask the right questions at his campaign rallies; he didn't trust Canadian climate scientists enough to let them speak freely; he barely trusted his own cabinet to speak on their own. Harper had shown contempt not just of Parliament, but of Canadians themselves. It was a compelling argument, alas it seemed to go unheeded on election day.

...by a good 40% of the population.

Having established the link between trust and money, I think I'm beginning to see where Ignatieff's campaign went wrong. I might also be able to explain at the same time why Jack Layton did so well. Ignatieff's implicit promise in condemning Harper's treatment of democracy was that he was going to find some way to restore Canadians' trust in their political system. I wonder if he had simply failed to amass a sufficient wealth of our trust before he made that promise. Harper and Layton both have extensive histories in politics. Harper comes with Reform-party era cred as an Albertan rabble-rouser. Layton worked his way up from Toronto municipal politics. Say what you want about the Conservative ads attacking Ignatieff for his absenteeism from Canada, and his allegedly selfish and opportunistic entry into politics - one of these candidates was not like the others. The people who voted for Harper on election day presumably voted with confidence that they were getting the vindictive social and economic conservative they wanted. I have seen it argued that the NDP's upswing in popularity was largely attributable not to their policies, but to the charisma of Jack Layton. From what I saw of the leaders' trustworthiness ratings in campaign polls, this rings true. The proportion of respondents saying they would vote for the NDP was - for a time - no greater than usual, but the general opinion of Jack Layton's competence and trustworthiness were, if I recall correctly, higher even than Harper's. In short, I think voters saw Ignatieff as writing cheques he could not cash.

Let's also take a moment to examine the Liberal platform on democratic reform and renewal. Not that any party had a particularly strong showing in this area, but every other party, including the Conservatives, supports senate reform*. The Conservatives, it should be noted, also pledged to give more seats in Parliament to presently under-represented provinces. The only plank in the Liberal platform that could generously be described as "democratic reform" is the proposal for an online voting initiative. It isn't that I think online voting is a bad idea - which it is without extreme security safeguards - but I heard a lot of talk from Mr. Ignatieff...but I look at his platform and see no promises to fix the parts of our democracy that are currently broken.

* Technically, the NDP just want to scrap the whole thing, but the Liberals seem quite content with Canada's undemocratic elephant-in-the-room.

To bring some of this full-circle, I think Layton's question as to Michael Ignatieff's whereabouts in the House of Commons when 70% of the votes were going on cuts to the heart of the matter. Ignatieff talked the talk about respecting democracy, and changing partisan attitudes, but never really did the groundwork to back it up. As I said before, I don't think the Liberals should have avoided showing up to the House when Harper bullied them around with another confidence motion they didn't want to defeat. Sure, when an election comes, they want to be able to say "we didn't support any of their policies". I get it. But there is no shame in saying "voting for this bill is better for Canada than a federal election", and being honest about that. Or, at least, I don't think there should be. Instead of actually trying to extend an olive branch in the House of Commons, the Liberals decided to play a partisan game - not encouraging.

In any event, it's like "they" say: "The surest way to lose is not to show up at all"

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