Small ideas seldom deliver big election victories. The British election is the latest proof. In an unusual unanimity of teeth grinding, partisans, the press and aca- demic pundits denounced it as: ”œboring,” ”œpointless,” ”œa tacticians’ game.” The bitter tone of the campaign and a frustrating outcome left a sour taste on all sides.
It’s probably a good predictor of what’s to come here in Canada. The UK Tories failed yet again to reassert a meaningful alternative agenda, let alone define a path to victory. Tony Blair won a third victory, the first Labour leader in history to score a three-peat, but only after an embarrassing campaign of spending, begging, and plead- ing for forgiveness. The Liberal Democrats, the New Democrats of UK politics, won their highest number of seats in nearly a century, but only half the number their share of the popular vote should have earned them.
Even Conservative media fans winced at the snide, ”œAreyou thinking what we’re thinking?” slogan chosen by the party’s Aussie strategist, Lynton Crosbie. This was an unsubtle message to angry Conservative voters about changes in the country: too much crime, too many non-white immigrants, too much nonsense about turbans, headscarves and mosques. The slogan was dropped in a hail of criticism about its racist subtext, leaving Michael Howard’s campaign with virtually nothing to say.
As anguished conservative commentators complained, a highly unpopular prime minister, in the midst of a highly unpopular war, carrying the burdens of two terms in office, and spending money faster than Atlee’s socialists, and the Tories could do no better?
The Conservative Party, which had seized power from the spavined Labour Party as recently as 1979, which had dominated the policy agenda, and set public opinion on a new track for nearly two decades, seemed brain- dead. Even on issues that were made for right-wing attack: taxes, defence, spending and authoritarian govern- ment, the Tories were ineffectual. A mincing, coded appeal to Little England racism did seem a little thin.
And it is not as if the UK did not have big issues to face in the term ahead:
A divisive referendum on Europe in 24 months.
A public sector vehemently resisting change or improvement, despite billions in new spending.
A damaged security relationship with Europe, and popular anger at America and NATO.
Benchmarks falling in academe, productivity, and ”œcivility,” according to most stats.
A genuine and growing problem of illegal refugees, newcomer poverty, and racial tension in sev- eral cities ”” undeniable, in spite of the Tories’ tawdry efforts to milk its racist potential.
Beyond sloganeering, none were discussed. Instead, using techniques Canadian parties will roll out more vigorously in this campaign than ever before, both Labour and the Conservatives used new technologies for voter ID, contact, and messaging to stroke the 2 percent of the electorate who were genuinely planning to vote and were genuinely undecided.
Like the American experience last year, if you were one of the ”œvictim” voters so targeted, the attention you received, the pandering you endured, verged on harassment. If you were in the other 98 percent, you might have wondered where the campaign was.
Tiny, secretive events by the leaders, brief staccato announce- ments of that day’s message from a helicopter pad before the next photo op, and no leaders’ debates, made this a kind of ”œmuzak in mono” elec- tion for most British voters: there in the background, a little irritating, but not enough to do anything about. A small campaign, of small ideas, addressed to an even smaller number of voters.
The same challenges and tempta- tions face Canadian strategists, of all parties, and the same irritation and frustrations will be recorded by the media on behalf of grumpy voters.
Campaigns about big ideas, addressed to a big chunk of the elec- torate, are risky. They assume your new challenging message will overwhelm conventional wisdom ”” a tough gamble. They set you up as a target for attack. Kim Campbell unwisely admitted as much during her own disastrous campaign in 1993, declaring that elections are not good times to debate issues. For most campaign strategists, with most leaders, she was right. It’s just not polite to say so. But the important leaders, and the important campaigns, necessarily chal- lenge this narrowing of vision and dead- ening of political discourse. Sadly, despite a daunting list of big issues, we are being sleep-walked to another campaign of small ideas promoted by smaller men.
For the Conservatives this seems a major strategic blunder. They desper- ately need to break the mould of Canadian politics, to overcome their chronic weakness in Ontario and Quebec. Given the size of the moun- tain they need to climb, a low-risk campaign is the riskiest of all.
The bizarre twists of recent Conservative politics have pushed a tone-deaf, socially awkward policy wonk into the role of prime- minister-in-waiting. Stephen Harper used to have some big ideas: a per- sonal flat tax, deep cuts in corporate tax, a new security relationship including mis- sile defence with the US; a new constitutional frame- work to address both Western and Quebec alienation; profound govern- mental and parliamentary reform, including an elected Senate.
These are big, generational visions of change. They are as strong as any of the best and brightest in the Anglo-American conservative world. None of these ideas has survived the drive for power.
Harper’s version of the ”œare you thinking what we’re thinking” code is a variation on the good old southern strategy of the Nixon era. A coded attack not on blacks, but on gays. The message is delivered quietly in ethnic media, or at closed party events. These so-called dog-whistle messages have a habit of becoming public, in our Web-blog world. It seems inevitable that sometime in the cam- paign he will be forced to deal with a candidate whose intolerant com- ments on same-sex marriage emerge at a well oiled local party gathering.
Conservative media friends have pleaded with the party to aim higher. Diane Francis in the National Post demanded Harper drop such ”œscary” ideas if he wanted to win. He won’t. In mid-campaign, having once again failed to make an impact on urban Ontario voters, he may well announce that some of his best friends are gay. At that precise moment, the wheels will have fallen off a second Harper bus.
Paul Martin is positioned as no less of a policy pygmy.
His fall from seriousness is, if any- thing, more dramatic than Harper’s. Forget his reputation on deficit manage- ment: it was hardly novel as a message or challenging to implement. Martin knew Jean Chrétien would not back any minister’s self-interested appeal, and the cuts were only reductions in spending growth in a booming economy. It was an important discipline in managing the public purse, but one he has now happily discarded in favour of a return to more conventional vote-buying. Even before the late April $4.6 billion deal with NDP leader Jack Layton, to say nothing of the early May $5.7 billion fair share deal with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, the February budget envisioned a 50 percent increase in fed- eral spending over five years ”” three times the normal rate of GDP growth over the period.
In previous lives, and on an inter- national stage, however, Martin was known and admired for two other gen- uinely novel and big ideas: a new global leadership forum, and a new approach to global poverty and the environment. Fans predicted that like Lester B. Pearson, Martin would vault Canada into world prominence again, and on similar grounds. Just as Pearson figured out how to finesse big power paralysis on peacekeeping in the Middle East, so Martin’s Leadership 20 Forum was going to break the UN Security Council log- jam. The ”œL-20,” to cognoscenti, was widely hailed as a clever end-run around the paralysis in the UN system, and a way to build new bridges between key leaders in the developed north and the Third World. Never heard of it? Not surprising. It died on the way to power as well, emerging as a vestigial footnote in External Affairs’ press releases from time to time.
As one chagrined Liberal put it pri- vately, ”œAnd now to be attacked by Bono as ”˜not getting it’ on Third World debt, just as Layton is revving up! That’s not where we want to be!” Liberal internationalist credentials were always a good bulwark against any New Democrat assault. Jack Layton now has a hole in Martin’s credibility through which to drive a large truck, when it comes time to defend his wavering NDP flock against Liberal seduction at e-minus seven.
So, like Blair fleeing Iraq, Gomery- crippled Martin will be reduced to a campaign of spending, begging and pleading for forgiveness.
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Layton’s brilliant negotiating jujitsu in the dysfunctional days of this embarrassing Parliament notwithstand- ing, he has also failed to put much new, big or different in his shop window. The party should be able to rally its tradi- tional base with its usual appeals on housing, health care, and a greener Canada. Why this would move many more voters this time than the last four rounds is not clear. This small campaign faces the same risks as Harper’s. Layton needs a big idea on the economy, the environment, or Canada in the world that challenges the tired assumptions on the Canadian left.
When Pierre Trudeau told his hor- rified advisers prior to the 1979 elec- tion that he intended to campaign on the Constitution, they had a collective stroke. People were angry over oil prices and unemployment, not wor- ried about patriating the Constitution from Westminster, which he called ”œour national shame.” He lost that battle, for many reasons, but he won the war next time round. And the Constitution, or at least the Charter of Rights, is the signature achievement of his 15 years in power.
When Bill Clinton horrified even his wife with his deter- mination about tough welfare reform, he staked a position that was novel, big and dangerous. He turned around his presidency and achieved a level of reform not seen since the Depression. It is now a career marker, with child poverty declining in the US for the first time since the 1960s.
Brian Mulroney picked up the idea of North American economic union from Donald Macdonald’s recommend- ed ”œleap of faith” and ran with it. Persuaded as well by Macdonald’s argu- ments in favour of consumption taxes, he borrowed the New Zealand Labour party’s GST. Leaders who achieve big change are rarely the policy authors. They have the harder task, overcoming entrenched resistance and delivering. It would be surprising if Canadians are as churlish a decade from now, as many remain today, in recognizing the guts and the leadership each of those big ideas required on the part of Brian Mulroney.
Tony Blair, before he was enfee- bled by Iraq, started out with three very big ideas:
force the rank and file of Labour to accept the reality of a market economy
force real change and real choice on the public sector, especially teaching and health
drag Labour from pacifism to acceptance of a real military defense of international stability and democratic objectives
There were many other ideas ”” constitutional, regional, Bank of England and legal reform ”” but even the first three are achievements no Labour leader had ever been able to even launch as platform pledges. He is well on his way to delivering on all of them in this third term of government.
Canadians’ happy acceptance of an Eisenhower-style ”œgolfin’ and fishin’” complacency under Chrétien was understandable, given the divi- sions of the free trade and Meech wars. That decade of division has allowed, however, at least four big issues to build. None of them will be raised, except as slogans or insults, in the campaign:
1. La question nationale (as serious Quebec commentators still refer to what the rest of us know as the Quebec question)
It won’t go away, it won’t wither with benign neglect; Gomery put paid to that soothing fiction.
It does require serious leadership, new ideas and a willingness to force big tradeoffs. The alternative remains ”” and yes, it is enraging that we are still here ”” a referendum too close to call. Perhaps it will take an Alberta premier with the dis- cipline and vision of a Peter Lougheed, and the populist propaganda skills of a Ralph Klein to lay out a new ”œAlberta Firewall Agenda” to force us to treat this as the national crisis it remains. Such a premier is less than two years from office.
2. A new deal on North American political and security co-operation
Having enjoyed 60 years of securi- ty freeloading, 15 years of free trade surplus and growth, it’s now time to get serious about the political costs of these happy bargains.
Sliding closer and closer to eco- nomic union with the US, with no dis- cussion of how we can better manage and defend our political freedoms, is tantamount to treachery. Like the slow-cooking lobster, we are enjoying the warmth and ignoring the fatal alarms that mad cow and softwood and border security are flashing at us. We will fight to create political institu- tions with Mexico and Washington similar to the early days of the European Common Market, we will build a new NORAD, or we will forfeit our political sovereignty.
Telling the Americans they can’t fling their missiles, anti-missiles or golf balls over our heads is not security pol- icy, it’s bumper sticker politics. As Lester Pearson declared in the Bomarc debate 40 years ago (a fight with exact- ly the same characteristics and choic- es), our history and our geography deny us that option.
3. The dying planet
As Al Gore and John Kerry, the NDP and now the Green Party have all discovered, selling a tough message of environmental responsibility to nations built on beating the land into submis- sion is heroes’ work. Like other issues which took generations to achieve con- sensus ”” civil rights, nuclear disarma- ment, sexual choice ”” they require a leader prepared to take big risks and play a long game. Shuffling Kyoto emis- sion cards, building iconic single wind- mills, delivering ”œone ton” challenges, are all clever political legerdemain. Real carbon taxes, gas-guzzler pain, California level emission standards and penalties, and new nuclear power are more serious responses.
4. Our fading democracy
When the wailing and teeth-gnashing after the nasty and bitter Canadian campaign have died away, it will be time again to examine why fewer Canadians than ever bothered to choose their government, and time to get serious about the democratic deficit which has emerged in all the developed democracies. Maybe it is proportional representation (PR), maybe it is partial proportional representation (PPR), maybe it is a serious look at the failed checks and balances in a parliamentary system. The range of restorative tonics for the machinery of government is wide. They will all require strong lead- ership to get off the ground.
The deeper challenge with a big- ger payoff is to widen the hori- zons of political choice in Canada again. Today’s limited spectrum of permissible policy on health care per- mits no one to even talk about the failure of today’s system without waving a clove of garlic in front of any suggestion of the private supply of public health care. On taxation, one is not permitted to make the case for the greater fairness of value-added taxes, or point out the bucket riddled with holes than personal and corpo- rate income tax have become. It is similarly forbidden to discuss private investment in public infrastructure. Canadian banks and telephone com- panies, consistently both embarrass- ingly profitable and backward, could never survive the cold wind of for- eign competition, we are told. The list of ”œthird rail” topics in Canadian politics is long and getting longer.
It is small wonder that Canadians get so little excited about such small choices. Until bigger leaders with big- ger ideas re-emerge on the landscape we seem doomed to these shallow, spiteful campaigns and elections which test little, resolve less, and pro- duce feeble parliaments.
But the delight of four-party par- liamentary democracy is its inherent unpredictability, so perhaps ”” hallelu- jah! ”” I will be wrong.