Sat, 02 Dec 2006

My mom once told me that she’d entertained the idea of naming me “Pierre”, after Pierre Trudeau.

In 1984, at the age of about eight, I attentively followed the Liberal leadership campaign. I was a Chrétien supporter. In retrospect, I think I was drawn to his funny accent.

Around the same time, I remember surprising my father by telling him I disagreed with the NDP’s suggestion that Canada withdraw from NATO. I couldn’t explain why. Apparently I was born with an inarticulate but strong aversion to isolationism.

In sixth grade, just before the 1986 Saskatchewan provincial election, my class held a mock vote. I was one of two students out of thirty to vote for the Liberals, then led by Ralph Goodale. (The rest of the class split pretty evenly between Tories and New Democrats.)

What I’m saying is, I’ve got a deeply engrained sympathy with the Liberal Party.

Since reaching voting age, I’ve scattered my votes indiscriminately, supporting New Democrats, Liberals, and numerous smaller parties, with the only common theme being that my candidate had no hope of winning. In fact, with the exception of one city councillor in a North Vancouver civic election, I have never cast a ballot for a winning candidate at any level of government. Quite a streak.

I voted, with great reluctance, for the NDP in the last election – and came to regret it.

And all the while, if anyone had forced me to declare my party allegiance, I would probably have mumbled, after some equivocation, “Deep down, I guess, I’m a Liberal.”

It’s easy to explain why. In the States, you’re either one or the other, Democrat or Republican, left or right. The same more or less goes in the U.K. Every election demands that the sizeable bloc of voters huddled around the middle of the ideological spectrum break one way or the other.

Here in Canada, moderate voters like me don’t need to break at all. The Liberals are Canada’s Compromise Party, neatly wedged between the all-heart-and-no-brains New Democrats and the all-sticks-and-no-carrots Tories. Historically the Liberals have stolen the best ideas from their competitors – medicare from the NDP, fiscal responsibility from the Reform Party – given them a new coat of paint, and sold them as new to Canada’s voters. And, time after time, the ploy has worked, to the country’s benefit.

The downside is that the Liberal Party, being virtually guaranteed victory four out of every five elections, attracts a disproportionate share of this country’s high-achieving, pole-climbing, name-dropping, insufferable little weasels, and is therefore constitutionally prone to high-handedness and casual corruption. And when the corruption gets out of control, the voters recoil, and the opposition gets to spend a few years in power while the weasels grouse and complain and stab each other in the back and bide their time till the next election.

So it’s still early in the grousing-and-backstabbing phase, and the Liberals are about to choose a new leader. At the start of the race I was enthusiastic about Michael Ignatieff, until his knack for saying stupid things in public made me think twice. But the utter dullness of the remaining candidates has made me think twice a second time, and my third thought is that Ignatieff is the only one I can see myself voting for with any enthusiasm. Sure, he says stupid things, but (to put a positive spin on it) at least that shows he’s thinking, rather than just regurgitating talking points – right?

Tonight, at the convention in Montreal, Bob Rae gave a rambling speech whose high point was a borscht-belt-vintage joke about Stephen Harper (he goes to dinner with his cabinet, orders the steak, the waiter says, “what about the vegetables?” Harper says, “they’ll have the steak too”) but which was nevertheless duly praised by the commentators because Rae had been speaking without notes, “from the heart” – as if plucking random phrases from the well-stuffed bag of Liberal applause lines represented something more than the triumph of Pavlovian conditioning:

“…social justice!” [applause]

“…George W. Bush!” [boos]

“…environmental sustainability!” [applause]

“…fiscal responsibility!” [tepid applause]

“…the war in Iraq!” [boos]

“…women…immigrants…aboriginal peoples!” [applause]

Although he provided no evidence in his (prepared) speech that his thought went any deeper than the above, at least Ignatieff was the only one of the four leading candidates who managed to get through his text without a gratuitous stab at the United States. So he’s my man. But of course, though I wasn’t present to cast my cursed vote on his behalf, the taint of my support was enough to squelch Ignatieff’s momentum on the first ballot, where he scored well below expectations. Meanwhile the delegates were inexplicably smitten with Stéphane Dion, who drooped behind the lectern like long underwear from a clothesline, droning the usual applause lines in an English little more elegant than Chrétien’s, but with Chrétien’s endearing pugnacity replaced with nerdy stridency:

“…vision for Canada’s future!” [applause]

“…Stephen Harper’s divisive social policies!” [boos]

“…equality!” [applause]

“…the Republican Party!” [boos]

Gerard Kennedy was pretty good, despite choosing to be introduced by Canada’s most overrated public speaker, the patronising Justin Trudeau. (Maybe Justin would have fit in better in the age of grandiloquent gasbags like John Diefenbaker, but he sure seems fake when contrasted with the unforced eloquence of his father.) Kennedy was the only speaker who interrupted his stream of platitudes with an anecdote from his own life, and it was a rather touching one, about delivering food to a needy family (when he worked with the Edmonton food bank) and the father preventing the kids from tearing immediately into the food because, “We have a guest, we should offer him something to eat.” From this, Kennedy lamely concluded, he took the lesson that poor people share “the same values, the same dreams, the same hopes for their children” as the rest of us. Brave guy, almost made it through a whole paragraph without throwing that touchy-feely ovation trigger “values” in there.

Kennedy, like Rae and Dion, opposes the extension of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan (though not, it should be noted, with the unswerving dogmatism of the NDP). “If the mission does not comply with Canadian values,” he explained, “we will leave, proud, with our heads held high.” Those good old “Canadian values” again. Apparently the candidates feel that what we’re doing in Afghanistan is somehow in violation of them. It’s funny, because when you look at what we’re fighting for in Afghanistan, it’s awfully similar to what the Liberal Party claims to be fighting for in Canada. You know, equality, women’s rights, education, religious tolerance. Generally speaking, Liberals are opposed to stoning adulterers, smashing idols, and keeping women locked up in the kitchen, right? Yet somehow the same candidates who can’t utter the words “Stephen Harper” without launching into a tirade about his destructive right-wing social agenda can’t be bothered to say one word all night about the Taliban – except, by implication, as a potential negotiating partner when we pull out our troops next year.

We’ve got this self-flattering idea of the Canadian soldier as a patient young man standing with arms outstretched between ruthless barbarians ready to hack each other with axes and rape each other’s daughters. I think that’s a great national mythos. I think it’s great that we’re willing to send our kids around the world to stand with firearms slung loosely over shoulders, watching over rocky frontiers in Bosnia and Macedonia and Cyprus, distributing bubblegum to schoolchildren, and keeping the barbarians away from each other’s throats while the next, hopefully more peaceable generation is reared. I guess this is what the Liberals thought they’d signed up for when they sent the troops off to Afghanistan. But sometimes the barbarians don’t play by our rules. Sometimes they see us handing out bubblegum and building schools for little girls and, rather than slinking back to their huts to brood, they choose to fill their backpacks with dynamite and send the whole crowd, soldiers, schoolchildren, bubblegum and all, up to Allah.

When this happens, Gerard Kennedy somehow concludes that it is our mission, rather than the barbarians’, that is in contradiction with “Canadian values”. And that this contradiction will somehow be reconciled by leaving the barbarians alone to resume their mutual massacres, while we sit at home and pat ourselves on the back, applauding our commitment to women’s rights and religious diversity.

Look, we can do better in Afghanistan. We could be spending way more money on reconstruction. We need to work with our NATO allies and the government in Kabul to do something about the cultivation of poppies, which is both the only source of livelihood for significant numbers of Afghan farmers and a major source of income for the Taliban. (To his credit, this is a point that Kennedy has raised – though the difficulty of figuring out what to do about it is explained succinctly in this press briefing by a drug enforcement guy from the U.S. State Department.)

Maybe a Liberal government could work within NATO to develop a smarter strategy for victory. But judging from their rhetoric, I don’t think Kennedy, Dion, and Rae are even committed to that much. I think they’re just looking for the first excuse to get Canadian soldiers the hell out of there. And the only conclusion I can draw from this is that a certain segment of the Liberal Party, like the NDP, is only committed to the armed forces so long as the armed forces never resort to their arms.

Fighting for our values is easy here in the west. Here you can fight with words. You can stand at a podium and call Stephen Harper every nasty name in two official languages. But what about fighting for our values abroad? Words won’t get you very far. Food, medicine, blankets, those make a difference. Building hospitals, training police, wonderful. Standing in a rocky field with arms outstretched, absolutely. But sometimes in order to fight you actually have to fucking fight.

Guess I might as well follow up on last night’s thoughts on the Liberal leadership race.

As I write, it’s an hour or so from the final ballot, pitting Michael Ignatieff against Stéphane Dion. It looks like Dion will win with sixty percent of the vote or more.

First off, watching the coverage over the last twenty-four hours hasn’t changed my initial impression that Dion is a drip. I think the Liberals have saddled themselves with a loser – awkward, unglamourous, and intellectually rigid. And does the party really need another francophone leader who isn’t particularly popular in Quebec?

Coming into the convention I had no opinion on Belinda Stronach’s drive to replace the delegate-style convention with some kind of newfangled internet voting system where every party member would have a vote. But I’m starting to see Belinda’s point. Maybe I’m wrong about Dion – maybe he’ll prove to be popular with the wider public – god knows I have no idea what voters are attracted to, except that it’s usually the exact opposite of whatever I like. But I expect him to flop. Here we have four thousand or so convention attendees cohering around the candidate whose appeal, it is acknowledged, is that he’s “everybody’s second choice”. It reminds me of the 2004 Iowa caucus, where a tiny sliver of Democratic primary voters anointed the hopeless John Kerry as their candidate, based on similarly lukewarm feelings. And look how Kerry’s candidacy turned out.

The problem is, in a general election, “everybody’s second choice” doesn’t get to form government. Mind you, there’s no guarantee that granting a wider franchise for the convention would result in a leader with broader national appeal. I suppose it would depend on how Belinda’s electronic voting system were set up.

Speaking of Belinda, I enjoyed watching her and John Manley providing colour commentary on CBC. Belinda didn’t come across as terribly insightful, but she looks great and communicates well. John Manley is a guy I’ve always liked. He was very loose and funny. Of course I found myself wishing that he were a candidate – but then, locked into a rhetorical cage with the other sideshow acts, he probably wouldn’t have an opportunity to crack jokes and say intelligent things. Just more about “Canadian values” and all that bosh. Why must politicians be so uninteresting? And why, if they’re so uninteresting, do I persist in being interested?

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