Thursday, April 21, 2005

The problem with Harper, indeed

I was going to post something on Adam Radwanski's Friday Post column, but I'm glad I waited. It's titled "In Search Of A National Champion", and his opinion is pretty well summarized in this paragraph:
What's needed, desperately, is a national leader who passionately believes in Canada, and is willing to fight for it even if it means going head-to-head with various provincialists along the way. But what's most depressing of all is that there is absolutely nobody, either here or on the horizon, who fits the bill.

I broadly agree with the sentiment in the first sentence, and without thinking about it too hard, he's probably right in his assessment in the second sentence.

His column didn't really move me on the whole, though, mainly because his angst was framed like this:
Today, [the federal government is] powerless to develop comprehensive social policy unless it's achieved the fantasyland scenario of having every single province on board. So the ability of the country to tackle common challenges -- be they health care, urban development or, yes, child care -- is virtually non-existent.

I wonder if Radwanski doesn't answer his own question here. Isn't it possible that Canadians have lost interest in having the federal government develop "comprehensive social policy", and that this is entirely unrelated to the lack of a "single, charismatic champion of national unity"?

Mark Steyn has written frequently about the absurdity of Quebecers fighting for an independent state that would be exactly like the one from which they separated. But look at it from the other direction:, why, precisely, should any province find that belonging to Canada is important for social policy reasons?

Unless you believe that your own province would cancel universal access to health care were it not for the legal restrictions of the Canada Health Act, the federal government's entire role in the health system is taxes and transfers.

Look at it from the perspective of (say) Saskatchewan. Why is Canada important, in terms of social policy? Mainly because the feds will take taxes from people in wealthier provinces, and the benefits of your social programs will be richer than they otherwise would.

This is nice, but even for a resident of Saskatchewan, this is not an inspiring vision of "Why Canada?"

Which brings me to Paul Wells' most recent and most excellent back page column. He groups non-Conservative voters into two big categories:
Why did Harper fall in the polls after he peaked last spring? Two reasons, I think. Some people decided they didn't know enough about how Harper would govern. They weren't sure he was ready. Call those voters The Unconvinced. Others believed they knew exactly how he would govern and they didn't like it one bit. Call them The Terrified.

Paul Martin's strategy was to peel the second group away from Harper. He said the Conservatives would tear up the Charter of Rights and transform Canada into a theocracy. It worked pretty well, so Martin's going to do it again. He will criss-cross the country shining a flashlight in his face and shouting "Boo." [Zing! - ed.]

He spends a bit of time mocking Harper et al for wasting their time trying to assuage The Terrified ("Does he really think that if he's vague enough on the Iraq war, people who opposed it will decide he was on their side?"); regular readers don't need me to reiterate my agreement with this point for the thousandth time.

But then he gets to what I believe is his really important and original insight. Why didn't The Unconvinced vote for Harper?
They must have been paying attention.

Ouch. I'm listening, though:
A prime minister needs a transport policy and an environment policy and some idea about what to do with the CBC or the First Nations. He needs people in his entourage who look ready to take over those files. He needs to show some interest in the country he wants to govern, in its history and its people.

Last year Harper acted like a guy who couldn't bother. He'd show up somewhere and reveal no knowledge, nor any particular interest, in local lore or local issues. He'd stand beside a candidate -- sometimes even mention the guy's name -- but rarely explain why Ottawa needed him, except to displace some random Liberal. [my emphasis]

Reread the emphasized portion. I guess it's a wee bit harsh, but are there any fellow Harper supporters out there who would flat-out disagree? Like I said, I like (liked?) the guy, but I don't think he exudes a passion for Canada. If I were hiring for the position of "CEO of large, industrialized country (client confidential)", he'd be at or near the top of my list. And when I consider that upside, and the downside of the alternatives, I'd be willing to accept Harper as PM of Canada, even if all he ever does in New Brunswick is stare off into space.

But the question remains: if Canada should not be defined by its social policy, what should that vision be? And much more importantly: how does one articulate it without sounding pessimistic, cranky, cold, mean, nostalgic, etc. etc. --in other words--how do you say it positively, in a way that would inspire a bunch of college kids?

More to come on this topic; it sounds like it might be relevant sooner rather than later.

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