Canadians Are Fine With Politics As Usual

Last week’s tears and testimonials have given rise to a new conventional wisdom. “The response to Jack Layton’s death suggests Canadians are looking for a political leader who transcends the grubby world of politics as usual,” as John Ivison put it in the National Post.

That would be lovely if it were true. But recent history provides little reason to think it is.

Recall 2007. Every survey said the top priority of most Canadians was climate change. We considered it an emergency. And we were willing to pay for solutions.

Along came St├ęphane Dion. An accomplished academic, Dion had entered politics to deal with the national unity question and he was widely respected for his intelligence, sincerity and honesty. The man’s middle name was Earnest. Or should have been.

As Liberal leader, Dion took Canadians at their word. Climate change was our top priority so he made it his top priority. And since most experts said the best policy for dealing with climate change was a carbon tax, that’s what he proposed.

Political observers said it was suicide. Canadians won’t vote for a major new tax, they insisted, and they won’t listen if you tell them there are offsetting tax cuts.

Dion disagreed. “I am convinced that far too many political elites underestimate Canadians,” he said. “When you speak to the minds and big hearts of our great people, good policies translate into good politics.”

The Liberals suffered the worst defeat in their history. Up to that point, at least.

Enter Michael Ignatieff. A hugely accomplished journalist and academic, Ignatieff was anything but politics as usual. But when he called on Canadians to “rise up,” they sat down. The Liberals were crushed.

Of course in the same election in which Ignatieff led the Liberals to a previously unimaginable third-place finish, Jack Layton led the NDP to a previously unimaginable secondplace finish. Had Canadians responded to his smile, his optimism, his appeal to our better natures?

It’s hard to say. Maybe some had. But that was not Layton’s first federal election. It was his fourth. In his three previous tries, popular support for the NDP was stuck in the high teens, better than the dismal results of the 1990s but right in line with the historic trend. Same leader. Same smile, optimism, and appeal. Nowhere near the same result. Three times over.

So did the desires of the electorate change dramatically in 2011? Or did that result have less to do with Layton’s sunny ways than other factors? A key piece of evidence would be Layton’s next campaign, which, sadly, will not happen. But we do know who won the election of 2011.

Stephen Harper has been in politics his entire adult life, whether as a politician, a political aide, or a political activist. And while he may once have been described as an idealist – or an ideologue, if you prefer – that is in the distant past. Even his supporters would agree that since assuming the leadership of the Conservative party he has been ruthlessly pragmatic: He does what he must to win.

Some find that admirable. Others are reminded of Sean Connery’s advice in The Untouchables. “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.”

Remember “Paul Martin Supports Child Pornography?” That’s politics the Chicago way. Harper has been doing it ever since, insinuating that a Liberal MP’s family member was involved with terrorists, calling the coalition a “coup,” lying about the Constitution, stonewalling the House of Commons. It’s not a coincidence that the first government in British parliamentary history to be found in contempt of Parliament was Stephen Harper’s.

And don’t forget the attack ads. Viciously personal, sustained, and launched in the relative civility between election campaigns, they marked a new low in Canadian politics. They were also devastatingly effective.

Stephen Harper has won three elections in a row, each with a larger share of the popular vote than the last, and each against politicians who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do politics the Chicago way.

So please forgive me if I roll my eyes when I am told that the genuine shock and sadness we saw last week is proof that Canadians yearn for a politician who takes the high road. That is a hypothesis unsupported by evidence.

I suspect a simpler explanation is closer to the truth.

Jack Layton was energetic and engaged. He was fully alive. Even his opponents had to grant that. We saw him bounce back from surgery and cancer treatment to fight a historic election campaign. It was inspiring. His opponents had to grant that, too.

Then he died. It was as sudden as if he’d been shot – and just when he had become the leader of the official opposition, the reward for a very long struggle.

We were reminded that even for the gifted and the vital, life can be unjust and far too brief. We were reminded that our existence is unavoidably tragic. We were reminded we are mortal.

What we saw last week was much more profound than politics.