No Need To Worry About Hidden Agendas
I'm not very good at reading minds and so, absent other evidence, I can't say if Michael Ignatieff is secretly planning to defile all that is good and righteous by forming a postelection coalition government with socialists, separatists, and satanists. I suppose he may. Stephen Harper sure sounds convinced. "They will deny it every day of the campaign," he recently told a reporter. "The day after, they'll do it."
I don't know how Harper knows that. I guess he's just better at reading minds than I am. Ignatieff did respond with a denial, after all. The prime minister said he would. Some people might say that's compelling evidence: Stephen Harper is psychic.
And he's not the only one. The opposition benches are filled with Amazing Kreskins. They all know that if Stephen Harper wins a majority in the next election he will restore capital punishment, ban abortion, outlaw evolution, make church attendance mandatory, and otherwise turn Canada into a bigger, colder Alabama. Liberals lynched. Jack Layton hunted with bloodhounds. The editors of the Toronto Star, in orange jumpsuits and shackles, collecting roadside garbage while Sheriff Ford picks his teeth with an unregistered shotgun. This is Stephen Harper's hidden agenda.
Of course, Stephen Harper has denied he has any such agenda. "I've spent my political career trying to stay out of that issue," Harper said about abortion after an interviewer raised the subject. That's typical. Harper doesn't bring this stuff up. Journalists do. When Harper denies he'll go there, it just makes the whole thing look secret. Hidden, even. A hidden agenda. Invisible. Unless you can read minds.
I wish I could read minds. Maybe I'll run for Parliament. My campaign slogan will be, "give me psychic powers!"
Anyway, all this talk of secret schemes is depressing. Think about the next election: "You have a hidden agenda!" "No, you do!" Not exactly the Athenian democratic ideal. And if the claims about hidden agendas are true -- and they have been verified by authentic psychics -- we will be asked to decide whether we want Canada to become Canuckistan or Bubbasburg. There will be no Option Three.
Like I said, depressing. But don't put yourself on an ice floe just yet. If it's true that Michael Ignatieff intends to form a coalition should the Conservatives fail to win a majority, and if it's true that Stephen Harper plans on unleashing his inner ideologue if they do win one, does that mean Canada will necessarily get one undesirable outcome or the other? No. Because there is a vast gulf between leaders' intentions for the future and what they ultimately do when the future finally arrives.
Imagine it's Sept. 7, 2008. The prime minister has just asked the governor general to call an election. You sit down with Stephen Harper and, because you're old friends, you have a private and frank conversation. What are his plans? What will his government do in the coming years if he is re-elected with another minority?
In effect, you are asking Stephen Harper to predict his own behaviour. This should be a slam dunk. Harper's ability to read the minds of others may be in dispute but he certainly knows what he himself thinks.
"I think I'll spark a major constitutional crisis," Harper says to you. "Then I'll give Keynesian stimulus spending a try. Oh, I know. It contradicts my fundamental economic beliefs. But what the heck! Also, I'll turn the current surplus into a huge deficit. Maybe prorogue Parliament again."
Of course that's what actually happened. And we can be reasonably confident Harper would have predicted none of it. Remember, in September, 2008, he was sure there wouldn't be a recession. The budget would remain balanced. Keynesian stimulus? He'd sooner cut off his left pinky. Prorogue Parliament? Twice? Bizarre. Why would he do that?
Indeed, I will wager that if Stephen Harper, a psychic, and Paul the Octopus had all tried to predict Stephen Harper's actions after being re-elected, Stephen Harper likely would have done no better, and quite possibly would have been whipped by the psychic, the octopus, or both.
This isn't a criticism of Stephen Harper, mind you. It's just reality. Asked to name the greatest challenge to their plans that leaders face, British prime minister Harold Macmillan famously responded, "Events, dear boy. Events."
Only in hindsight do we see leaders carefully formulating plans prior to taking power, then deliberately enacting them in their entirety. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the supreme example. Running for the presidency in 1932, FDR's campaign promises looked nothing like the New Deal he ultimately created. But FDR didn't have a hidden agenda. There wasn't much of an agenda, hidden or otherwise. There was only a small group of men, terrified by the scale of the crisis and the pace of events, desperately putting bits and pieces together into what they hoped would be a functioning machine. "To look upon these policies as the result of a unified plan," wrote Raymond Moley, Roosevelt's top aide, "was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter's tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy's bedroom could have been put there by an interior designer."
I don't think Michael Ignatieff plans on sitting at the cabinet table with Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe and I don't think Stephen Harper has any intention of bringing back the death penalty or banning abortion. But even if they did, I wouldn't worry about it too much.
Events, dear boy. Events.