by Paul Lemay
• When I was a boy growing up in the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, I remember how we used to look up to our prime ministers, regardless of the political party they represented. But after Watergate it seemed the bloom on all political roses began to fall off. Now 40-plus years on, all we’re left with are a few thorny stems and the few precious petals we do have are now dried and sandwiched between the pages of a scrapbook.
And politics isn’t the only sphere in our oh-so-modern world that has seen a deflowering of its ideals. Take sport, for example. Its first high-profile Watergate equivalent came with Ben Johnson at the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. But that was only the beginning. A quarter of a century later, the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports was still making worldwide headlines when Lance Strong-arm’s long-running campaign of deceit came to its own long-overdue end. But instead of witnessing any obvious sign of contrition on Oprah – Lance Armstrong doesn’t do remorse well it seems – we saw a politically calculated confession.
Welcome to the post-apocalyptic new age where all that was once sacred melts in a slow-mo dance before our now more inquisitive tech-savvy eyes. It’s an age where the temporary titillation of our appetites for the dethroning of one-time heroes leaves us with little else to celebrate than its putrid droppings.
Oh wait, perhaps I spoke too soon. I forgot the current federal Liberal Party leadership contest. Now there’s a cultural campfire we can all gather around for a few more pointed laughs and dethronings on a cold winter’s night. But fear not, we’ve got the CBC’s trusty At Issue panel ready to tell us how to think about such weighty matters. And in case you hadn’t heard – and who hasn’t – the latest Liberal contest is an all but done deal if the new ‘Delphic Oracle’ of Twitter followers is any indication. On that dubious score, J.T. already wears the dented crown.
So forget policy. Forget substance too. And by all means, forget the debates. It’s all about Trudeau’s great hair and his ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. It’s all about the headline act, that and Mad Men ad men sizzle, because that’s what sells – the only way TV networks seem capable of maintaining herds of entertainment famished viewers.
But I digress. Now for a bit more political substance: On a foggy late January afternoon in Vancouver, 900 devoted Liberals piled into a hall at no less than $20 a head looking for more comparative clarity from those seeking the leadership. Of course, for a party dangling from a fine thread in hope of climbing out of its crevasse of third place, optics matter. So why then did they opt for the swanky Westin Bayshore hotel next to trendy Coal Harbour and Stanley Park rather than a hall in suburban Surrey where the faithful were already gathered for their annual policy conference? No, that was too simple. Better to go through the added expense, risk and hassle of bussing the buggers 25 kilometres downtown like school kids in a well-meaning affirmative action program. Why too did the party decide to charge another $129 to attend a post-debate reception? Great way to promote one’s image as a party of accessibility!
But let’s get to the debate itself shall we. With the Liberal Party looking for a way to rebound into electoral relevance, it doesn’t take a rocketman to see it needs to consider cooperating with opposition parties if it hopes to oust Stephen Harper from power. Many believe it’s the only realistic way to overcome the devastating effects of vote splitting due to our current first-past-the-post voting system in the short-term. Repeated public opinion polls tell us as much.
CTV’s Power Play host Don Martin even reinforced the point on his January 22 show reminding viewers how seven years earlier the Conservatives returned to power because three years before that the Canadian Alliance party merged with the PCs.
Of course, none of the prospective Liberal candidates are proposing a merger with the NDP. Yet you wouldn’t know from the way Martha Hall Findlay, Martin Cauchon, Deborah Coyne, George Takach, David Bertschi, Marc Garneau and Justin Trudeau talked, blurring that line, and then piling on Joyce Murray and anyone else in the audience who might have the temerity to utter the word “cooperation” with opposition parties in the next election. In fact, all but Murray and Karen McCrimmon seemed downright angry when the topic first came up.
In French, Trudeau asked: “What does it mean to cooperate? It means the priority would be on tossing out [Mr. Harper]… [and] to win and not to serve Canadians.” (Huh?) Takach went further: “No cooperation. I don’t like it. Harper likes the idea of merger or cooperation.” While Garneau said: “…to do so is to be an accomplice to the crushing of the Liberal Party.” Findlay not only challenged but some might say even shamed any in the wider audience who might be entertaining such heretical thoughts, chiding (in French): “Where has your confidence gone? I am a proud Liberal. It’s with courage we’re going to win against Harper in 2015!” Well you got that right Martha, the proud part I mean. What is it they say? Pride always cometh before a fall.
Obviously, it’s a touchy subject for many a Liberal, so touchy, it reminds me how Lance Strong-arm so often reacted when asked whether his seven Tour de France victories came with the help of performance enhancing drugs. When he wasn’t spewing a string of flustered denials in some legal proceeding or to TV cameras, he’d retaliate by taking some poor slob to court for libel or slander, behaviour he later admitted on Oprah was a form of bullying for which he was oh so boohoo sorry.
Of course, those in the “loud and proud” leadership choir have nothing to be sorry about either. Ignore the lingering Quebec sponsorship taint. Forget David Dingwall’s unsightly, “I’m entitled to my entitlements” scar. Come to think of it, just forget any and all of the Liberal Party’s past sins. They’ve moved on, which is why they are all proud Liberals again. Phew! Problem solved. Trouble is, not everybody is so forgetful or forgiving, so quickly.
Nobody here is saying Liberals are now devoid of any redeeming qualities. They have many. The problem is that somewhere there still seems to be a lack of genuine humility. Unlike Lance, I can’t recall the Liberal Party atoning for its previous sins of pride on Oprah. Perhaps a long overdue therapy-couch session with Peter Mansbridge or Evan Solomon is in order?
As a result, many of the Liberal Party’s leadership aspirants not only remain overly aversive to inter-party cooperation, they remain oblivious and unresponsive to the wider Canadian electorate’s view on the matter. It’s easy to say you’re listening to Canadians. But let none forget: the first rule of salesmanship is to tell prospective customers what they want to hear. Politicians know that. But if these guys were really listening, every candidate on the dais would at least be open to discussing the idea of cooperating with other parties in the next election, and saying so rather than declaring, in embarrassing flares of peacock pride, they were above all such shameful grovelling.
Let’s get real. In some parts of the country, especially where Liberal growth prospects are marginal at best (i.e. the West), inter-party cooperation seems like a no-brainer. Or is it?
Some, like Chantal Hébert, say it is impractical for parties to compete all across the country except for 57 or so ridings where Conservatives would otherwise win due to vote-splitting. And there is some logic to the argument. Then again, in ridings where Liberals know they’re apt to remain on the fighting ring ropes and have little prospect of winning, why not trade the NDP or the Greens one riding for another where they are on the ropes? Trouble is, some fighters don’t know when to say uncle, especially when they look at how Muhammad Ali used his rope-a-dope strategy to beat George Foreman during their Rumble in the Jungle fight in 1974. But how many of those are Muhammad Ali level fighters? Not many I’ll bet. What’s more, even Ali, after he retired, admitted he was scared silly of Foreman’s punching power.
So while some leadership contenders may get an ego kick delivering their lines as fast and loose as Ali did in his days, those of us who look at the statistical probabilities based on previous elections and what the electorate is actually saying it wants, would suggest it’s time for them to take a humility pill, as Lance Armstrong did, finally. In fact, if Lance was to have any chance for redemption, what other choice did he have? So what makes Liberal leadership aspirants any different? If there’s to be any hope of redemption, now is the time for a little less bluster and a whole lot more humility.
Paul H. LeMay is a Vancouver-based independent writer. Originally published at The HillTimes online,www.hilltimes.com