The deep partisanship that has marked the crisis in the United States Congress has some lessons for Canadians. Polarisation is not the “new normal,” as New Democrats and Conservatives are preaching. It corrodes the body politic and takes us away from the simple truth that most people want a moderate, intelligent politics that’s based on facts, evidence, good values and compromise.
In 1991-92 the first ministers of the country met many times to discuss the constitution. In the corridors and in the inevitable discussions late at night we would gather together to talk about what was really on our minds – the economy and the state of public finances. The recession was taking its toll, and a “Canadian consensus” began to emerge – the country, and its provinces had to get their finances in better shape. The twenty year process of increasing deficits and debts had to come to an end. It was not a Progressive Conservative insight, or a New Democratic one, or a Liberal view, it was simply a widely shared, practical perspective that there were limits to borrowing, and that it would take a common commitment to get us to a better place.
It was not easy, but it was also not bitterly partisan. When Jean Chretien became Prime Minister in 1993, and began his own deficit attack a year later, most Canadians understood that it had to be done at the federal level as well as in every province.
The red/blue left/right split in America makes bi-partisanship almost impossible, and has taken that country to an entirely avoidable brink. As President Obama stated this morning, this is not some natural disaster beyond the wit of people to resolve. It is fixable and takes political will and a sense of the common good to fix it.
Most Canadians do not actually want a viciously partisan, left/right divide in this country. Despite Stephen Harper’s musings, the country has not suddenly turned hard right. Sixty percent of Canadians voted against Mr Harper’s party and its politics. And we need to understand that most goals in politics, as they are in hockey or soccer, are scored from the centre. That’s where the action is, and that’s where most Canadians are.
But not the dead centre where it’s safety first and always ‘on the one hand and the other hand,’ but rather an action-filled, resilient, and lively centre that is not afraid of ideas, debate, and looking at issues afresh. And that’s where the Liberal Party needs to be as well.
The one note the Conservatives can’t seem to avoid is the note of smugness and arrogance – about the election, about everyone else’s finances, about whatever issue they discuss.
The Conservatives insist that Canada’s economic record is light years ahead of the rest of the world. And yet the Canadian economy actually shrunk in May, and the combined debt of all governments in Canada – the number that matters in a federal country where provinces can borrow on the open market – is well over a trillion dollars. We have no grounds for smugness, and no basis for arrogance.
- Bob Rae