Wednesday, June 7, 2000
Halifax Chronicle-Herald

Canada’s political leaders leave voters little choice

By Brian Lee Crowley

WHAT DO Canadians want in a leader?
The Liberals, the Canadian Alliance and the Tories are all wrestling with this question in one form or another. But none of the answers they are likely to come up with will do anything to dispel Canadians’ deep cynicism and disappointment with their leaders.
They certainly don’t want Joe Clark.

It’s got nothing to do with his klutzish qualities, although these do add a certain levity to the otherwise unrelieved humourlessness of Canadian politics. But, then, no one wants a leader chiefly for his comic relief value. And Joe doesn’t offer much else.

He is the last of the national party leaders to cling to the notion that the way to win seats in Quebec is to pander to the nationalist élite. His opposition to Ottawa’s clarity bill is no courageous statesmanship, but a policy of which Neville Chamberlain would have been proud.

Conservatives, centrists and moderate social democrats the world over have long since accepted that the old dependence generated by welfare entitlements destroys families, communities and the economy. It was Bill Clinton who ended “welfare as we have known it,” and Tony Blair who is enthusiastically pushing people off the dole and into productive work.

Instead, Joe makes common cause with those who want to return UI to the status quo, ante reform. Joe, like Jean Chrétien, thinks that there are seats to be won here by trapping a whole new generation of young people on the dead-end UI seasonal-work cycle. Shame on you, Joe.

Then there are those leadership qualities. Take his on-again, off-again promise to seek a seat in the Commons. There are arguments on both sides as to whether it is best for the Tories to have Clark in the House or out in the country. The problem is, Joe seems convinced by all of them.

Canadians don’t appear to want Preston Manning either – not if his performance in three successive elections is any gauge. This is not to belittle his success, which has been unprecedented; no other Canadian has taken a new party from birth to official Opposition in a dozen years.

He continues to surprise. He has put together a potential coalition of Western populists and powerful political machines in Alberta and Ontario. But not enough Canadians want to vote for him to make him a serious challenger to the Liberals. In a way, that’s a pity. There is a lot to be said for the economic platform of the Alliance, and Preston Manning gave by far the best performance of the four candidates for the leadership of the new party at one recent debate. He was polished, sincere, relaxed, and master of a wide range of issues. It is hard to see how any of the other candidates would be an improvement on him. Even with all the excitement and media attention generated by the race, the Alliance has barely risen to 20 per cent in the polls, a full 30 points behind the Liberals.

Canadians sometimes seem to want Jean Chrétien, although the last election demonstrated just how fragile his support is. Canadians like him because he’s a true “conservative” politician. He’s stuck to the tried and true, even when he opposed it in opposition, such as the GST and free trade. He takes no grand policy initiatives, preferring the incremental to the revolutionary. No man of the Big Idea, our Jean.

But he is the man of policy drift and petty patronage. Rarely has the patronage machine ground on so silently, but with such great effect, as under the prime minister who believes that if we don’t like the way he is running the country, we should leave, because there are millions of potential immigrants who would be glad to take our places. What ungrateful wretches we are to complain that medicare needs several Big Ideas, that taxes are way out of line and that our standard of living has been falling relative to the United States’ for years.
Canadians would gladly embrace an alternative to Jean Chrétien, if they could see one. Which they can. They just can’t have him.

That’s Paul Martin, the man responsible for the Chrétien government’s greatest accomplishments. He is economically literate, socially aware, sophisticated and competent; he will never embarrass us at home or abroad. He is also the one of our potential leaders who is the least likely to be running in the next election, and whose ascent to the leadership of the Liberal party is being blocked by a man who can’t remember why he wants to be prime minister.

And our political élites wonder why people don’t like politics.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank based in Halifax.
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