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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

A surfeit of rah-rah, a dearth of serious debate Add to ...

Why is it so apparently difficult for Canadians to discuss seriously important issues? The answer lies partly in the institutions and people in politics, but partly, as Pogo said, in ourselves.

A country formerly known for its modesty has actually become a rather boastful one, with Canadian flags everywhere (outside Quebec), appeals to Canadian patriotism ubiquitous (an upsurge of which is being seen in the buildup to the Olympics), a very strong sense of moral superiority, and a steady incantation from the political higher ups that "Canada is No. 1" (Jean Chrétien) or that "we have come through the recession better than any other country" (the Harper government).

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Patriotism has its place, of course, but it can blind countries not just to their faults today, but to challenges ahead. These days, and for some time now, we have had a surfeit of rah-rah patriotism and a rather severe loss of self-critical capacity.

Politics aside for the moment, there are other institutions in Canada whose silence has contributed to the difficulty of serious debate.

Take the economics profession. Very few economists in the private sector take on the big-picture national issues - the TD Economics unit being a significant exception - preferring instead to analyze the ups and downs of the stock market and this quarter's economic growth, or lack thereof.

Where were (and are) the country's university and business economists on the biggest hole blown in federal finances in decades - the two-point reduction in the goods and services tax? Was their silence explained by the fact that they were a) too busy with their pie-in-the-sky mathematical models on which university tenure and promotion depend, b) too afraid of offending the government, or c) too lazy to care?

Whatever the reason, the group that theoretically had much to offer the country largely took a pass.

The media are the messengers for the dissemination of most public ideas to citizens. So if public debate is deadening, axiomatically some of the explanation must relate to the media.

Alas, in Canada the public broadcaster - the expected place for explanation and analysis pursuant to its Broadcasting Act requirement to "inform, enlighten and entertain" - has become an ersatz private broadcaster. That this transition has occurred has sparked pockets of outrage but no sustained debate, itself a revealing commentary both on the dwindling importance of the CBC and the overall Canadian disinclination to care.

The print media are now transfixed by survival, which means slimming down, focusing more and more on the local, pouring energy into the immediacy of the Web with its blogs, Twitter, and general evanescence.

"Political" coverage is dominated, as on television, by who is up and who is down, which side is winning or losing, and the political calculations of this or that move by the government - a series of fundamentally uninteresting questions for citizens who want to know what things mean for them and their communities, rather than the scorecard of political gamesmanship.

The more the media chew over these sorts of questions, the more disengaged the media become from citizens, and the more citizens become disengaged from the political institutions and people the media are supposed to be covering, producing a predictable cycle of disengagement all around.

Disengagement is deepened when governments turn debates instinctively into personal attacks, as happens with depressing regularity in Stephen Harper's Ottawa.

In recent weeks, for example, two former deputy ministers of finance have said Canada needs to raise taxes to get rid of the deficit accumulated during the recession. To which, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty sniffed that he needed no advice from people who had caused such misery by inflicting pain on provincial budgets in the 1990s, a gross misrepresentation of what happened in those years.

This is so typical of contemporary Ottawa: Don't deal with substance and personally attack the messenger, whether it's diplomat Richard Colvin, the leader of the Opposition, former deputy ministers of finance or anyone else who dares throw a spoke in the government's wheels. Who would want, under these circumstances, to debate matters seriously, when the response will be low-blow and personal?

And in the case of the Liberals, the Official Opposition, they have been so traumatized by the Conservatives' attack machine, and they have so lost their sense of what it means to be a Canadian Liberal, that they are Harper carpers and, as such, no source at all of intelligent alternatives, without which it's hard to have serious national debates.

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