I was always quite proud of the Canadian political system during the time I lived in Britain, especially when their Parliament was mired in some scandal involving Rupert Murdoch or the cleaning of ancestral moats.
When anyone asked about politics back home, which was not often, I would bore them with stories of peace, order and good government until their eyes glazed over and they reached for their pint glasses.
Now, I imagine their eyes might light up since we’ve traded POGG for what you might call cynical contempt for a cowed electorate. I know, it’s not very catchy, and it won’t fit on a stamp, but who uses stamps anyway? Only people who write to their MPs – and we know how many of those are left.
The carnival of flagrant disregard swung into high gear this week, with Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre’s appearance on CBC’s Power & Politics. Mr. Poilievre was there to defend the $90,000 bailout of Senator Mike Duffy by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright. Or, as his superiors may have framed it as they trotted him off to the CBC studio: “Could you possibly take this limburger and make it smell like a rose?”
He made a valiant attempt. Mr. Poilievre’s strategy consisted of repeating the word “taxpayers” like a mantra, perhaps in the hope that viewers would be dazed into submission. “The taxpayer will not be on the hook,” he said, adding that Mr. Wright “protected taxpayers against the ineligible expenses.” Mr. Poilievre repeated those phrases, with minor variations, a half-dozen times. Truly, it was like watching him audition for Madame Mesmera’s House of Hypno-Magicks. No junior wizard at Hogwarts ever tried harder to cast a spell with such base material.
The clear implication was that “taxpayers” care about their pockets, but not the moral, ethical or legal consequences of political action. Will the spell work? Will the population wake up in a few days, rub its eyes and think: I’ve had an awful dream about being abused by some strangers in Ottawa (and weirdly, it’s the same nightmare I keep having), but who cares, because I’ve got enough money left this week to buy a bag of chips!
There may be no more cynical, or effective, word in the lexicon than “taxpayer.” Each one of us is a taxpayer. If you’ve bought a litre of gas or a pair of socks, you’re a taxpayer. But in the zinc-grade quality of current political conversation, it means a particular middle-class subset of the population: You who look like me, who think like me and who put an “X” next to my name on the last ballot. I will save you 10 pennies this month in return for your fealty.
Maybe there are some Canadians who see their role in civic life strictly in terms of the slice of pie they bring home, not as a complex web of give and take, privilege and obligation. Certainly Toronto Mayor Rob Ford thinks that way. In fact, he seems to believe that mouthing platitudes about “respecting the taxpayer” is a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card that cancels out any other transgression and makes it okay to run Canada’s largest city into a wall. (This week, the story became Mr. Ford’s alleged personal demons, which are his own, at least until they start to haunt everyone’s house. Then it’s time for an exorcism.)
Sometimes, because it’s my job, I like to dream up metaphors that describe the current state of my beloved hometown. Riderless horse? Baby left to play in traffic while its parents get hammered in the bar? Circus car filled with clowns?
I saw the perfect metaphor the other day, in a busy Toronto subway station. Dozens of passengers crowded in a knot waiting for a streetcar like a clutch of passive-aggressive Blanche DuBois. They blocked the top of the escalators. I pointed out the potential danger to a Toronto Transit Commission worker, who said, in classic functionary fashion, “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Just days before, the paralyzed Toronto City Council failed to agree on any tax schemes to fund the city’s public transit system, which, as everyone who uses it knows, is heaving like Shelley Winters stuffed into a very tight dress.
There’s a breathtaking amount of cynicism at work, in both the case of Mr. Ford and the federal Conservatives: Deny any wrongdoing, pronounce yourself a friend of the little guy and pray that on polling day people remember the price of gas and not the cost of wear and tear on the civic fabric.
Perhaps voters will oblige. Look at British Columbia: Even a series of scandals ranging from mean-spirited attack ads to the political targeting of ethnic groups on the public dime wasn’t enough to keep Christy Clark’s Liberals out of power. The pollsters didn’t see it coming. But then, maybe they didn’t realize that only 52 per cent of eligible voters would turn out. Thirty years ago, 70 per cent of people voted in B.C.’s provincial election. A good chunk of the refuseniks are young people. Is it any wonder?
We seem to have reached a particularly nasty and brutish period in Canada’s political climate. Let’s hope it’s also short.