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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (The Globe and Mail)
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (The Globe and Mail)

Gerald Caplan

Our collective un-reality Add to ...

Be still my racing heart. Campaign news 24/7! Wall-to-wall political panels! More bloggers and twitterers (twits?) than voters! TV ads cluttering every conceivable space! Endless promises no one takes seriously! How thrilling it will be.

And now that the Prime Minister has rewarded his bottom-feeding campaign chief, Doug Finley, with a seat in the Senate, to join the Liberals' head honcho, David Smith, we have the entirely joyous spectacle of both campaigns being run by men pigging out at the public trough. Canadian democracy, eh?

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No wonder Canadians are celebrating Michael Ignatieff's remarkable decision to throw down the gauntlet to the governing party. Bring them on! Ignatieff had genuinely extraordinary experiences in his pre-political career. But nothing has prepared him to lead a party in an election campaign - one of the most stressful, frustrating tasks imaginable. Never mind: the Ighead has decided he is ready.

It seems only days ago that I was betting my mortgage that a fall election was out of the question. In fact, it was only days ago. Everything sensible militated against an election. It still does.

Heaven knows the country needs big changes. But the last thing we need is yet another election that will likely change little. That's why no one outside the political game wants one. I was discussing in this space recently the support the NDP got in the last election in 2006. I was about to file that little gem when I read something about the 2008 election. I barely remember the 2008 election, even though I was writing about it regularly for this very paper. Is that significant, Doctor?

We've had three general elections in the past five years, five in the past dozen. This will be the fourth in five years. That's preposterous. Who besides the tiny band of partisan activists plus media, ad agencies and related hangers-on can sustain their interest for this never-ending charade? What difference does it mean if the winner (whoever it is) soon proceeds to break almost all his promises and doesn't even seem remotely embarrassed.

Stephen Harper, for example, now tells us that god will judge him for betraying his much-repeated pledge never to stuff the Senate with party hacks (at $132,000 a pop plus great pension). So much for election promises. So much for the notion of an ethical god.

Ignatieff said on the weekend that that he'll decide on forcing an election based on principle, not polls. He also appeared once to care passionately about those unemployed Canadians who get no EI when they're laid off - how in the world do they survive anyway? - and then had David Smith (Senator Smith to you) say it wasn't an important enough issue to force an election over. Guess what their polling told them? Clearly I did him an injustice when I suggested he wasn't learning the political game quickly enough.

But there's a steep learning curve and he hasn't learned enough. Rationally, it makes no sense for Ignatieff to want an election. He needs only one defeat to return to Harvard humiliated, his tail between his legs. It's an unreasonable gamble, given his failure to make the expected impact, the startling absence of any compelling policies, and his inability to articulate why the government he supported in the spring has become intolerable in the fall.

But Stephen Harper seems quite as foolishly hot to trot. The NDP immediately gave him a chance to earn their temporary support in return for some useful measures for Canadians - exactly what the NDP exists to do. But the Conservatives belligerently repudiated that offer. How can that make sense? An election is an equal gamble for Harper. He's already disliked by many of his own MPs and party wise-guys for his unlovable personal style. One more failure to win a majority government and he can watch the hyenas circle 24 Sussex Drive.

So what's going on here? Actually, it's why politics is often so irresistibly, if perversely, fascinating.

On the one hand, it's the most hard-headed of games, all based on the incessant polling that the parties carry on. In this rational world, each party understands perfectly well that an election is not in its self-interest at this stage.

But there's another dynamic in politics - a kind of collective un-rationality, an hysteria almost, when the political class, always isolated from the real world, trapped in its own incestuous universe, gets it into its head that there simply must be an election to clear the air, that we can't go on like this any longer, and even against their own self-interest they wind themselves up to the point of no return. The media naturally plays as provocative as role as possible in creating such an atmosphere. Something of this sort is very much in the air at the moment, based on nothing but emotion and a kind of machismo competitiveness that seems to be permeating the parties. The foolishness of course begins at the top, with two alpha males who think the other is vastly overestimated and can be taken.

This, for better or worse, is Canadian democracy at work.

Never mind that most Canadians, as always, won't pay a jot of attention until the last few days. Even then, their numbers will be modest. Forty per cent of us didn't even bother to vote last year. At the moment, even that looks like a tough target to match this time around. Of course there's always the chance something dramatically new and wildly unexpected and even significant will happen, and once in a blue moon it does. But I'm not betting my mortgage on it.

Gerald Caplan is a former New Democratic Party national campaign director and author of The Betrayal of Africa

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