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Think of Canadian politics as trench warfare without the deaths and bombs. (Library and Archives Canada)
Think of Canadian politics as trench warfare without the deaths and bombs. (Library and Archives Canada)

Jeffrey Simpson

Never have so many fought so hard for such barren political terrain Add to ...

Think of Canadian politics as trench warfare without the deaths and bombs.

Big political formations dig in for a fight. They devise new ways of attacking each other. They try new strategies, which are really variations on old strategies. The think that tomorrow, or the day after, or the month after, the breakthrough will come.

For the Conservatives, the breakthrough would be majority government territory. For the Liberals, it would be minority government territory. For the NDP, it would be a 20-per-cent share of the popular vote. For the Greens, it would be a seat or two in Parliament. (The Bloc Québécois has already scored its breakthrough by cementing itself as the party of preference for the largest number of francophone voters in Quebec.)

For almost five years, the parties have searched in vain for the breakthrough. The Conservatives have thrown everything into the fray: massive government spending, attack ads directed at Liberal leaders, endless photo ops and announcements, foreign trips for the Prime Minister, systematic cuddling of ethnic groups, blatant appeals (now ended) to Quebec nationalism, and daily partisan swipes at the Liberals. For almost five years, they've controlled the nation's political agenda - and they're no closer to the breakthrough today than they were the day they took office.

The Liberals, for their part, have changed leaders twice, from Paul Martin to Stéphane Dion, and from Mr. Dion to Michael Ignatieff. They threatened to bring down the government, and they backed off bringing down the government. They've tried all kinds of ways to raise more money but still trail the Conservatives by more than $2-to-$1. They sent Mr. Ignatieff on a cross-country summer tour. They sent him to university campuses. They changed all his senior staff. They made policy announcements. They waited to benefit from the government's self-inflicted blows over the long-form census fiasco and the failure of Canada to win a seat on the Security Council. And still they struggle to get above 30 per cent in the polls.

The New Democrats have paraded Mr. Layton around the country, put him on television whenever possible and sounded defiant against the government, then said they'd work for the common good and not necessarily defeat the government. They tried to engineer an ill-fated coalition with the Liberals, and they robustly attacked the Liberals. They tried, as always, to identify themselves with the struggles of ordinary Canadians. And they're behind where they finished in the polls in the last election.

The country is essentially split into big blocks defined by geography, traditional voting habits, language and identity (see the Bloc), and nothing any of the parties tries shakes the grip of the other. Occasionally, it looks as if a party might be making a move on one front (Conservatives for a while in Quebec; NDP in B.C.), only to watch the offensive go nowhere. Meantime, no policy has caught the public's imagination enough to cause major shifts.

The media have almost completely failed in explaining this trench warfare. They're consumed by describing tactics - Who's up in today's poll? Who'll gain from that announcement? - while paying scant attention to the underlying causes of the strategic stalemate.

By paying so much attention to inconsequential battles, the media distance themselves from ordinary Canadians, who really want to know how substantive issues might affect them, their families, communities, regions and industries. They're not at all interested in the things that preoccupy political reporting and, therefore, tend to pay little attention to what's really happening - which entrenches preconceived ways of thinking and existing political patterns.

And just as the political journalists, the political parties are captured by old habits that prevent them from thinking afresh about the country's problems and how to connect with voters. So the trench warfare continues.

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