Over the last few weeks and months it has become impossible to escape the feeling that Canadian politics has come loose from its moorings. There is a manic edge to it, as if the inmates had suddenly and collectively declared themselves absolved of any remaining obligations to common sense, or the ordinary routines of democratic politics, or the rule of law.
On the one hand, you have a Liberal government that is now embroiled in half a dozen crises of its own making, the fruit of a peculiar mix of cynicism, moral vanity, incompetence, doctrinaire ideology and apparently habitual abuse of power – a culture that originates with the leader, to be sure, but which appears to have spread throughout the party.
Thus you have, simultaneously, the airport mess, the passport mess, and the Russian embassy party mess; the abject retreat on vaccine mandates, in the face of a panicky Liberal backbench; the revelations that its centrepiece climate plan is in disarray, its 2030 carbon emissions reductions targets acknowledged, within government, to be a distant fantasy; all while it is engaged in the utter madness of attempting to regulate the internet, through no fewer than three separate bills.
That’s four or five ministers in trouble, and we haven’t even got to the matter of the Public Safety Minister, Marco Mendicino – and, let us not forget, the Prime Minister – apparently lying to Parliament about why they invoked the Emergencies Act, and on whose advice.
Or, worst yet, the jaw-dropping allegation that the Prime Minister’s Office, and the then Public Safety Minister, Bill Blair, prevailed upon the commissioner of the RCMP, Brenda Lucki, to interfere in the investigation of the murder of 22 people by a gunman in Nova Scotia two years ago, for the purpose of selling gun control legislation the government had planned.
The allegation, that Ms. Lucki demanded local RCMP officers reveal to the public, contrary to procedure and at the risk of compromising the investigation, the precise make and model of the guns the killer used, has been officially denied. Nevertheless it is hard to shake: the allegation is precise, detailed, and contained in a contemporaneous note by the officer involved.
More to the point, whether or not the allegation is true, it is easy to believe this government, and this Prime Minister, would be capable of it. Seize on a horrible crime to unveil showboating legislation, cooked up on the fly, to no apparent public benefit? Checks out. Lean on a law enforcement official to meddle in what is supposed to be an independent legal process, wholly off limits to politicians? What was SNC-Lavalin about?
So much for the government: tired, directionless, massively overcentralized, coasting on self-satisfaction and increasingly overwhelmed by the actual business of governing, including the tiresome necessity of respecting the rights of Parliament and the principle of the rule of law.
But what lurks across the aisle? What of the government-in-waiting, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the Conservative Party of Canada? How are they shaping up as an alternative?
Funny you should ask. The party is just now in the throes of a leadership race – the traditional opportunity for a party in opposition to define itself, and its core beliefs. What, by the lights of the current campaign, are the core beliefs of the Conservative Party? On matters of ordinary policy, things like deficits and taxes and foreign policy, we are not much further ahead than when we started.
But if it’s lunatic conspiracy theories you would like to know about, on these the Conservatives have plenty to say, ranging from unfounded fears about the health effects of vaccines, to paranoia about the baleful influence of the World Economic Forum, to the dystopian possibilities of central bank digital currencies, as a means of surveilling and controlling the population – or if you really want to know the “truth,” how all of these are bound up together.
On the day after the allegation surfaced, earlier this week, that the government had interfered in a murder investigation for political ends – a day that ought to have been reserved for asking the most searching questions of those involved – several Conservative MPs were feting the organizers of a new anti-vaccine, anti-government, anti-everything rally planned for Ottawa this summer, some of whom were involved in the one that paralyzed the capital for three weeks earlier this year. Just in case anyone had forgotten the party’s disgraceful cheerleading for that particular outbreak of lawlessness.
It isn’t only at the federal level that Conservatives seem to have abandoned their traditional belief in law and order. The Alberta Conservative leadership race has barely begun, yet has already featured proposals either to ignore the Constitution altogether – that is, to refuse to enforce federal laws the provincial government dislikes – or to dictate constitutional changes to the rest of the country that have no actual hope of passing.
There is precedent for this, of course, notably in the revolutionary fantasies of certain Quebec separatist leaders. But given how signally these have failed, and how much worse it would have been for the province if they had succeeded, it’s hard to imagine anyone citing them as an example to follow, rather than avoid. Yet that is where we have arrived, in both Quebec and Alberta – with political leaders pretending they can rewrite the Constitution unilaterally.
At the federal level we would seem to be left with something of a vacuum, with neither main party displaying much interest in governing responsibly. This is sometimes described as “polarization,” as if the problem could be solved by everyone agreeing to meet in the centre. Not so: this country has big, challenging issues confronting it, some of which may require radical changes in policy. Radicalism is not the same as extremism.
What’s needed is not centrism, if that is interpreted to mean blindly hugging the middle on every issue. Neither is pragmatism the answer, if that means governing without an ideological compass, but merely blowing this way and that according to the latest poll or interest group lobby.
What’s needed – what is sorely lacking – is judgment: political, moral, intellectual. Judgment is the foundation of leadership, and leadership is the only way we’re going to get back to something resembling functional politics.
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