A Show About Nothing: Totem and Taboo in Canadian Political Life

As the Parliamentary session sort of winds down, it’s pretty hard to summarize – or for that matter see – its accomplishments. With only a few exceptions that would only serve to dilute the story, this session was dominated by old or second-rate scandals, access to documents, MPs’ travel, committee disappearances by political staffers, G8 security costs, weird outbursts, and a fake lake. As Tom Flanagan refreshingly admitted, for those who want extremely limited government there’s not much to complain about. But for those who believe we face significant challenges – even if there’s some disagreement about what they are – and that government has some significant role to play – even if we disagree on what it is, this session just hammers home how we are managing to avoid the big issues.

Much has already been written, even by me, about why this might be the case. Some say the problem is minority politics and the perpetual campaigning that comes with it. Some say that politics more generally has become pathologically partisan and negative because the messaging today has to be in “sound bites” that grab our attention easily and quickly. Some say it can be traced to us, our lack of leisure, our loss of trust in institutions, our loss of faith that things can be fixed by government or anybody, or simply our indifference and preoccupation with more immediate matters. A few have recently pointed to the lack of civics courses in school and the devaluing of the arts and humanities in post secondary education and research. And everybody worries about the media.

Perhaps part of the answer is that for reasons of history and culture the political costs of tackling big issues in Canada are just too great, that we have too many totems and taboos that don’t permit civil debates. Take medicare, for example, truly a Canadian totem. It’s not unusual to hear that medicare defines our national character. Its totemic status is well-earned – medicare, however imperfect and served up differently in each province, has served us well for decades, and came about only through great vision, courage and persistence. Even if few of us could recite the principles of medicare as set out in the Canada Health Act, we sure do recognize when their spirit is being violated, witness the public backlash to “user fees” in Quebec. No wonder no politician wants this debate. But the world has changed since the passage of the CHA, we have changed, medicine has changed, not to mention the looming demographic crunch. We need this discussion. We need to reaffirm our commitment to universal access to quality care and we need to ask how this might better be achieved in this changed world. At the federal level some would prefer to leave this issue to the provinces or let the system become more private in increments so they say nothing. For those who see a federal role, solutions are not easy, quick or cheap and who wants to take on a totem.

There are other totems, some of them raised in earlier posts. And there are huge political risks in taking them on. We need to understand the graver risks in failing to do so.

In Canada, however, when we do take on a tough issue, tough because it is contentious or raises thorny jurisdictional issues or is just plain hard to fix, if we get it wrong, if we fail, it becomes a policy taboo for decades. It’s as if we just get one crack at it. The National Energy Plan became such a symbol of Ottawa’s lack of respect for the west that we are one of the few industrial nation’s with nothing close to an energy strategy. The Green Shift seems to have put carbon pricing in “the deep freeze”. We have been afraid to talk about our federal system or institutional reform since the failure of Charlottetown and Meech.

So with our totems and taboos and maybe indifference and a bit of anti-government ideology, it’s mostly fake lakes. But we know too that politics can be more than that – or at least I refuse to be discouraged. When Haiti needed money, Canadians responded. Canadians seem to want Canada to be a player in the world and to lead on issues such as HIV-Aids. For the most part, our political leaders are not even trying to tap into or inspire these interests. A former Prime Minister once commented that there are no votes in foreign aid or culture policy but taking these issues on gives politics its highest meaning – apart from winning of course.

And today a ray of light just as the session ends, an all party committee of MPs – all women it happens – have come together to promote action on HIV-Aids and Tuberculosis in Africa in advance of the replenishment of the Global Fund and of course the G8/20. A few individuals equipped with knowledge and passion and personal commitment, led by Stephen Lewis, keep the issue moving forward and a few elected officials take up the challenge.

All it takes it seems is some civic leadership, some citizens with knowledge and passion and eloquence, and maybe more women in politics. That’s all.

5 Responses to “A Show About Nothing: Totem and Taboo in Canadian Political Life”
  1. joeblow says:

    “There are other totems … And there are huge political risks in taking them on. We need to understand the graver risks in failing to do so.”

    Great point. When you think about it, policy in general is on the defensive in Canada, shaped by fear of our totems and taboos. I wonder if Canada is reaching a decisive moment: conquer its fears or accept defeat in face of the challenges (e.g., energy, health, education, etc). Perhaps another reason should be added to the list of avoiding the big issues: we are not sure if we are up to the challenge, or that deep down we believe that Canada is worth the fight.

  2. Wetzlar says:

    The operation of the Canadian Parliament often seems designed to confirm the Marxist assertion that the only purpose of bourgeois politics is to disguise real political processes from the electorate by an elaborate and deliberately misleading show.

    Anyone approaching the Canadian political landscape with the hopes of rationally addressing some significant issue faces countless social and cultural opacities which cannot be changed, challenged, or even critically investigated. Provincial jealousies, cultural rights, political correctness mantras, entrenched privileges, a preference for muddled compromise rather than clean solutions, and the displacement of politics away from the interface of government and people to that between provincial and federal levels of government all prevent a rigorous, logical, and general treatment of issues which demand innovative, open-minded analysis for their resolution. With too much cultural conflict, too much history, too much geography, and too few foundational, unifying values of the national identity, Canada presents a Weberian nightmare to those who seek rational solutions on a grand scale.

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