Do nothing, say nothing politics rule Ottawa

Once, says Andrew Coyne, our politics was about big ideas and sharp differences. Not anymore.

Do nothing, say nothing politics rule Ottawa Well that’s nice. According to my morning paper, as Dalton Camp used to say, the Conservative government is shortly to release a new plan “demonstrating how it would return deficit-swamped Ottawa to balanced budgets.” The move is apparently designed “to bolster its fiscal stewardship credentials” in advance of the allegedly imminent election.

I can just imagine. If history is any guide, the “plan” will consist of a series of bars on a chart tracing the deficit’s graceful descent to zero by the year—well, we haven’t been told that yet, but let’s assume it will be some years after the government’s present forecast of fiscal 2014. Which, for those with long memories, is five years after the government insisted it would never run a deficit at all.

But as to just how the deficit will be coaxed into submission, we will be told very little, except to say that it will require no tax increases, nor any specific spending cuts—though there will be plenty of “rigorous spending discipline” and another round of “program review,” that exceptionally rigorous exercise that in several previous rounds has slashed spending to an all-time high.

Or in other words, more or less exactly the same as the Liberal plan. We’re running $50-billion deficits, we’re probably going to stay in deficit for the better part of a decade, we’re going to add something like $160 billion to the debt in that time, and neither party has anything serious to say about it.

And that’s the rosy scenario. That is, it assumes no double-dip recession or spike in interest rates, to say nothing of war or natural disaster or the hundred other things that can turn those majestically declining bars upside down in a flash. Nor does it pay any heed to the fiscal-demographic freight train fast closing in on us, the one carrying the baby boomers into old age. (Boomers themselves may be in denial about it, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be.) By the C. D. Howe Institute’s account, the extra costs, mostly for health care, associated with an aging population will add a net $2.5 trillion to the national debt over the next 50 years, assuming no change in policy. True, most of that will fall on the provinces’ shoulders, but how much room will they have to finance that burden if the feds are already hip-deep in debt?

Perhaps it’s just as well the parties aren’t discussing it. Because discussing it implies not only that you have a plan to do something about it, but that you might tell us what it is—and that what you say and what you eventually do will bear some resemblance to one another. Experience teaches us that this is unlikely. The only way any Canadian party will ever do anything about the deficit is when it has exhausted every other choice, and then only after it has been safely elected on the promise to do nothing about it whatever. See Chrétien, J., “Balancing the Budget Would Cause Civil War,” June 1993.

But then, that’s true of most issues. Of what possible use would it be to hear the parties pledge themselves irrevocably to some course of action—on anything, never mind the deficit? After all the flip-flops, abandoned promises and even broken laws of recent years, why would anyone pay any attention to them? And so the parties, sensing their loss of credibilty though hardly shamed by it, have ceased even trying. Once, our politics was about something, big ideas and sharp differences, as it is in other countries. Today it is about nothing. Or not even about nothing. It’s just . . . about.

Compare the debate going on in the U.S. about health care reform. Sure, it’s messy, even crazy at times. But it’s a debate. Somebody is proposing to do something about an important national issue, based on his deepest philosophical beliefs. And somebody else is arguing against it, based on theirs. And while the leadership of the two parties butt heads over the President’s plan, individual congressmen and senators are drafting their own counter-proposals—actual legislation, on which they will vote; their many votes on various bills compiled into a record; on which they will be held to account at election time.

Nothing like that applies to Canadian politics. It doesn’t matter what ordinary MPs stand for, because all policy is set by the parties. And it doesn’t matter what the parties stand for, because at any given time they generally stand for the same thing, and because whatever they stand for today they will stand for its opposite tomorrow.

It is tempting to describe Canadian politics as a fantasyland. But “fantasy” implies something wondrous and magical, or at least interesting. In that sense, Canadian politics is the opposite of fantasy. It’s like a dream where nothing happens. You’re hazily aware that if something happened, it would violate all rules of logic or common sense. But nothing ever does.

The most positive definition I can offer of politics is that it is people behaving badly for good reasons. But our politics involves people behaving appallingly for no reason at all: there are no stakes, no important values are in dispute, nor is there even much power to be pursued for its own sake, all power (or such little as the federal government has) being located in the Prime Minister’s Office.

It would be a compliment to say our politics was corrupt. At least corruption is a purpose. Whereas to call our politics vacuous is an insult to wastes of space.