The absurdly close vote on the budget in the House of Commons this week has bought the federal Liberal government what it needs more than anything else if it has hopes of winning yet another term in office – time.
The Paul Martin government needs time to tell a story to Canadians, a story that they’ll believe and that will persuade them to vote Liberal in enough numbers for the Liberals to retain its status as governing party. Only a few years ago, political parties did well if they had a “message” to pass on to voters – a message about what good things could be expected from them or what awful things could be expected if their opponents managed to gain power. Now, however, parties have found there’s something even better than just a simple message – and that’s a whole story. People are so accustomed to the narrative structure they meet daily in the movies, on DVDs and on television that they feel much more comfortable if they can fit the “real life” of politics into a similar structure.
Premier Gordon Campbell had his campaign fitted into a good narrative structure at the beginning of the just-past provincial campaign (although later the Liberal campaign deteriorated into a pure “message” of how the NDP should be seen as “negative, destructive and pessimistic.”) Campbell’s original story had a plot, a beginning, a middle and an end: “We, the Liberals, took over a province that was in the tank economically; we made tough decisions that were hard on people but necessary; now we have a happy ending because the economy is booming and we’re looking forward to a Golden Decade.” This story may well be considered grossly overly simplistic by anyone with any serious interest in political science or economics, but that is not the point. The point is that it was a story that the Campbell team could successfully sell to the voters.
At the moment, on the federal scene, the Conservatives have been telling the best story. Or perhaps more accurately, they have been repeating carefully the most devastating testimony from the Gomery Inquiry, and using that as their story. The testimony has told a story of corruption, pay-offs and possible criminal conduct – and the Tories have been working hard to convince voters that that is in fact the story of the federal Liberal party.
A flexible yarn
With the time they have now been given, however, the Liberals have the opportunity to persuade Canadians that there is another, more important, story to be told. The story the Liberals want to tell is that a Conservative government would institute policies that the majority of Canadians would find unpalatable and positively scary.
The Liberals have some advantages as they try to develop this alternative narrative structure.
The first is the view that a significant number of Canadian voters will take towards the findings of the Gomery Inquiry. They will take the view that this is a problem that is confined to Quebec and not of great relevance to the rest of the country. Fair or not, many Canadians who learned of Quebec history from the days of Duplessis during their Canadian history courses in school, believe that this is just the way business is all too often done in Quebec. They would doubtless look at the Liberals much more cynically if it could be shown that similar sorts of activities were taking place in other provinces. (In fact, the Liberals could be in much greater trouble here in B.C. if the trials of Dave Basi and Bob Virk were to show that they were involved in unsavoury shenanigans with the federal Liberals as well as in their roles as ministerial assistants with the provincial government.)
Second, the corruption being uncovered by Gomery does not directly affect the lives of most Canadians. It may have been an appalling waste and misuse of tax dollars, but for those of us in B.C., the only change it has made in our life might be that we’ve paid an extra $20 or so in income tax to fund wasteful and corrupt programs. It’s certainly not something anyone could approve of, but neither has it made a huge difference in everyday life.
The Liberals have the opportunity to create a story in which a Conservative government could have a great deal of effect on the everyday life of many Canadian citizens. Moves to cut social programs, to allow the privatization of more health-care services, and to make major changes in the justice system would all affect ordinary citizens far more than anything that has happened at the Gomery inquiry.
There is also the perception that many of the Conservatives are not particularly tolerant of the diversity that most Canadians value. It is not only the issue of gay marriage, although that would certainly be on the front burner during any election campaign. Even more, though, it is the increasing number of Conservative candidates who are adopting what most Canadians would see as extremist positions on a range of social issues.
Here in B.C., Darrel Reid, the Conservative candidate in Richmond, has described parents of an evangelical perspective as being “in a war” when it comes to what children are taught in the public school system. He worries about children being bombarded with messages about permissive sex education, evolution, or a curriculum that encourages young people to understand Islam.
Cindy Silver, another nominated candidate, has written articles criticizing governments in Canada for protecting child rights as defined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Silver argues against allowing “the best interest of the child” as defined by government to trump parental rights to treat their children as they think best.
The Conservatives think that they have the best story in the one that convinces voters that the Paul Martin government is a sleazy bunch. But the Liberals now have the chance to tell a story painting the Conservatives as a scary bunch whose values don’t match those of most Canadians.
And a lot of Liberals think that when election day comes, scary will trump sleazy.
Veteran journalist Barbara McLintock is the Victoria-based contributing editor to The Tyee.