The Sound of One Hand Slapping Forehead Repeatedly

In Canadian politics, that’s the sound of one hand clapping.

As the Liberals and the Conservatives fight it out for the brass ring in Ottawa, supporters seem to have forgotten the fact that the two parties are both losing the battle for the hearts and minds of Canadians. Conservatives have been trumpeting the fact that they now hold a thin lead, but their numbers are still short of the lowest level of popular support won in an election by a party that went on to form the government.

Indeed, it’s remarkable that the Liberals and the Conservatives, taken together, have flirted with the possibility that they’ll find themselves equally loathed by the majority of the Canadian population, and this comes from polls which takes into consideration only decided voters. The 2004 election had the worst turnout in the nation’s history since 1898. If those Canadians that seem willing to vote are mad enough to turn away from the two lead parties, what’s the turnout going to be in a possible election this year?

Check out the numbers if you don’t believe me. The combined vote total of the two lead parties was lower in the 1993 and 1997 elections, but at that time the conservative movement was split into two equal parts. If you add the Progressive Conservative numbers to the Reform Party numbers, you get something more closely approximating the numbers of the 1988 election, when the Conservatives and the Liberals commanded over 70% of the vote.

Clearly, more and more Canadians are saying “a pox on both your houses”. Why would that be? Events this week may provide some answers.

Former NDP leader and all-round class act Ed Broadbent announced his second retirement from Canadian politics on Wednesday, so that he could take care of his ailing wife. During his press conference, he noted the deterioration of political debate in this country, especially as represented by Question Period.

The veteran politician also referred to the ‘personally acrimonious’ nature of question period, saying that the House of Commons had become ‘dysfunctional.’

Ed was being tactful.

Earlier this week, the foam-at-the-mouth conservative magazine The Western Standard ran a cover lampooning the Liberal government as “The Libranos”. Immigration minister Joe Volpe, an Italian-born Canadian, saw red. And I don’t blame him. Never mind the hyperbolic assessment of this government, Italian-Canadians and Italian-Americans have been quite sensitive about Mafia stereotypes. Unfortunately, Volpe went too far. When commenting on a photograph of two Conservative MPs looking at the Standard cover, he said:

“These are the same Conservatives who think that every immigrant is a potential terrorist … notwithstanding, that they don’t have their cowl and their cape, the Klan looks like it’s still very much alive.”

Let’s say it again: the Conservatives are not racist. They’re not bigots. They’re not Nazis or Fascists. We’ve seen real racists, bigots, Nazis and Fascists in action and while some Conservative supporters who backed the Standard cover may have been immature, immaturity does not connote racism.

Still, Conservative supporters who deride the depth of Volpe’s anger should look to MP Inky Mark to understand how Volpe felt.

Also this week, as some Conservatives speculated that the Liberals might offer senate appointments or patronage plums to opposition back benchers to try and bring the opposition numbers down, Manitoba Conservative MP Inky Mark came forward and claimed that he had been offered just such a plum. This sort of got Mark into a little bit of trouble, as Paul Wells noted:

He won’t say who the minister was? Hmm. As some people have pointed out, Inky Mark is alleging a serious Criminal Code offence: inducing an MP to leave office. So he has knowledge of a minister trying to commit such an offence and he won’t name the minister? Hmm.

But Treasury Board President Reg Alcock didn’t think when he offered this rebuttal:

“Frankly if I was going to recruit somebody in, I’d go a little higher on the gene pool”

I can almost guarantee you that Reg Alcock wasn’t thinking of race when he made this comment (he was referring instead to Mark’s standing within the Conservative caucus). Had he thought of race, he would have understood the minefield he’d stepped in, what with Chinese Canadians looking back on a history that includes the Asian Exclusion Act and a 1920s legal ruling that said the Chinese were genetically uncivilized.

Mark went too far with his “racist! racist!” reply, as Karen Mock, executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, noted (“When everything is racism, nothing is racism.”), but at least Mark didn’t go about making Klan comparisons.

But this goes beyond thoughtless comments and racial slurs. The problem here is the fact that our so-called honourable members now see nothing wrong in resorting to personal attacks rather than debating ideas. We’ve come a long way from Ed’s day when there was a fundimental respect for parliamentarians with different opinions, and the way we’ve travelled hasn’t been a good road.

This is a problem shared equally by the Liberals and the Conservatives. Some Conservative supporters have called Liberal voters “morally deficient” for backing a government’s policies in spite of the government’s links to corruption. Some Liberal supporters have responded in kind, calling Conservatives bigots, fascists and Nazis, weakening the power of these important words through their overuse.

At least the NDP are trying to actually get things done in parliament these days. And the Bloc? They’ve been remarkably efficient in pursuing their agenda — largely as a result of Liberal/Conservative bickering.

So, is it any wonder why more and more Canadians believe that the Liberals and the Conservatives are equally undeserving of being elected to anything more series than the board of directors of the Miss Canada pagent? Is it any wonder that the Greens are polling stronger than any other outside party since Reform came on the scene? Recently, BlogsCanada founder Jim Elve announced his conversion to the Green Party cause. I suspect the only things holding back the Green Party is the fact that they’re so new, people believe they’re not ready to be trusted with the reins of power. That and they’re so new, people think a vote for them is a vote wasted.

But as more Canadians move over to the lesser parties, disgusted by the antics of the two mainstream bully boys, a tipping point may be reached. One of the two reasons not to vote Green may be eliminated. And the floodgates could well open.

The two mainstream parties need to watch out for that. Canadians hate to give their votes up to a party by default.

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