Monday, June 18, 2012

For Canadians politics is a family affair

Voters generally do not judge a policy on its merits. Many do not have the time nor training to look at this or that issue objectively. This is no moral failing on their part. Voters have jobs, families and other interests. As the New Yorker's Louis Menand exclaimed, Plato had it wrong. More than a half century of work on voting behavior shows that the vast vast majority of voters do not a have a clue. Humankind is the unpolitical animal.

No do not get me wrong. Policy does still matter. It is just does not matter in ways that the pundits might think. Policy matters, for example, in so far as it is seen as a confirmation of a particular narrative about a political candidate or party. Take the NEP. More than a few pundits have claimed that the NEP sank the Liberals in Western Canada. The claim is ridiculous on its face. It was the fact that the Liberal vote collapsed in Western Canada in 1979 that paved the way for the NEP politically and not the other way around. The NEP was introduced after the 1980 election. The Liberals took 1 seat in the three most western provinces in 1979 election and 0 in 1980. The source of the collapse was the more emphasis Trudeau placed on individual rights and a commitment to linguistic equality the more the rest of the country, particularly the West, resented the Liberals' inability to put a stop to bill 178 and and 101 and its willingness to make special accommodations for Quebec. Quebec's Official Language Act spelled doom for the Liberals in Western Canada from the mid 70s until collapse of the Progressive Conservatives in 1993. To put in quaintly, Western voters reacted in much the same way a an aggrieved son or daughter might react to their sibling getting preferential treatment. As the years went by many of the initial grievances were forgotten, and the NEP, which had little impact outside of Alberta and was originally felt as insult to injury, grew into a cause that it never was.

Of course, Western Canada was not the only aggrieved offspring. Here too the origins Liberal misfortune is misattributed. The notion that somehow Trudeau era federalism was increasingly unpopular in Quebec is an effect posited as cause well after the fact. Indeed, that Trudeau era federalism was incompatible with Mulroney's soft sovereignty was always beside the point. Trudeau took 74 out of 75 seats in the 1980 election and 68.2% of the vote. He was immensely popular in Quebec and beyond anything else Trudeau had the complete trust of Quebecers. Quebecers had always believed that, love him or hate him, Trudeau and the Liberal party would always fight to create a place for the French language and culture inside Canada. With the signing of the Kitchen Accord, Trudeau and greater extent his party lost that trust and with that the Liberal party lost their strangle hold on Quebec forever.

Now even though Mulroney was the primary beneficiary of the ridiculously named "Night of the Long Knives" and an aggrieved Western Canada, Mulroney, nevertheless, learned nothing from Trudeau's troubles as he pressed forward with the Charlottetown Accord. He figured that he could promise Quebecers that he would right Trudeau's wrong and still keep Western Canada happy by promising its provincial elites the moon. He was spectacularly wrong. Western Canada was never going to concede that Quebec was ever wronged yet alone deserving of special treatment and that is precisely what Quebecers wanted. 56.6% of Quebecers, 60.2% Albertans and 68.3% of British Colombians rejected the Charlottetown Accord. More importantly for the PC party, they went from taking 49 out of 63 seats in 1984 in Western Canada to taking 0 in 1993 and from taking 63 of 75 seats in Quebec in 1988 to taking 1 in 1993.

Judging by John Tory's ill fated proposal to use public monies to fund religious education, Canadian politicians still have not learned that Canadian voters judge the fairness of how goods are distributed and or how a particular group is treated by reference paternal and maternal maximums.

The Liberals would do particularly well to understand this. Winning elections is not about who can pander to the most interest groups and minorities. It is about employing policies and rhetoric that matches up with voters entrenched understanding of paternal and maternal maximums that guide people's sense of fairness. This is what made the Liberals' earlier emphasis on universality such a success and their retreat to the particular (e.g., equity, collective rights, and, whether in theory or in practice, asymmetric federalism) such a marked failure.

Liberals can start by demanding that each riding within in each province contain an equal number of people and viciously attack any body that says otherwise. Juxtapose the riding of Labrador (26,364) and St John's East (88,002), Kenora (64,291) and Oak Ridges - Markham (228,997) , Miramichi (53,844) and Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe (89,334), and Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing (77,961) and Vanughn (154,206). Hold up the former in each pair as an affront to democracy and the latter as the aggrieved party.

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