Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why Canadian politics can’t be taken too seriously?

Political observers in Canada are in a state of smug unease.
Their pollsters claim that Canadians think the country’s “on the right track.” Separatism in the regions is acting dead. All the growing problems—demographic, economic, and environmental—are still looming, and if something controversial had to be done, a majority government is in place to do it decisively.
Nevertheless, year-end political conversations are laced with worry: why is talk in Ottawa so listless and boring? Where are the aggressive idealists with new ideas to shame the incrementalists? Why are young adults—who are extraordinarily worried about the future—so apathetic about the country’s political affairs? Why are there literally no promising, experienced, dangerous, or naive Canadians running openly for the leadership of Canada’s time-tested instrument of political innovation—the Liberal Party? 
The explanations of the moment are unimpressive. Canadian politicians are as “authentic” today as ever. The country’s majority prime minister dominates Ottawa but has no mind-numbing influence elsewhere. The housing market hasn’t collapsed; the middle class doesn’t feel much poorer. But, there are plenty of things going on elsewhere that scare Canadians.
Richard Gwyn, columnist and author of several great dramas about Canadian politics, offered a dangerously basic explanation in a Toronto Star column entitled “Much ado about nothing in Canadian Politics.” His picture of Canada’s politics was “destabilized” by the whisper of a retired Ottawa mandarin:
“While we were discussing some current issue he, once a senior deputy minister, remarked casually, “During all my years in the civil service, I never took Canadian politics the least seriously.”
“First came surprise. Then a certain annoyance at his blithe dismissal of an activity we’d both for so long treated as important (he outwardly).
“Afterwards came the uneasy thought that maybe he’d blurted out a truth as obvious as that of the small boy about the naked emperor parading past him.
“Does it in fact make the least difference to the way most Canadians live most of the time whether the government of the day is Conservative or Liberal or, maybe one year or other, New Democrat?”
Gwyn goes on to outline the cozy constraints on Canada’s federation and concludes that its politics are merely “competent house-keeping.” Gwyn acknowledges that he’s probably always taken it all too seriously.
Actually, Gwyn just took Ottawa too seriously.
“Democratic politics is about choice.” Gwyn points out, “But if we have no politics, how can we make choices?”
Political choices only really matter, however, where there is political power. Democratic federal capitals exist, not to keep the people at a distance and build sophisticated bureaucracies, but to assemble enough power in one place to make a significant difference.
Young people today haven’t retreated back to the village square. Indeed, they are highly interested in global affairs and the politics of those capitals that hold real power. Ottawa doesn’t and, so, increasingly, it’s not their destination.
Half the battle to restore politics amongst Canada’s very political population is to acknowledge, as Gwyn nearly has, that the idea of a “strong central government” for Canada is a distraction—not because more power should go down to the provinces, but because Canadians have invested in the wrong capital.
Ottawa isn’t more powerful than the sum of Canada’s parts. Indeed, Canadians would individually have more influence on real power—and real choices—if they were full-fledged citizens of a North American federation.

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