You Could Cut the Apathy with a Machete

Welcome to Vancouver-Quadra, one of four ridings holding a by-election next Monday (March 17). Well, at least there’ll be one if the Government doesn’t fall before the end of this week and we are subject to a Writ of General Election (and no, it’s extremely unlikely that, in the event that a confidence motion actually fails, the Governor-General would turn to the Leader of the Opposition and ask him to form a Government: that would be against all tradition given the number of months since the last election, so expect a campaign and a vote, period). Of course, Kady O’Malley of Macleans suggests the date for the Ways & Means vote will be April 1, in which case Vancouver-Quadra’s muddled masses will trudge to the polls on March 17, only to risk doing so eight weeks or so later.

Does it matter, though? I wrote a few days ago of being careful what you wish for, as in “what if they gave an election and nobody came?” — and again on why it would be wise to assume nothing about the electorate in this season. Since then, I really do have to wonder if what we are facing next Monday is a potential case of an election without interest. Even the candidates have some trouble getting interested, as Bill Tieleman notes (and, yes, I did notice that he failed to provide a link for the most disinterested candidate, Deborah Meredith of the Conservatives).

How disinterested are they? (I have not hung around the advance polling stations, so I don’t know what turnout has been like to date. As I previously noted, I’m still debating whether or not to bother voting myself!) We are now six days from voting day. I have had one literature drop by the Greens, and one by the NDP. Nothing from the Conservatives, other than a phone call to tell me when the advance poll was. Nothing at all from the Liberals. One wonders how many of the dispirited have departed the Liberals’ ranks, as both Steve V of Far and Wide and the author of Apply-Liberally (and their commenters) have noted an erosion of enthusiasm amongst the on-the-ground supporters. But then, one wonders what rate of erosion has affected the other parties, too. All the money in the world evidently can’t organise a literature drop or door knock on behalf of the Government candidate. All the UBC students in session in creation don’t seem to be swelling the ranks of the NDP (the candidate is at that university) or the Greens (the candidate in favour of green grass in all its forms).

Indeed, the conversation in the neighbourhood is resolutely about anything but electoral politics. Even the die hard observers of the scene who provide ground-level observations for the Election Prediction Project haven’t updated the riding’s profile since the 27th of February. Starbucks and the other coffee houses are silent on the subject. So, too, the chatter beside the playing fields. Apparently, no one cares.It’s a reasonable outcome. Unlike the presumptions of, say, a Jason Cherniak, there are judgements made by citizens about what’s going on. In broad strokes, as Steve V noted today, of course. Broad enough that I haven’t heard a call-in program on CKNW turn to federal issues — much less the local by-election — in days. Open phone segments do not attract even one caller who wants to talk Federal politics: Cadman is dead, RESPs don’t matter, let’s talk about things closer to home.

Is it possible that O’Malley identified the wrong danger? Not that the Government, with the never-ending series of confidence motions honoured by the absence of Her Majesty’s Loyal Abstention Party, out for a drink and a puff when the vote is called, night after night, might suddenly trip over its own feet and find that it had played the game once too often, but that, when the call does come, a mare usque ad marem, Vancouver-Quadra’s apathy turns out to be the country’s apathy.

Good heavens, the handlers normally do try to put the candidate in a bubble where everything is scripted and all camera angles are “just so”, but what if there’s no crowd outside the fence? 2,000 empty seats in that high school auditorium? All 30 die-hard political junkies watching the debates — and no one else? What then?

So much for managing expectations, setting up winning conditions, building war chests, pre-selecting candidates and the like in that event. None of it would mean a damn thing. Instead, they could all stay home in Ottawa and carry out their campaign on the Sparks Street Mall — and sleep at home at night. No need to bother anyone else.

Cherniak got one thing right — “politics is not a game” — alas, as Victor Wong of The Phantom Observer notes, there’s not much else he got right in his post today. It is because both Dion’s Liberals and Harper’s Conservatives have made the House into a game, in fact, that a blanket of apathy lays lower on the landscape here than the mounds of snow covering the East, or a good Newfoundland fog.

The damage is apparently already done. I begin to believe that it has gone far, far beyond a leader, or a party. It is systemic. We Canadians are getting close to calling it quits on Ottawa, lock stock and cookie-barrel.

Already we are a highly regionalised country. Already our provincial governments are the locus for most of the things that matter to us: they handle health, education, welfare, infrastructure, etc. Ottawa is just the money transfer agent, and, as I noted a few days back, it costs us 20¢ on the dollar for the privilege of having Ottawa take the money in and redistribute it, even assuming your province is one that sees you break even or come out ahead on that game of Robin Hood. Cutting out the middleman would be a net gain for “seven provinces representing more than 50% of the population” (the general Constitutional change test). Inertia is doing more to hold Confederation together at this point than anything else — and the sound and fury signifying nothing that is Ottawa today is a potent dissolvent of those bonds.

We are coming to a turning point from which there will be no turning back. When Liberal bloggers call out for their party to grow a backbone and do their jobs they’re (I suspect) coming at this as much from a real concern about the corrosive effect on the Canadian body politic of Dion’s inactions as they are from hopes for their own party’s electoral success. When Conservative bloggers want an election, I suspect it’s as much to bring an end to this endlessly vitriolic stand-off as it is because they think their party’s future would be better off post-election. In other words, here are the ones who understand that “politics is how we live together” — a communal ethic — and it is the Jason Cherniaks, the Senator David Smiths and the like, and their confrères on the other side of the aisle, who are the ones playing games.

I’d say again to bring on the general election except that now the results are also dangerous. Still, there is apparently no way forward with this game of chicken being played two swords’ lengths across the House.

Voting all the bahstids out might be just the therapy this country needs.

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2 responses to “You Could Cut the Apathy with a Machete

  1. Thanks for the reference and I do want to note that the link to Deborah Meredith’s website is now on my blog – it truly was an inadvertent omission when I posted the column early this morning.

    I see that there are suddenly two more news items on her website now for March – but they seem are national Conservative Party releases attacking Stephane Dion, not Quadra issues!

    I don’t see how a candidate who doesn’t talk about riding issues expects to win – we’ll see March 17.

  2. My pleasure, Bill. I leave out links early in the morning, too.

    One surprise about Meredith is how silent she is considering that she had to fight for the nomination against the Party’s nominee of choice. You’d expect more of a Dan Grice approach — now that I’m the nominee, here’s where I stand — but we’re not seeing that.

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