Jen Gerson: I have concerns

This was an election about nothing. It’s a tribute to vanity, and an excuse for the callow pursuit of a power with no aim. 

By: Jen Gerson

Throughout this election campaign, I have written weekly round ups on Fridays at The Line. I'm not on the campaign trail, mind, and what I've tried to offer here are not daily gaffes or horserace analysis, but rather a sense of the overall themes of the election. This Friday's blast will be the final summation and I suppose it must be the grandest of them all. It ought to be an examination of the key themes, narratives, and the most coveted of all items — an articulate summation of the Ballot Box Question. The problem that will be flitting around the limbic system unspoken at the moment disposable pencil meets tiny circle. 

This is quite the task. 

I'll start with lunch. 

More specifically, I'll start with a lunch I had a few weeks ago at one of those perfect hipster sandwich shops in downtown Calgary that calls mayonnaise aioli and displays a haunch of hot porchetta in the window. If you live here, you'll know the place. 

I overheard the owner talking about meat prices. This summer's drought has driven up the cost of feed, and ranchers are slaughtering a third, maybe half their herds before winter. Meat prices are going to be a horror come next year.

"Things are going to get harder from here on out," I said, slamming back that porchetta and salsa verde. 

"Yep," he agreed. "It's been a good 50-year run, but it's the end of the golden age."
That phrase. "Golden age." This is something I've been talking about with my friends and family and fellow wonks for some time, but it was the first time I had heard the fact of our situation acknowledged in the wild. How is it that the guy who makes great sandwiches understands something that our political classes do not? 

If the collapse of Afghanistan, the anniversary of 9/11, and the rise of China has not made this all abundantly clear by now, we are in the middle of some kind of re-alignment of the world order, as lately evidenced by a major defence pact between America, the U.K. and Australia. A pact we are conspicuously not present for. 

Afghanistan and COVID have revealed profound limitations at both the national and provincial level, including a federal bureaucracy so sclerotic that it is falling to perform some of its most basic duties, whether these might include evacuating former staffers now in danger abroad, to standard military procurement, to running a payroll system. 

Meanwhile, I possess no certainty about what our post-pandemic recovery is going to look like, presuming there is even a post-pandemic to look forward to. We need to prepare for some really hard and fast ramifications of climate change. I'm not just talking "my carbon tax is better than your incomprehensible carbon savings account" nonsense. I mean, the real economic consequences of energy transition, disaster planning, food supply, refugee re-settlement, and national security. 

In calling this election at this moment Trudeau stumbled into a moment of unique historic significance. And what the fuck have we spent the last six weeks faffing about on? 

"Two-tier health care" — a phrase I had not heard in a decade prior to this election. Something something abortions. Something something guns. When to raise flags all the way back up the mast. A $10-a-day daycare scheme that I have no faith will culminate in a high-quality, universally accessible system. We're moving forward. Or securing our future. What we’re moving forward to, and what we’re securing our future from is unclear to me.

This isn't an election. It's a dozen brilliant little talking-point gems sparkling with the patina of a dozen focus groups, and intended to chip away a few hundred accessible votes in key swing ridings. 

What a damnable waste of everybody's time. This was an election about nothing. It’s a tribute to vanity, and an excuse for the callow pursuit of a power with no aim.

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Justin Trudeau is the least well-liked of any of the federal party leaders, and that is no mystery. His most dedicated supporters aren’t the young. He’s remained most durably popular among the Boomer generation who imagine him to be the vision of Canada they’re leaving behind — one that is prosperous, optimistic, and progressive. Trudeau has figured out with mathematical precision exactly what this cohort want reflected in a prime minister; youth, vigour and virtue.

This Liberal ad above is so painfully telling to me, right down to the gratuitous black-and-white clips of assembly lines and soldiers from the Second World War.

“This is a country with big ideas,” Trudeau narrates.

Is it?

“We build stronger, think bigger, work smart, and push ourselves harder than any other place on earth.”

Do we?

“We speak our minds and we listen to each other?”

Is that so?

“While we may not agree on everything, we find a way to work things out.”

Have we?

“We pull together to make things better and leave no one behind.”

Are all these statements true, or all they merely the sorts of things we like to believe about ourselves? Is this advertisement just flattery from a politician trying to weasel a vote out of a warm, fuzzy feeling?

Right down to the patronym, Trudeau’s appeal is a nostalgia for the pre-eminence of a plucky punch-above-its-weight nation that is long gone, or fading. Hence the never-fulfilled promise to bring us “back” from an abyss of history. Therein lies much of Trudeau’s undeniable success as a politician. But he has so perfected his role that he risks becoming the nation's darkly tinted mirror. If we actually can't stand this guy, it's because in him we see everything we so rightly despise about ourselves: That our youth is fading, our vigour lives mostly in collective memory, and our virtue is performative and fundamentally unmatched by substance or sacrifice.

Some columnist greater than I repeated the axiom: the Liberals are utterly convinced that they are the kinds of people who would never do the sorts of things that they routinely do. I don’t need to waste time and space repeating the litany of cynical broken promises, ethical lapses, and scandals here, do I?

These are people who are self assured enough to imagine they can regulate the Internet and impose a bevy of new hate speech laws while running their own campaigns with "manipulated media." Trudeau is among other leaders — including Erin O'Toole — odiously pandering to Quebec by demanding the debates commission apologize for allowing one of their moderators ask about racism in Quebec and Bill 21. Jesus, I wouldn't put it past this government to declare "Quebec bashing" hate speech, at this point.  

The Liberals opened this campaign by weaponizing vaccine mandates, no doubt assured that this was a truly brilliant way to drive a wedge in the population between his party and the Conservatives. And when those very policy proposals ginned up a vocal cadre of protesters, including deranged hospital picketers, the Liberals saw an opportunity. Trudeau began to run against his own electorate, implying that these protestors — somehow in thrall to Erin O’Toole — were a danger to their own children. 

I'm no fan of the anti-vax set, but good lord, how did this help anyone besides Trudeau? And at what cost to everyone else? How does turning vaccines into a key campaign wedge do anything except juice the most righteous delusions of those who are implacably opposed to them?

Now, I don't totally begrudge the Liberals politicking. I can also forgive them the odd scandal and ethical lapse. It's the lack of self awareness that gets me. 

This is less a political party than a personality cult, and one that attracts the subsection of society that convinced it's smarter and better and more ethical and more competent than everyone else despite all evidence to the contrary. That they, and they alone, know the best way "forward" as the party's slogan so helpfully puts it. 

One of the most crucial personality traits of any good leader is humility. The smartest people in the room can still be wrong. Problems are complicated, dissent is honourable, and people with different philosophies and perspectives also have something to bring to the table. 

Arrogance, that eternal Liberal self regard, are not indications of a sparkling intellect or fathomless competence. Arrogance is the shadow of a mediocre talent.  

Here, I suppose, it will be expected that I will launch into a passionate appeal for Erin O'Toole, but I cannot bring myself to do that, either. There is something not quite ready for prime time about this Conservative crew. O'Toole still feels like a cipher. I get the impression that there may, indeed, be an impressive human being somewhere in there, but he's not risking too many hints of this presence. O'Toole is so disciplined and over-prepared that he lacks nimbleness, an ability to respond to attacks and hard questions on the fly. 

He needs better media training. He needs more practice. And he needs to consolidate power within the party itself. 

How are the Conservatives seriously expecting to gain the trust of the electorate when they, as a party, are passing self-sabotaging resolutions against climate change? When they're launching the campaign with amateur-hour Jib Jab videos? And when some of their own candidates and MPs are backing ivermectin and masquerading as low-rent Alex Jones wannabes

The COVID crisis now unfolding in Alberta raises real questions — to what extent is conservatism as an ideology hampering the province’s ability to respond to a big-government problem like a pandemic? Although I tend to credit personal failings over ideological ones, I honestly don't have an answer for that question. The civil libertarian crank who resides in the deepest reaches of my soul likes, in principle, the idea of a government that treats personal liberties and responsibilities as a central, unshakeable pillar of governance. However, I also live in a province where lack of personal responsibility is going to wind up kicking grandma off the ventilator, and I’m not sure many conservatives in this province are ready to lock eyes with the hard consequences of their freedom.

Defining conservatism throughout this next phase of history is going to be a generational challenge. It is going to suffer constantly from the impulse to chase the ephemera of populist rage as more Canadians are dislocated from the middle-class lives they imagined were assured to them. The anger is real, and it's justified by the haughty indifference of an increasingly remote ruling class that frankly doesn't seem to rule very well. 

Is O'Toole going to be the guy who will help define this era, or will he be led by it? He's only been a leader for a year. His record is thinner, and so it's harder to assess. He appealed to the far-right of his party in order to win the leadership, and then softened and moderated his political persona once the writ was drawn up. He seems perfectly willing to sell his own soul to Quebec for a narrow shot at a CPC-Bloc coalition.

When does pragmatism shade into opportunism? Does O'Toole possess the moral groundedness to hold his party to a moderate, centrist alternative in the face of what's to come? 

Or was Trudeau correct when he said on the campaign trail: "Canadians are beginning to know what those of us who have watched him in the House have known for a long time about Erin O’Toole … He’ll say anything to try and get elected”?

The race for the prime minister hangs between Trudeau and O'Toole. While I like Jagmeet Singh — honestly, who doesn't? — I'm not going to spend much time on him in this final summary. On the Bloc, I have nothing to add. Quebec is not my circus. Either of these parties may hold the balance of power on Tuesday.

Annamie Paul has demonstrated herself to be more impressive than the party that is proving itself to be a national punchline by working to undermine her. 

As for the PPC, either their polling support will fizzle at the actual ballot box, or we may see a surge large enough to ensure some kind of hung parliament. There will be more to say in the coming days. 

When I began these weekly round ups, I started by explaining that I don't really care who you vote for. Your ballot is your business. I live in the rafters of political life, a fat, rose-swilling hack calling the plays from 100 feet off the ice. I know my own role in the play. 

Liberal majority, minority, CPC plurality, orange crush, purple wave, I don't know. I don't know who will win. Almost every possibility is contained within the margin of error and people are angry and scared. Besides, I find myself less fascinated by the outcome than by how the parties respond to that outcome. 

If the Liberals fall into a majority, I expect they will carry on as if touched by the hand of God Himself. If, however, they fail to secure a majority via the very election that they called, the TruAnon cult wearing the Liberal party like a skin suit is going to have to come to terms with some hard facts: The population does not share your unshakeable confidence in yourselves, your leader is a glaring liability, and there is no one in your ranks who is an obvious replacement. These are problems. Add them to a long list you will have to address at the head of a minority coalition. Enjoy your next 18 to 24 months in government. 

Meanwhile, any sane Conservative still standing must recognize that your party is fighting a two-election strategy. Keeping the Liberals to a minority would be a major strategic win, and one that would set you up for a competitive election when Parliament falls again, as it undoubtedly will, and soon. 

The risk, here, is that the Conservative base will look at the results of this election and, seeing anything short of a CPC government, decide that the moderate tack has failed. The temptation will be to chase untameable populist animal spirits in the pursuit of a short-sighted electoral glory. We will know, then, what conservatism in this country has chosen to make of itself. 

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