Simpson is Canada's hard-line moderate
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 16 August 2003)

The most devoted readers of Jeffrey Simpson were delighted that he wrote his Globe and Mail column on Tuesday about Arnold Schwarzenneger's decision to run for governor of California. It was an event that needed to be viewed with alarm and disdain, in the Simpson manner, and he did not disappoint us. He never does. He polished off, in 14 paragraphs, not only Schwarzenegger but also populism, the culture of stardom, and California's "perversion of progressive politics" -- which, as any Simpson reader can tell you, is inferior to the politics of cabal and indifference by which Canada is run.

Simpson's tone reminded us once again of his unique place in the national political culture of Canada. Far more than a mere newspaperman, he has achieved over the years roughly the status of a senior deputy minister. In Ottawa he functions as deputy minister of opinion. He holds no government post, but that's a technicality. Having written his column since 1984, he outranks, on longevity alone, every other deputy in Ottawa. Moreover, he shares their attitude to governments and politicians. He knows even the most powerful politicians are only temporary. They come and they go. He remains.

Like all deputy ministers, he believes above all in what he calls "sound public policy," the phrase he used on Tuesday to describe one of the many qualities he finds lacking in the government of California. And, like all DMs, he automatically views with the greatest suspicion anything to which he is unaccustomed. Schwarzenegger's great crime is his strangeness. He fits no common pattern and might well go in some unexpected direction. He seems decent enough for a movie star, he's done nicely in business, and even if he proved to be an incompetent governor he would at least be an amusing incompetent -- a distinct improvement, I would have thought, on the boring incompetent now holding the job. But Simpson intensely dislikes populism, which means government by people civil servants regard as unsound. (The last populist to be PM of Canada, John Diefenbaker, kept the entire Ottawa public service traumatized for the six years he held office, 1957 to 1963.)

As for California, its greatest perversion is the habit of making laws through plebiscites rather than through legislatures and judges. Deputy ministers live by a truth they learn in their youth, ideally (like Simpson) at Queen's University: It's dangerous for a democracy to put decision-making in the hands of the people.

Those who have read Simpson faithfully since the early days of the Mulroney era (when he predicted that the Progressive Conservatives were likely to dominate national politics for the rest of the 20th century) have come to understand that his views can fairly be called neither conservative nor liberal nor socialist. In a sense he is all three of those things and he is none of them. Among outstanding figures in Canadian history, Simpson most closely resembles Prime Minister Mackenzie King -- and before you laugh at King's memory you should recall that he held the country together, more or less single-handedly, as he frequently reminded his colleagues and his diary.

Like King (who began his Ottawa life as deputy minister of labour and maintained the attitudes of a DM till he drew his last breath), Simpson lives by a highly specialized ideology: He's a fanatic centrist. He is our most eloquent example of a hard-line moderate, a political thinker who spends his life in pursuit of the middle of the road and urges others to do the same. No matter which Canadian politicians he writes about, he always gives the same advice -- get thee to the middle. He believes the NDP should avoid being noticeably leftish, the Alliance should not insist on being rightish, and it goes without saying that the Progressive Conservatives should not become even slightly conservative. Nor should the Liberals move too far this way or that, lest someone mistake them for a political party. Simpson is as much a shepherd as a commentator. His task is to herd his flock toward the one appropriate place.

His column makes clear that in the Simpson version of paradise, all political parties will occupy the same small patch of territory, stepping on each other's feet as they express identical opinions (which are always sound policy, and always coincide with Simpson's current views), forever competing with each other only on the grounds of their respective management skills and the marks they achieved while studying political science in graduate school. Simpson has shown no ambition to run for office, but should he decide to do so he could honestly campaign on a slogan that would be unique in political history: More of the Same, But Perhaps A Bit Better! As it is, he superbly embodies this profoundly Canadian principle in his column.

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