The ugly truth of this sour political springtime is that no one was surprised when Paul Martin discarded his principles, made a financial treaty with the New Democrats and then went across Canada throwing money in all directions, some $20-billion in all, give or take a few billion.
He created his reputation by preaching restraint but he was only fooling. He was really just another Quebec politician, and he knows what you do in a crisis: Hand out cash and promise to hand out more. This has been the basis of Canadian politics for longer than anyone can remember.
The recent Liberal crimes exposed by the Gomery Commission amount to no more than a rivulet flowing into the vast St. Lawrence of patronage that pours through Quebec and the rest of the country. The sponsorship program looks less like an aberration than an extension of standard practice.
Canadians send tax money to Ottawa, it has a night out on the town (buying drinks for all its friends) and then it returns to us, somewhat diminished, in response to our pleas for assistance. We tell Ottawa we need jobs, or more pleasant cities, or better hospitals. Ottawa listens to our entreaties, watches with amusement as lobbyists plead our case, then graciously consents to send back some of our money.
This approach has deep roots in Quebec political culture. Of the seven politicians who have been prime minister for more than a year since 1948, five have been Quebec lawyers (St. Laurent, Trudeau, Mulroney, Chretien, Martin), an instance of regional and professional dominance that may be unique in the democracies. Our prime ministers have been so affected by the Quebec style that they have made it the Canadian style.
They also know how to use Quebec separatism as an explanation for anything. It's always there, waiting. Just last week, Martin said "Quebecers have got to be assured of their place in Canada," as if people hadn't been trying to mollify them for half a century. (And when will they be assured? Never, of course.)
Our method of government corrupts expectations and frustrates progress. In one crucial way it resembles our health system: We know it doesn't work but we can't imagine changing it. So we live in a culture of grantsmanship and special pleading. Whether you make a movie or an aircraft, you require government money, therefore government approval. The system leaks into the arts like poison in the water table, explaining every failure. If our broadcasting is mediocre, as it usually is, we can say that the government doesn't give us enough money. Who can argue with that? Almost everyone says the same thing.
We now expect to be heavily taxed -- and so expect taxes to rise. Americans, given their own experience, expect taxes to fall. We too seldom consider this difference. Preston Manning and his colleagues tried to point out the craziness in our system, but the national elites of Canada found the Manning arguments unconvincing. We've never had anything like the salutary shock to our system that Ronald Reagan provided for the Americans 20 years ago.
John Ehrman's new book, The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan (Yale University Press), argues that Reagan shifted the basic assumptions of American democracy by putting tax policy and deregulation at the centre of politics. The Americans expected, till the 1980s, that taxes would keep rising, government would continue to expand and their economy would probably decline. Hard as it is to believe, many Americans thought at the time that Japan was impossible to beat.
Reagan proved that there was a better way to do things. As Ehrman says, he reduced income tax rates in 1981 and again in 1986. He demonstrated that previous assumptions, such as the need for high taxes, were wrong. He demonstrated that deregulation did more good than harm. His successors learned from his example. All this produced a great boom for the Americans, which incidentally provided many benefits for their closest trading partners, the Canadians.
But no one in Canada has persuasively made the same case; at the moment, the renovated Conservatives look increasingly like Liberals. So we still expect taxes to increase and expect governments to hand out piles of money to their friends.
In 1980, I despised Jimmy Carter but had no hope for the movie actor the Republicans put up against him. I was colossally wrong. The tragedy of contemporary Canadian politics is that we never had a Reagan.