A student of opinion should listen with the greatest care to whatever is spoken carelessly, knowing we reveal ourselves not in words we consider noteworthy but by saying what we assume is most obviously true. Our convictions, sometimes even our country's dominant political philosophy, may come to light through spontaneous pronouncements, such as Garth Turner's recent remark about bringing down the federal government on a budget vote.
In political matters, are Canadians individualists or collectivists? Turner, Liberal MP for the Ontario riding of Halton, deserves attention in this context because he's an experienced foot soldier in the army of politicians and bureaucrats governing Canada. A former business journalist, he's proven he can sit as a Conservative, an Independent, or a Liberal. As a politician never accused of originality, he has a firm grip on the conventional wisdom. That, and his flexibility, make him a representative figure.
For five years he was a back-bencher under Brian Mulroney. In 1993 he ran for party leader, placing fourth with 76 votes. He finally achieved cabinet status by serving as Minister of National Revenue in the evanescent government of Kim Campbell. That same year, the voters transferred him to the private sector, along with most Tories. In 2006 he returned to Parliament as a Stephen Harper Conservative but was invited to leave the Tory caucus after some unpleasantness about revealing Party secrets. He was an Independent for a time and joined the Liberals a year ago.
He's now among those Liberals who favour defeating the government on the budget. In this role, he told a Globe and Mail reporter on Wednesday that Harper may well deserve defeat: "The reality is, if the budget doesn't satisfy people's economic concerns, if it doesn't quell those anxieties that families have about the future, then they should be presented another alternative." (Italics added.)
Hiding in the shadows behind those words, probably unclear even to Turner himself, is a whole philosophy of political life. Politicians soak up this doctrine without ever understanding its implications. What they know and like most about it is the way it makes them more important than they would be otherwise.
As Liberals, New Democrats, Bloc Québécois members or Conservatives, they discover that voters are happiest when they believe they can depend on government to solve most of their problems. There are citizens and even institutions opposing this idea, but the progress they make is erratic and often only temporary.
We can be fairly certain that not even Garth Turner believes a budget passed by Parliament will "quell" the anxieties of the citizens. Anxieties about the future are so numerous, and are caused by such a multiplicity of forces, that governments can do only a little to alleviate them and nothing whatever to "quell" them. If an auto worker fears unemployment because foreign cars are cheaper, can the government fix that? No. Passing high tariffs against Korean cars, for instance, would be impossible without destroying the trade policy Canada has pursued, with great success, for generations. In most cases our economy depends heavily on the financial health of other countries, especially the U.S. It also evolves according to technological change, not government decisions.
Yet we blame the government for every weakness in the economy, just as we blame educators because they can't teach students who show up at school with no desire to learn. (Almost everybody says the schools are failing the students. Hardly anyone points out that the students and their parents are failing the public education system.)
Who taught us this habit? The Liberals, above all. They have been more than happy to encourage the rise of dependency on government while presiding over the decline and fall of individualism in every aspect of politics and commerce.
With politicians so willing to shoulder responsibility, we always have someone other than ourselves to blame. Politicians discover our fears through polling, then promise to pass laws that will improve the conditions that worry us. In most cases, of course, they fail, sometimes spectacularly. Naturally, we are disappointed, and we decide that politicians are liars. This elaborate system of cynical commitments followed by impulsive blaming has turned into a form of moral and intellectual corruption far deeper than anything forbidden by Parliamentary ethics or the Criminal Code.
Garth Turner may still be a newcomer in the Liberal Party but he proved this week that he can compress into a few words the automatic, unthinking arrogance that has been an essential part of Liberalism for generations.