Don’t Drink Mother’s Milk From a Poisoned Chalice
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, February 12, 2005

And so it has come to this. One former and one current prime minister hauled before a judicial inquiry to tell their sorry, hollow tales.

It could have been worse. The other former prime minister, Brian Mulroney, could have been there too, rubbing the collective Canadian nose in the stench of an Old Canada political culture that dates back to Sir John A. Macdonald.

The sponsorship scandal reduced Paul Martin’s government to minority status but now the Gomery inquiry ensures that, like a ball and chain, it will hobble Martin for the rest of his political days. A reprieve is possible if Stephen Harper stumbles but this seems increasingly unlikely. Harper’s critics and detractors, even the politically correct in the new Conservative Party, seem more in tune with Old Canada thinking than any potential ethnic communities, western diehards or an aging, increasingly conservative, population may see in a future Conservative government.

So for Harper, nothing is impossible. Indeed, as the new Conservative Party of Canada approaches its March convention, everything is possible because now, as seldom before, there is an enormous vacuum to fill. Better still, there are plenty of western ideas with which to fill it, including those summarized in a paper entitled The Ascendancy of Western Canada in Canadian Policymaking. Published in 1997 by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies and written by American political scientist and Fulbright Scholar David J.Rovinsky, it remains current today.

Impressive population and economic growth have given western Canada sufficient political clout to advance a national agenda, Rovinsky says. From the demise of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords to the rise of fiscal responsibility as a national creed, the West has nudged aside French/English dualism and Macdonald’s National Policy with more universal philosophic concerns like liberal equality among individuals and provinces and the inherent desirability of free markets.

This influenced Preston Manning’s vision of a New Canada yet the new western thought goes much further than Manning, says Rovinsky. To understand its philosophical origins and consequences, we must consider the work of some key Calgary academics.

Historian David Bercuson and political theorist Barry Cooper’s seminal Deconfederation: Canada Without Quebec, written in 1991, argues the most important issue for Canada is its preservation as a liberal democracy rooted in individual rights, not special status and recognition of collective rights rooted in culture and ethnicity.

On the legal front, F.L. (Ted) Morton and Rainer Knopff were first to tackle the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which, they argued, has created a rights-based jurisprudence that undermines democratic self-government.

Meanwhile, Tom Flanagan raised questions about Metis and aboriginal orthodoxy and then, like Morton who went into provincial politics, went to work for Preston Manning and, later, Stephen Harper.

If the French Revolution had its pamphleteers and scribes, Rovinsky leaves little doubt about the role of the Calgary School. Because of regional fractiousness and a statist political culture, Canada is poorly prepared for a globalised world, he says. Internal re-organisation will therefore be imperative and, he concludes, “to look to western Canada’s ideas may be to look at Canada’s future.”

For Harper’s Conservatives, this means rich pickings and solid constructs with which to approach that re-organisation. It also means addressing new challenges in persuading urban Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada of their benefits. Avoiding the pitfalls of the last Conservative government will also be necessary.

And this, in the end, may be the Conservatives’ biggest challenge. The Gomery Inquiry will insist on improved ministerial and bureaucratic accountability but this alone won’t address systemic abuses within the party body politic where trading favours is both mother’s milk and poisoned chalice. Extending its reach into government, it bribes voters with their own money and allows ministers and mps to influence the outcome of what should be impartial processes.

Establishing clear limits for partisan behaviour is now the duty of every political party. Only if government and advancement within it are predicated on quality of character and quality of work will political involvement be restored to the privileged opportunity it should represent in a mature democracy.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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