Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Didn't get the government we deserve

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We will never know how this campaign might have ended if Tory leader Hugh McFadyen hadn't decided to build a campaign on opportunism alone. It's possible he is a victim of really bad advice, but he is ultimately accountable for the advisers he picks and the advice he heeds.

Some politicians might think the voter is stupid, but they should never underestimate the ability of ordinary people to spot a cynic. Mr. McFadyen tried to imitate the tactics of former premier Gary Doer with a smorgasbord of micro promises, but some tricks only work once. The Tory leader needed to present himself as a statesman, a premier in waiting, and at this he failed miserably.

He did the right thing in stepping down Tuesday night. As for Manitoba, it's steady as she goes for the next four years. No course change here.

More cops (whether we need them or not), more money for the bottomless pit known as health care, no deficit by 2014 if possible, but not necessarily no deficit if it's not possible. No new money for roads because there's nothing left in the cupboard.

Premier Greg Selinger promised all these things to the people of Manitoba and now he has a mandate -- that irreversible bond of trust between sovereign and subject -- to implement his plan.

It means that the next four years will not be a time for discussing complex policy problems, because we've already had the discussion and the verdict is in. Unfortunately, as former federal Conservative leader Kim Campbell famously said, elections aren't the time for complex discussions. Two local thinkers, political scientist Jared Wesley and medical professor Alan Katz, reinforced this view recently with plaintive laments that elections, sorry folks, are a real bad time for talking about the issues.

So, if we can't talk about issues during elections and if there's no point talking about them afterward, when are we supposed to talk about them? Maybe it's too complex a problem to consider.

It's not that politicians can't use the next four years to dig a little deeper into the issues; it's that they won't. Instead, the debates and controversies will be mere distractions and diversions, superficial discussions about side issues and extraneous matters.

Health care, for example, is the sacred cow of Canadian politics. Like all religious totems, it's risky to challenge accepted doctrine. If the Tories find a backbone and decide to talk about the need for reform over the next four years, they'd be pilloried for blasphemy and forever condemned to purgatory, or worse.

If the NDP decides to talk about reform, they'd lose their edge over the Tories, which would be bad for the health of the party. As for crime, Selinger will be hiring more cops than McFadyen would have if he had won the election, but this small disagreement won't lead to any discussion of the complex problems of crime and punishment. Selinger's cops, which are in addition to the 58 officers that Mayor Sam Katz is hiring, might not be needed (there was no analysis of how to establish the right number), but the premier won't be criticized by the Tories, who naturally want to avoid the accusation that they are soft on crime.

Complex issues have been at the centre of many previous elections, notably the free-trade election of 1988. A person's psychological profile was more likely to determine how they voted in that election, rather than the substantial questions of eliminating tariffs and the impact on jobs, but everyone knew that the election was about something important.

The media are expected to somehow fill the void between the emptiness of political minds and the isolation of the voters, but it's an unrealistic demand. Academics and intellectuals also have a responsibility to get involved, but too few of them are willing to dirty their hands.

Philosopher George Grant, for example, frequently exhorted the gifted to apply their skills to everyday problems.

"There is nothing phonier in our present universities than the exaltation of scholarship as if it were an end in itself," Grant said in Technology and Empire. Scholars, he argued, had a responsibility to consider the serious questions of contemporary society.

In the end, however, no amount of goodwill or intervention could have saved this election, probably one of the most vapid and banal contests in Manitoba history.

dave.obrien@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2011 A10

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