Ten policies in search of a leader

The revolutionary has been cowed. Where once was a reckless intellect, now is the feverish tactician. Where once was arrogance, now only petulance. We have recreated Stephen Harper in Jean Chrétien’s image. The left should celebrate.

The Stephen Harper of old was driven by a desire to change the world. But having tasted power, what remained of that desire? For years we’ve wondered: what would he do to Canada with the temporary-absolute power of majority government? What would he do about abortion, gay marriage and the CBC? How far would he cut taxes? How many young criminals would he throw in jail? Did he really support public health care?

No one knew, and happily, we haven’t found out. Even more happily, it looks as if we never will. To be sure, Mr. Harper has helped to make Canada a meaner place. But consider the throne and budget speeches of early March: a token tax cut, a pinch of law and order. No ambition. No vision.

In the fall of 2008, miffed when denied a majority government and humiliated when he came within inches of losing power, he decided: this will never happen again. In an instant, he turned from fire-spewing, tax slashing, social-service-cutting superhero into heretofore dreaded Keynesian.

Is Mr. Harper’s Keynesianism based on principle, on an understanding and acceptance of the economic and ethical role of the state in maintaining demand? Or is he just another politician high on spending money? My guess is he’ll discover we need another shot of stimulus before the next election. Neoconservatives are committed to cutting taxes, not balancing books.

Will he continue to promote fear and ineffective and expensive law-and-order reform? Will he continue to ignore Canada’s child soldier in Guantánamo? Will he continue to treat democracy as a barely necessary evil? Will he continue to treat Israel as if he’s hastening the Apocalypse? Sure. But with less fervour. His near-death experience has turned him into a run-of-the-mill, dull politician. The thought of facing an election contest between the new, dull Harper and the same old Michael Ignatieff – well, all those clichés. It’s terrifying.

If there is no hope to be had from Mr. Harper, perhaps we can still hope that Mr. Ignatieff will reconstruct himself as a leader. There was a short time when he seemed to be one. He has the oratorical skills and the intelligence required. His response to Conservative attack ads was articulate and appropriate, and a brief high point. His response to the budget was – finally – exactly what he, and Stéphane Dion before him, should have said each time: bad, but not bad enough to force an election.

What he really needs are a few policies on which to actually lead. (A few were set out at the recent Liberal “Thinkers’ Conference”; while Mr. Ignatieff’s closing speech, according to observers, showed little disposition to take them up, it did leave the door open.)

Here’s my list of ten such policies, in no particular order. They are moderately left-of-centre, in keeping with the Liberals’ moderately left-of-centre history, and would provide a backbone for a vision of the country. Many encroach on provincial jurisdiction, but the federal government must lead. Some are controversial; all will bring opposition. People will need to be convinced. That’s what leadership is about.

Medical reform aimed at reducing wait times and controlling costs. These would include allowing more private and nonprofit provision of medical services and might include user fees. The goal is improved health care. Most countries, many with more effective medical systems than Canada’s, make use of user fees and allow for a greater variety of for-profit and not-for-profit service delivery. The point is to maintain the single-payer system but allow more flexibility of supply.

A national low-income housing program. Our housing works just fine for most people (if you ignore the environment), but very badly for the poor. We need more subsidies and more nonprofit housing: more encouragement for churches and unions, for example, to get into nonprofit housing. Chronic homelessness is a national disgrace, and fixing it requires, as a start, homes.

High speed rail systems in the Windsor–Quebec City corridor, from Edmonton to Calgary and from Vancouver to Chilliwack. These would be accompanied by other carbon-reducing transportation programs elsewhere.

Back to peace. It might be wise, at some point in the future, to enter a combat role again, but Pearson should be our inspiration, not Harper. In the Middle East, we must return to a position of sanity that reflects Canadian interests and not those of apocalyptic Christians.

Electoral reform. Announce a four-year election cycle with teeth. Announce that a Liberal or Liberal-led government will seek to institutionalize rules for what happens when a minority government is defeated. Announce a commission for reforming the electoral system to bring in proportional representation. Announce that if there is no majority following the next election, the Liberals will seek to form a coalition with the NDP and/or the Greens, and even an “understanding” with the Bloc. Announce that the Liberals will seek a pre-election agreement with the NDP and the Greens.

Daycare. There are thousands of heart-wrenching stories of Canadian families suffering because of the shortage of good daycare. The absence of daycare keeps people with a great deal to contribute out of the workforce. It keeps families living in poverty. It stifles opportunity. Mr. Ignatieff needs to learn to talk about this human need and economic opportunity articulately and passionately.

The environment. Mr. Ignatieff needs to admit that he and Jack Layton are wrong about the carbon tax. He should invite Stéphane Dion and Gordon Campbell to head up a commission aimed at its implementation.

Public broadcasting. It’s time to revisit the CBC, from the mandate up. The government must make a real commitment to public broadcasting, but it must answer the question: what is the CBC for?

Culture and the arts. As government funding for the arts is reduced, arts organizations become more commercial and conservative. Government funding must be increased to allow artists an independent voice.

A renewed commitment to balanced budgets overall. This means borrowing in the bad times, repaying and running moderate surpluses in the good. The Liberals should build on their credibility here. New programs will be paid for by good times and by moderate tax increases on the better off, as necessary. When the TD Bank CEO says members of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives are willing to see their taxes raised, surely the Liberals can talk about taxes out loud.

That’s ten, and there’s nothing about education and competitiveness. Or Aboriginals: could the Liberals deliver clean drinking water on every reserve in Canada?

Leadership is the ability to change people’s minds. These reforms are not automatic vote getters, but when articulated together they constitute a coherent alternative to Stephen Harper’s insipid conservatism.

If you have nothing to say, you look weak. If you continually back down, you look weak. These reforms will require that Mr. Ignatieff stand up.

Rescuing God by killing Him

Bob Chodos and Gregory Baum have responded in this issue to my column in Inroads 26. I am honoured.

Mr. Baum was “puzzled” about my “complaining that atheism is not sufficiently respected in present-day society” since, he says, “atheism has been an important dimension of the intellectual life in the West.” Unfortunately we have more than intellectual lives. Richard Dawkins pointed out several years ago that America will elect a black president before it elects an out-of-the-closet atheist. In any case, mine was not a generalized complaint but was specifically directed against the assertion by noted moderate believers that the “new atheists” were extremists.

As for Mr. Baum’s main point, that “believers and unbelievers should not quarrel, but engage in dialogue to explore the common values and lay the foundation for common action,” I wrote: “While I enjoy the argument between moderate believers and atheists, I’m not sure it’s that important.” So Mr. Baum and I are not far off – when it comes to moderate believers. I do think there is and should be a big quarrel between atheists and religious moderates, in one corner, and those who believe in a decision-making, Bible-writing, birth-control-proscribing God, in the other.

I very much appreciate Bob Chodos’s temperate response, and I think he does an excellent job of explaining moderate faith. If people find a community of belief and social action – or comfort – in a moderate God, that’s fine with me, and I’ll confess that occasionally I feel nostalgic for such a community myself.

Still, I can’t help feeling that the moderates have rescued God by killing Him, as they have saved the Bible by calling it literature. Moderates like Karen Armstrong and, especially, Terry Eagleton complain bitterly that the new atheists know nothing about theology, but Armstrong and Eagleton’s theology ignores the far more impressive (and I would guess popular) God who made the world in seven days, listens to our prayers, bars women from the pulpit, blesses our troops, commands us to circumcise our sons, decides whether we go to heaven or hell, and/or kills children for the sins of their parents – a God who is not only omnipresent but omniscient and omnipotent as well.

Compared to Him, the God of the moderates is pretty much indistinguishable from the God of the atheists. And I cannot help wondering: if the Bible is just great literature, why not read Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky from the pulpit from time to time? Why fetishize the same book (more or less) as the pope? Why give pride of place to a work of fiction with so many “dismal and unedifying passages” that so many people insist is literally true?