In October of 2006, an American journalist visiting Canada noticed that something was not right. He had been making the trip every year, but this time there was a marked difference.
As an American journalist visiting my wife's relatives in Canada, I've always been struck by how ardently the country's political discourse focused on substance — the budget, health care, schools, roads — with little of the cheap theatrics and angry divisiveness of U.S. politics and punditry. Reading and listening to the Canadian news media during those family trips could be a tad boring, but it also was touching, like remembering your earnest grade-school civics teacher lecturing about the wonders of the American democratic process.The 2008 election campaign was all about the carbon tax, with Stephen Harper and Jack Layton singing harmony on their chosen wedge issue. They are career politicians and know how to play the game.
But in my visit this past summer, I noticed that the tone of Canada suddenly had changed. There was a nastier edge to the commentary .... To someone who has covered U.S. politics for three decades, there was a shock of recognition. Standing out starkly against the bland traditions of Canadian governance was the pugnacious 'tude of American political combat, wedge issues pounded in with a zeal that put the goal of winning and holding power over everything else. (1)
On the other hand, Michael Ignatieff was a war correspondent, documentary film maker, academic and author. He remembered Canadian politics from his father's day as a career Canadian diplomat, in the days when political discourse helped to make Canada a leader on the world stage.
This election started out the same way.
Harper wanted to set the tone with the "reckless coalition", but that has fallen flat, especially since Canadians are fine with it.
The Liberals under Igantieff stressed the loss of our democracy, an important issue, but it wasn't resonating. Too abstract to those who don't follow politics.
But then he found his issue. Healthcare. Something on the top of every one's list of priorities.
And with that he has changed the subject.
It started slowly with the campaign ad warning Canadians that Harper wants to privatize our healthcare system, turning it into an HMO nightmare. But the Conservatives cried foul, pointing out that one quote in the ad did not belong to Stephen Harper at all, but to someone else.
But instead of retreating, the Liberals challenged it. They allowed us to select what private healthcare quote we would like to see in the ad instead. Brilliant. Reminding us that Harper has always supported private healthcare, so there was a vast array of quotes to choose from.
Some journalists have sprung into action looking for the infamous quote to end all quotes.
And even the misquoted quote, became in itself a story. It actually belonged to former head of the National Citizens Coalition, David Somerville, who had groomed Harper to take over for him. The NCC was founded to end public healthcare. Enough said.
Then another group from Harper's family and friends network, the Fraser Institute came out in support of the pm, suggesting that we should put the Canada Health Act on hiatus.
Now the Canadian medical Association has come out denouncing the corporate funded Fraser, and holy schmoley, we've got us an election debate. Something we can sink our teeth into. Not a tad boring but as exciting as hell.
We're getting our country back. You can see the sliver of light.
The wonderful Murray Dobbin, who has been following Harper's career for years, agrees: Dr. Harper’s New and Improved Medicare
Well played Mr. Ignatieff, well played.
1. An American journalist's view of Harper, By Richard Fricker, October 18, 2006