Forget populism — where are the big ideas from Canadian leadership candidates?: Neil Macdonald

Some advice to Tory leadership candidates: resist the urge to chum the waters with chump-bait, and try offering some leadership.

Oh, and also: please, please make your debates less boring

Kellie Leitch holds up a rebuttal sign during the Conservative leadership debate at the Maclab Theatre in Edmonton, Alta., on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. (Codie McLachlan/Canadian Press)

A populist blast, we are told, is building in the intestines of the Canadian polity. It's like attitudinal fracking; economic despair and class resentment is cracking open dormant pockets of inflammable anger-gas, and the coming blowout threatens the very order of things.

My old colleague-turned-academic Michael Valpy, an earnestly sober left-leaning intellectual, wrote recently in the Globe and Mail under the headline: "Populist anger is real, and Canada had better wake up."

Valpy cites data collected by EKOS pollster Frank Graves, which suggests that since the turn of the century, the percentage of Canadians who consider themselves middle class has declined from 67 to 46 per cent. The vast majority Graves surveyed believe, not unreasonably, that economic growth flows up to the top one per cent.

Canada-first movement

Graves says Canadians' pessimism about their economic future and insecurity about their jobs is deepening, with racism and nativism emerging as a consequence. A Canada-firster movement seems to be forming.

Valpy sees it all as analogous to the class resentment that pushed President Donald Trump into the White House.

"There is a big warning here for Canadian media commentators and the country's political elites," writes Valpy, who chides  "those currently lecturing Conservative Party leadership candidates about fuelling populist anger and dismissing as ignorant, small and mean the perturbations of their supporters…"

In the Sun newspapers, conservative columnist Anthony Furey delivers a similar warning, citing what he calls an "authoritative report" by Edelman, a big PR firm.

Furey's article, boldly titled "The truth about populism," quotes Edelman's conclusion that the vast majority of Canadians have concluded that "elites" are out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Canadians.

Furey thinks a Trump-style reckoning is coming to Canada. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Like Valpy, Furey seems to think a Trumpian-style reckoning is coming to Canada's chattering classes, who he says are "doing everything they can to deny and mock it." The "poor establishment," he concludes, cannot figure out how to adapt.

Neither columnist, though, is particularly prescriptive. Valpy advises politicians and opinion leaders to understand and address all this subcutaneous anger, while Furey effectively argues that the elites should stop enraging ordinary Canadians by being so damned politically correct.

In Furey's view, the elites tend to excuse things like female genital mutilation or Saudi Arabia's gross human rights abuses, basically because they're so fogged by left-wing moral relativism that they can't think straight.

Well. I know no one who thinks gender enslavement, or chopping limbs as judicial punishment or slicing off young girls' clitorises is anything but barbaric, but I guess I'm hanging out with the wrong elites.

As for Valpy's suggestion, it's fine to try to understand all this anger about inequality, but remedying it is another matter.

The nature of capitalism

Economic inequality is a function of capitalism. The political and media elites Furey sneeringly refers to are about as capable of defying the forces of capitalism (or the mobility of capital) as they are of flying.

And the ultra-rich one per cent who prosper mightily from inequality don't give a toss about how angry the average voter might be.

As economist Thomas Piketty documented in his tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century – which is a truly authoritative study – capitalism by its nature concentrates wealth in fewer and fewer hands as time passes, principally because money itself makes money.

The only thing that ever disrupts the pattern is a cataclysmic war or revolution, and we haven't had either of those things since early last century.

There may be solutions to inequality, but most would logically involve unheard-of income redistribution or other government intervention, and none of the candidates for the Conservative Party leadership is talking about that.

Conservative leadership debate opening statements


4 years ago
Thirteen of the 14 Conservative leadership contenders debate in Edmonton, Alta. Tuesday. 1:15

Instead, some of them propose utterly unrealistic tax and spending cuts, making life even more miserable for ordinary Canadians, and more profitable for business, most of which is run by the one per cent. Another leadership candidate, seeking to capitalize on emerging nativism, basically wants to ask prospective immigrants whether they beat their wives (as though any would answer yes). The putative front-runner is given to wackadoodle statements about selling Senate seats or how inequality is great because it inspires people to try to become one percenters.

Heaven knows, this sort of nonsense might work. Enough Americans fell for Trump's loopy promises to elect him president, although I'm willing to bet a they won't feel better off four years from now.

Whoops, there I go not understanding and demeaning them, like the elite I am. Sorry.

But I do have some advice to Tory leadership candidates: resist the urge to chum the waters with chump-bait, and try offering some leadership.

You could grow spines, for example, and talk about health care. And then about health care. And after that, about health care.

Health care is one of, if not the most important issue of our times. (iStockphoto.com)

Our system is corrupt – social contacts and political power catapult you to the front of the line —and waiting lists are so long people sometimes die before their name comes up (which almost seems like part of the plan). We openly practice rationing. With an aging demographic, health care is one of if not the most important issue of our times.

Some provinces provide decent care. Others – bonjour, Quebec – are disasters. I haven't met a single doctor since arriving back here two years ago who thinks the system works well.

There are other serious questions to discuss: for example, all the stupid bickering between various levels of government over who gets to spend tax revenues? And can we remember there is ultimately only one taxpayer?

Oh, and also: please, please make your debates less boring. I've watched a few; they aren't debates, just a series of mini-speeches. I had to stab myself with my pen to stay awake.

And last thing:

Dear, New Democrats: about your leadership race, everything I've just said, except in capital letters.

Maybe the Cassandras are right, and there's a populist explosion coming. But Canadians aren't really very explosive. And frankly, if I were Justin Trudeau watching the opposition races, I'd be one happy yogi.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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