Could wind up mak­ing cen­trism sal­able

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - NP - An­drew Coyne

In prin­ci­ple, there is room for a new party in Cana­dian pol­i­tics; ar­guably, there is a need for one.

That the estab­lished par­ties have tended to pan­der to nar­row and par­tic­u­lar in­ter­ests, rather than the broader pub­lic in­ter­est, is well doc­u­mented, as is the re­sult: an ever-ex­pand­ing state de­voted al­most wholly to re­dis­tribut­ing in­come, not from rich to poor, but from tax­pay­ers to well-or­ga­nized and well-cul­ti­vated client groups (no­tably the state’s own em­ploy­ees). In the same way the state re­dis­tributes from con­sumers to pro­duc­ers, from west to east, young to old, and so on, in the ser­vice of nei­ther ef­fi­ciency nor jus­tice nor even raw num­bers but just who­ever fright­ens politi­cians the most.

Which over time — peo­ple learn — has come to in­clude everybody. We sub­si­dize ev­ery­thing that moves in this coun­try, and charge our­selves higher taxes to pay for it, then de­mand more sub­si­dies to off­set the bur­den of taxes. And the fruit of all this fran­tic at­tempt to re­dis­tribute from everybody to everybody? A na­tion brim­ming with grievance and re­sent­ment, ev­ery part of the coun­try con­vinced the rest are mak­ing out at its ex­pense.

A party that pro­posed to end the money-go-round — to wean the coun­try’s business class, in par­tic­u­lar, off the pub­lic teat, to shut down the “re­gional de­vel­op­ment” spig­ots and bust up the car­tels that, be­hind our pro­tec­tion­ist walls, are per­mit­ted to gen­teelly pick our pock­ets — would there­fore be a sig­nal ad­di­tion to our pol­i­tics. If it chose to frame this cri­tique not as a fairly straight­for­ward ap­pli­ca­tion of Eco­nom­ics 101 but as a rad­i­cal de­ter­mi­na­tion to gov­ern “for all Cana­di­ans,” so be it.

And if it made life dif­fi­cult for the estab­lished par­ties, so much the bet­ter. The mar­ket for ideas thrives on com­pe­ti­tion and choice as much as any other. The carteliza­tion of our econ­omy is in part a re­flec­tion of the carteliza­tion of our pol­i­tics. A more ro­bustly con­ser­va­tive party, in par­tic­u­lar, less bur­dened by the Con­ser­va­tives’ crip­pling self-doubt, would be a wel­come ad­di­tion, even if I don’t like all of its ideas: mil­lions of Cana­di­ans do, and it is wrong that they should go un­rep­re­sented.

But when I say a party, I mean, well, a party. The “Peo­ple’s Party” that Maxime Bernier un­veiled Fri­day was no­tably ill-sup­plied with ei­ther. A party, even one that does not preface its name with “peo­ple,” is tra­di­tion­ally ex­pected to fur­nish a few; the term is usu­ally con­sid­ered to im­ply the participation of sev­eral per­sons, or at least more than one.

Instead, stand­ing in for the peo­ple was just Max, alone on a stage. Be­sides the vaguely Euro-sound­ing name — and not in a good way — and a logo that ap­peared not so much de­signed as typed, there was lit­tle to in­di­cate this was any­thing more than the per­sonal van­ity pro­ject it seemed when Bernier first an­nounced it, last month.

Who will be the leader of this Peo­ple’s Party? Why, Bernier, as it hap­pens. Who elected him? Well, he wasn’t: he just is. (Per­haps the Lady of the Lake held aloft Ex­cal­ibur?) And what are its poli­cies? They are those of its leader, at least for now — the plat­form is “still be­ing fi­nal­ized,” a note on the party web­site ad­vises — the same as he cam­paigned on in the re­cent Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship race.

Well, fine. You have to start some­where. Bernier very nearly won that cam­paign: there’s ob­vi­ously a mar­ket for what he’s sell­ing, at least within the con­ser­va­tive move­ment. Pre­sum­ably his lead­er­ship team will make up the nu­cleus of the new party’s or­ga­ni­za­tion.

In time it can be­gin to tap donors, at­tract mem­bers, re­cruit can­di­dates. Who knows? Per­haps, rather than par­tic­i­pate in choos­ing a leader or de­vel­op­ing a plat­form, what peo­ple are re­ally look­ing for is a turnkey op­er­a­tion, where both have al­ready been de­cided.

Po­lit­i­cal iden­ti­ties are fluid nowa­days. Who’d heard of Em­manuel Macron’s party, En Marche, when it was founded, a year be­fore he was elected pres­i­dent of France? Who knew the ven­er­a­ble Repub­li­can Party could be taken over by Don­ald Trump and his thread­bare or­ga­ni­za­tion?

Be­sides, Bernier doesn’t have to win to make a dif­fer­ence: all he has to do is force the other par­ties, the Con­ser­va­tives in par­tic­u­lar, to ad­just their poli­cies.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing ex­per­i­ment. Bernier is plainly seek­ing to har­ness pop­ulism, no­tably its skep­ti­cism to­ward im­mi­gra­tion, in the ser­vice of his in­nate lib­er­tar­i­an­ism. That com­bi­na­tion is not of­ten tried, for the sim­ple rea­son that the two are more nat­u­rally op­posed than aligned.

Pop­ulism usu­ally takes the form of dis­tribut­ing state good­ies — “giv­ing the peo­ple what they want.”

Lib­er­tar­i­an­ism is about taking them way. Pop­ulist lead­ers are gen­er­ally un­bur­dened by prin­ci­ple or con­vic­tions. Bernier prom­ises he will be scrupu­lously guided by them.

Where pop­ulism is gen­er­ally sus­pi­cious of con­straints upon the leader’s abil­ity to de­liver for “the peo­ple “— wit­ness Doug Ford’s re­cent show of dis­dain for the Char­ter — lib­er­tar­i­an­ism is all about con­strain­ing gov­ern­ment power and dis­cre­tion, in favour of the “spon­ta­neous or­der” of the mar­ket.

It’s an un­cer­tain mix: and yet, if he can pull it off, he may be able to make lib­er­tar­i­an­ism sal­able, in a way it has not proved to be in the past. Dry lec­tures on the virtues of pri­va­tiz­ing the side­walks do not tend to ex­er­cise all but the con­verted.

But a broader nar­ra­tive of de­fend­ing the pub­lic in­ter­est (“the peo­ple”) from the com­bined as­sault of a thou­sand in­ter­est groups — of lim­ited, rules-based gov­ern­ment as the only kind that truly serves the many, rather than the few — may have legs.

Per­haps our Cana­dian ge­nius for re­sent­ment can be made to work for good, rather than for evil.

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