An outlandish contradiction has pursued us through this electoral season: Many voters, otherwise sensible, believe that the one federal party proven to be irresponsible is the only responsible choice. That would be the Liberals.
This week it received the support of The Globe and Mail, sort of. While acknowledging that Prime Minister Paul Martin has been a big disappointment and that his worn, tired party hasn't earned re-election, the Globe nevertheless argued that the Liberals will "do little harm."
It may have been the most spectacular case of faint praise in the history of Canadian journalism. It suggested a slogan: Vote Martin -- Probably Not Too Risky.
But behind it you could sense a feeling that there's something dangerously inscrutable about the Conservatives, which the Globe hinted at by claiming "we hardly know" Stephen Harper. That's not credible.
Harper slips and slides through a few issues, like every politician, but on the main subjects he's the most articulate Canadian leader in decades. If you don't know him, you're not listening.
Even so, many voters seem to believe that while Harper sounds sensible, his party contains possibly harmful extremists. If true, that wouldn't make the Conservatives special. Over the years the Liberals have tolerated and promoted dangerous eccentrics. Think of two words: Hedy Fry.
In the summer of 2001, as secretary of state (multiculturalism), she went to the UN's Durban conference on racism, which turned out to be a nightmare of racist, anti-Semitic hysteria. Fry's address to the delegates called this meeting "important and timely." Her speech, containing just a few words against blaming specific countries, still appears on her Web site.
She's better known for contributing to the improvement of race relations by declaring in Parliament that in Prince George "crosses are being burned on lawns as we speak," a statement that appears to have been pure fiction. It angered the people of Prince George, who fortunately live 784 kilometres north of Vancouver Centre, where Hedy Fry is seeking re-election as we speak -- with, of course, Martin's endorsement.
Many Liberals have earned individual notoriety, but the neurosis that affects the party itself deserves more attention. Over several generations, power has made Liberals a little crazy. Their pathology expresses itself through delusions of omnicompetence. They truly believe that they and only they should run the government. They think they have or soon will have a solution for every problem, especially those in provincial jurisdiction, notably health and education.
In this sense Martin closely resembles his enemy Jean Chretien.
They both maintain such a powerful belief in their party's virtue that any political threat to them must be evil. Both are unusually susceptible to anger, and for the same reason: They find it infuriating that some people don't agree with what they know in their hearts is the truth.
Those who live outside the Liberal tribe find this belief in their own virtue inexplicable. Yet it afflicts all but a few of them. Pierre Trudeau disliked Liberals all his life but adopted the party's traditional self-righteousness shortly after he joined. In any serious analysis of the Liberals, the word "cult" becomes hard to avoid.
Like cultists, Liberals believe that any mistake they make can only be a rare exception to the rule. If caught casually throwing public money to their friends (the sponsorship scandal) or throwing it down the drain (the gun registry), they automatically decide that the error was highly unusual. In their delusional cast of mind they can't even consider what an outsider would immediately notice: That the sponsorship scandal merely extended generations-old Liberal practices. No one who took part thought it outrageous because in Liberal terms it wasn't. Liberals believe that delivering contracts to Liberal followers is the sensible way to run a government.
On questions surrounding health care, Martin's idee fixe in this campaign, the Liberals now live by delusion.
Two-tier medicine is already established in significant corners of the Canadian system, and Canada will certainly change to something like the Australian or the British system in the not-distant future. Nevertheless, the Liberals vehemently insist that they can preserve the one-tier system that has proven unworkable. "Fanaticism," said George Santayana, "consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim." The aim was practical and universal health care, but the Liberals have mislaid that goal while recklessly pursuing what they consider the only just method of delivery, whether it works for the public good or not. On this issue, as on others, fanaticism and self-deception have made them dangerously irresponsible.