2004: Voters made their beds
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 31 December 2004)

In the course of the year 2004, electoral politics played a larger than usual role in world affairs, providing all of us with reasons for hope, despair and anger. In Spain and Afghanistan, in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, above all in the United States, voting was on everyone's mind.

In Canada the federal election was described, just like the one in the U.S., as the most important in decades. But there were differences. The American government claimed to be defending civilization and fighting against Islamic terrorism; the Canadian government was defending medicare and fighting for shorter waiting lists.

On June 28 the voters created our first minority government since 1979 and kindly provided some good news for every faction. The Liberals managed to form a minority government despite the catastrophe of the Quebec sponsorship scandal.

The Conservatives, a marriage of former Alliance members and formerly Progressive Conservatives, established a national presence even though their campaign veered toward incompetence in the closing stretch.

The Bloc Quebecois emerged as a national force in a nation it would rather not be part of, a circumstance that Canadians had great fun explaining to foreign friends. The Bloc leader, Gilles Duceppe, rejoiced in what he said was a vote for sovereignty. The NDP came back to life under a new and ambitious leader. For the moment everyone could be satisfied except those who had dreamt of change in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Paul Martin has since done little to advance his agenda, instead working through leftover issues from the last government, notably same-sex marriage and legalized marijuana. Martin spent so much time abroad that his appearances in Ottawa began to feel like state visits. No one ever knew where he'd land next -- Hungary or Chile, Sudan or France, Burkina Faso or Libya. He was working within a Canadian cultural tradition founded by Lord Ronald in Stephen Leacock's Gertrude the Governess, the man who flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.

Stephen Harper proved one of the year's great surprises. In the election campaign many voters expressed the fear that he would be captured by the hard right; little did they know that he was on the way to being bent out of shape by the soggy middle.

In the United States, the 2004 election became a celebration of moral vanity. Republicans made it clear they considered the Democrats loose-living, divorce-prone liberals who couldn't be trusted with America's soul; Democrats pictured Republicans as war-lovers who were fighting in Iraq either on a whim or because they hoped to make money. The Republicans had the advantage of enthusiasm; they apparently loved their candidate, whereas Democrats tolerated theirs, in the mistaken belief that he could defeat George W. Bush, the object of virulent liberal hatred.

After Bush's re-election there was much talk about moral values making the difference. A deeper reading of the polls made it clear that voters were divided between those who thought America was at war and those who didn't. The majority went with Bush, a self-proclaimed war president, as against John Kerry, who thought terrorism should be considered a serious nuisance, like prostitution.

Elsewhere, elections were surrounded by even higher levels of drama. With the future of countries and regions at stake, the techniques of politics expanded to include bombing, kidnapping and even old-fashioned poisoning. In Madrid on March 14, Islamic terrorists killed 191 Spaniards three days before the national election. Voters then turned against their government, which had supported the Iraq war; the new government quickly withdrew Spain's troops, as the terrorists had demanded. Afghanistan's national election made Hamid Karzai president in October; it was, as Charles Krauthammer wrote, the first success of the Bush Doctrine, which above all promises to spread democracy.

For the first time in decades, the world's attention fixed on Ukraine, where Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader, became probably the first politician in history to appear in public with an intravenous drip delivering a stream of painkiller into his spine.

Running for president, he had to fight the effects of dioxin poisoning, which he may have been served on Sept. 5 while dining with Ukraine's head of security. At home late that night his wife knew something was wrong. As she reported later, in words certain to become historic, "I tasted some medicine on his breath, on his lips." Soon he was suffering chronic abdominal pain, his face and upper chest were cobbled with lesions, ulcers appeared in his abdominal tract and his speech was affected. He became a national hero on Sunday when, despite everything, he won.

In 2004, two elections were planned in the Middle East, to take place in January. They are both expressions of the Bush Doctrine, attempts to inaugurate democratic government. One Arab commentator, Salameh Nematt of the daily Al Hayat in London, found a painful irony in these plans. "It is outrageous," he wrote in November, "that the first free and general elections" in Arab history will take place under foreign auspices -- in Iraq under the Americans and in Palestine under the Israelis. He finds it pathetic that citizens of these occupied nations are about to choose their leaders while those in other Arab states ("independent, free and sovereign" states, as he put it) have no political choices at all.

When Yasser Arafat died in Paris in November, politicians across the West took this news as a welcome occasion for a hypocritical display of mock sorrow. But among the Palestinians, who had been victimized for decades by Arafat's murderous irresponsibility, his death opened fresh possibilities for peace and maybe economic progress as well.

Increasingly, Palestinians have been showing signs of sanity and realism. Mahmoud Abbas, the favourite in the Jan. 9, 2005, presidential election, says violence against Israel is a mistake and should stop.

Early this month a survey indicated that slightly more than half of Palestinians oppose what they call "military operations" (sending children on suicide missions with bombs on their belts); only 27% expressed that opinion in a similar survey last June. It began to look as if, just possibly, the Palestinian-Israeli struggle is approaching the beginning of the end. As Bush wisely said while visiting Canada, those seeking peace must look to the heart of the matter, "which is the need for a Palestinian democracy."

With armed bands of insurgents everywhere, Iraqis will likely have even more trouble than the Palestinians holding elections. But there are those in the Middle East who think the Iraqi voting on Jan. 30 can set the region on a new course. Nabil Sharaf al-Din, an Egyptian journalist speaking on al-Jazeera on Nov. 23, said Iraqi voters are making history:

These people are establishing the first democracy in the Middle East. This country will be a platform for liberties in the whole region."

A public statement issued on Dec. 9 in Canada sounded like a too-familiar reprise of recent politics: "The bottom line is really that we have to see what they bring to the table before speculating on what our response will be." But it wasn't the Prime Minister waiting for instructions from the premiers. It was a lawyer for the National Hockey League, wondering what peace plan the players would suggest.

This was during what will be regarded for all time as both a major event in the history of Canadian culture and one of the great mysteries of 2004: The hockey industry, faced with tough business conditions (while praying that it will someday be able to forget the public fury over Todd Bertuzzi's vicious attack on Steve Moore in Vancouver last March), chose to seek prosperity by locking out the players, cancelling the games and closing the rinks. Indefinitely.

Probably those involved with the decision can explain that this was a wise course, though from the outside it looks like collective suicide, hockey's Jonestown. For the citizens, it produced months of misery. Robbed of their favourite games, Canadians had to spend long evenings talking to each other, mostly about the crisis facing the beer business.

The Toronto Argos brought Canadian football back to life in Ontario by winning their first Grey Cup since the Jurassic age. The loonie seemed to grow more valuable with each passing day, but not all Canadian symbols had a good year. Bombardier, once the shining star among Canadian aerospace corporations, foundered so badly that the owners fired Paul Tellier, the CEO-saviour they had hired only two years earlier.

Even the Canadian flag was scorned. Premier Danny Williams of Newfoundland and Labrador announced, as a Christmas present to the federal government, that he was expressing his dissatisfaction over equalization payments by taking all Canadian flags off provincial buildings. He believes the federal government insulted Newfoundland (and Nova Scotia too) by refusing to exempt their oil revenues from the formula that determines how much federal aid they receive. Offshore oil may soon tip Newfoundland's budget into the black, but Williams doesn't want Ottawa taking that as an excuse for cutting equalization payments that Newfoundland has traditionally received as a have-not province.

Williams, a visionary, plans to lead a province that will be simultaneously both a have and a have-not, a new phenomenon in Canadian history.

Paul Martin said the lowering of the flag was "disrespectful of our most treasured national symbol." But our second-most treasured symbol, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser, whose report revealed the sponsorship scandal, retains everyone's respect, or fear, or both. Her career in 2004 re-affirmed the great critic Northrop Frye's explanation of our affection for accountants. Canadians aren't desperate to make money, he said, but we love to count it.

In Europe, Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who imported "deconstruction" into academic study of the humanities and thereby did more than anyone else to make cultural criticism incomprehensible, died on Oct. 9 at the age of 74. Le Monde recognized his death by printing one of his last public statements, given in May. It concerned the necessity for struggle against globalization and the "power centres that emerged victorious from the cold war (represented by all those sinister acronyms: IMF, OECD, WTO)."

Derrida said that Europeans, having a unique political consciousness and sense of duty, must lead the anti-globalization struggle, particularly against "that technological, economic and military bully, the United States of America." No one was surprised by what he said. Many were astonished that they could understand it.

Britain's Literary Review awarded its annual prize for stylistically Bad Sex to I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom ("Slither slither slither slither went the tongue ... the fingers went under the elastic of the panties moan moan moan moan moan") Wolfe. In other cultural news, Janet Jackson's left nipple gave a surprise cameo performance on television during her half-time act at the Super Bowl. Replays on cable news of this partial breast-baring set off an amazing period of breast-beating among professional moralists.

Why was this effrontery so resented by people who had accepted more inflammatory material in many TV dramas? Perhaps because Jackson's wardrobe malfunction brought an implication of unrestrained sexuality to a place where public sex is usually limited to wholesome cheerleaders. The conservatives who organized the complaints were saying: "Not on our Super Bowl you don't!" In any case, the Federal Communications Commission fined CBS and promised to watch all other broadcasters with greater care, lest public morals be assaulted again.

Three Canadian literary boulevardiers who grew famous in the 1960s died in 2004 as octogenarians. Pierre Berton proved that a first-class journalist could make Canadian history feel as vivid as today's news. Arthur Hailey, the author of Airport and Hotel, proved that dedicated research and tireless rewriting could transform the assistant editor of a Toronto trade paper, Bus and Truck Transport, into a star of the world's best-seller lists and a rich resident of the Bahamas. Jack McClelland proved that a publisher with dash and nerve could turn a squad of good writers into celebrities. At the end of 2004 his old company, McClelland & Stewart, paid final tribute by putting on the cover of its catalogue a typically McClelland remark that could have been uttered as easily by Berton or Hailey: "I lived every day as if it was the last. I had fun all the bloody time."

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