Election to nowhere
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 6 September 2008)

Rudy Giuliani said the other night at the Republican convention that the United States is heading into the most important election of our time -- meaning, I'm guessing, the most important since 1980, which installed Ronald Reagan as president. Others, Democrats as well as Republicans, have made the same point, though of course for different reasons. No doubt you'll hear that notion expressed often between now and Nov. 4.

On the other hand, there's little danger that anyone in Canada will make a similar remark about our own fall election. All to the contrary, in fact: The Canadian election planned for October may well be among the least significant events in living memory.

What, after all, is at stake? Nothing, so far as I can tell. It feels like an election to nowhere, the electoral equivalent to the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska that was authorized in a feckless moment by the U.S. Congress, finally defeated, and is now reduced to a metaphor representing outrageous waste.

The Canadian events of the last year have demonstrated that the prime minister, with his present minority caucus, can get just about anything from Parliament that he asks. But he wants more, an election that will give him a majority and eliminate the bother of facing the voters for another four years. It's a pre-emptive strategy, what medicine calls a prophylactic measure, an election to forestall an election. Better now than next year, when times may be tougher.

On the other hand, if you believe the Prime Minister's suggestion that he may well end up with another minority, then the whole exercise has even less meaning. In that case, he's calling it just for the hell of it.

The other parties show no signs of the kind of originality that might give the election meaning. The Liberal leader, who has already started his campaign, has bet heavily on his plan for saving the environment with a carbon tax that nobody else in Canada even pretends to understand. (Don't worry. He's changing it anyway.) New Democrats this time have even less to say for themselves than usual. The Bloc Quebecois gives every sign of going into hibernation.

The Green party now has an MP but not much else.

From this standpoint, it's hard for a Canadian to avoid a certain jealousy when contemplating American politics. Sarah Palin, when accepting the Republican vice-presidential nomination, gave a speech that was spirited, irony-charged and totally coherent. She didn't write it, of course, but she caused it to be written, she agreed to it, she embraced it and she delivered it with style, intensity and poise. Her superb pacing suggested she was born for this job and her remarks were sharp and sharply delivered: "Al-Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America; [Barack Obama's] worried that someone won't read them their rights."

An attractive and good-humoured defiance coloured her acknowledgement that she's an outsider: Referring to a major gaffe of Obama's, she said that "in small towns we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening."

American liberal journalists condescend to her as an unknown and inexperienced governor from Alaska, a minor state that seldom figures in politics. But what she did for 40 minutes on Wednesday night put her in a class with the most accomplished American politicians. Certainly her approach is more impressive than the rambling, woolly speeches of Joe Biden, the much more experienced vice-presidential candidate of the Democrats.

As for Canadians, our media have for the most part treated her as a joke. But I don't think there's even one major political figure in Canada who could give a speech as articulate and memorable as hers.

Her leader, John McCain, resembles Barack Obama in only one obvious way: Both of them are astonishingly assured political performers. This year, the presidential primary system, which sometimes felt endless and often seemed pointless, in the end produced two leaders who represent the best of their parties, each of them in an unexpected and creative way. In fact, the four presidential and vice-presidential candidates encompass an astonishing range of abilities, attitudes, personality and experience. Put them together with the platoon of candidates from both parties who ran in the primaries and they add up to a corps of national politicians that any democracy, especially Canada, could well envy.

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