Robert Fulford's column about the language of Canadian politics

(The National Post, November 14, 2000)

Those who love coherence in speech and writing should avoid contact with the election this month: More than ever, our politics lives by slippery, ill-defined language, and terms like "liberal" and "conservative" grow more blurred every time they are used -- which of course doesn't stop us from using them.

Canadians have shrouded their political culture in obscurity. That's apparently the way we like it. Everyone in politics pretends to hold roughly the same opinions, which leaves them little to talk about except the honesty or competence of their opponents. This is not a harsh criticism. My own vague political identity leaves me in no position to attack others for fuzziness.

But I was startled when the Alliance loudly asserted that, no matter what, it would fearlessly fight with all its heart for ... medicare? Some said they were insincere. Some claimed this was the prelude to a two-tier medical system (which for some reason all Canadians see as the Devil's work). But those objections missed the point. No one asked the important question: Aren't you Alliance people supposed to be conservatives, and are conservatives really supporters of government medicine? That simply didn't arise. The campaign just plunged on, everyone crowding toward the middle.

Journalists write as if we had a left wing and a right wing in federal politics, but that's more fantasy than reality. Many citizens considered Brian Mulroney's Conservatives "right wing," but since 1993 the Liberals have been governing in precisely the way that Michael Wilson wanted to govern when he was Mulroney's finance minister. Wilson couldn't do it, because Mulroney wasn't right wing enough. There is no one alive who could explain this result to a foreigner, but all Canadians know in their bones precisely how it happened: To get conservative policies enacted, elect Liberals.

Recently several of my readers have called me a conservative, which is no insult but is wrong, to the extent that any such term can be wrong in Canada. I'm a long-time self-identified liberal. I favour free speech, free trade, free love, free medicare, and equal rights for all races and sexes. That sounds liberal to me. But it's no longer sufficient. When I mildly criticized President Clinton, someone wrote to say "You appear to be a Republican sympathizer," a notion that had never once occurred to me. And not long ago, I was described as a conservative in the Saint John Telegraph Journal. It happens, however, that the writer who so labelled me has lived for years in the Annex section of Toronto, where "conservative" means anyone who doesn't agree with the latest demand floated by a rights-seeking group that no one heard of until six months ago.

In fact, my political ideas are usually close to the Canadian consensus, and those that aren't will never get anywhere: for instance, my proposal to rename the national debt Mount Trudeau has attracted only minimal support. My most significant views are consensual: like most Canadians, I am in alliance with all genuine liberal, conservative, and new-democratic reformers. (That's with a small "a," a small "l," a small "c," a small "n," and a small "r.")

About three decades ago I moved into what has proven to be my spiritual home: St. Paul's, a midtown Toronto riding. We are just to the west of a riding with a far grander name: formerly called Rosedale, it is now Toronto-Centre-Rosedale (the original plan, to call it Toronto-Centre-of-the-Universe-Rosedale, was finally rejected as being a little too pushy.)

No one among us seems to know why we are called St. Paul's, since we have no church by that name. It would be hard to believe that we were named for the intellectual tentmaker from Tarsus who defined (some theologians say invented) what we now call Christianity. For all his virtues, St. Paul was not our sort of person. He was the very fountainhead of Christian doctrine, whereas in St. Paul's the thing we avoid is doctrine. The proof is that St. Paul's has voted with the government party in seven successive elections.

We are, putting it mildly, flexible. We don't fuss a lot about principles, promises, etc. In St. Paul's our Liberals are not outrageously liberal, and our Conservatives not flagrantly conservative. Most could easily switch to the other party and many have. (It is said that we once had a Maoist, who spelled it with a small "m.") We don't know yet how our Alliance people will turn out, but we expect they'll fall into line.

We have our own St. Paul's concerns. Elsewhere, voters argue over health care, taxes, etc. In St. Paul's we have only one political belief: Our MP should be in the Cabinet. We have had so many Cabinet ministers over the years that we consider a place at the table a regional entitlement. Our Ron Atkey was immigration minister in the 1979 Joe Clark government, our John Roberts was minister of several different things (at the end he was also immigration minister) for Pierre Trudeau, and our Barbara McDougall was no sooner elected than she went straight into Brian Mulroney's Cabinet, where she ended up as foreign minister. The fact that since 1993 we have had two Liberal MPs not in the Cabinet looks, from the St. Paul's perspective, anomalous. We're not bitter, just puzzled.

Long ago, Roland Michener was our MP. He served in the Ontario Tory Cabinet and in 1953 went to Ottawa. He was thus in the Tory caucus when John Diefenbaker, not his friend, became prime minister in 1957. Diefenbaker apparently made him Speaker of the House out of spite. In return, Michener in his rulings sometimes appeared to lean over backwards to avoid pleasing his prime minister. St. Paul's defeated Michener in 1962, but soon his old Oxford friend, Lester B. Pearson, became the Liberal prime minister. Pearson appointed him high commissioner to India and in 1967 made him Governor-General.

Others considered Michener an exceptionally distinguished Canadian, but we thought him a typical St. Paul's representative: He settled for nothing but the best. He was typically St. Paul's in another way, too. Today the Canadian Encyclopedia carries a biography of him that quotes only one phrase to indicate his political philosophy. It says he called himself "a small 'l' liberal and a capital 'C' Conservative." That's our guy.

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