Home truths too close to home for Liberals, Tories

By James Travers
Toronto Star

Robert Fowler lambasted Liberals and Tories at a Montreal conference on March 28, 2010. (Photo: Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.)
Robert Fowler lambasted Liberals and Tories at a Montreal conference on March 28, 2010. (Photo: Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.)

Apparently Canada's governing and official opposition parties are living in different worlds. For months, Conservatives have been promising that happy days are almost here again, budgets will eventually more or less balance themselves and the treatment of Afghan prisoners was just peachy. Liberals, fresh from a weekend of deconstructing the future, say Canada faces wrenching economic and social change, and know in their hearts that damaging stuff is his hidden in the mountain of censored government documents.

A meeting of G8 foreign ministers here Monday opened another window on those alternate universes.

With the rhetoric still cooling from respected former diplomat Robert Fowler's weekend charge that the ruling party is squandering the country's international reputation, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon is moving to the next phase of presenting Canada as a respected world leader.

Come June, Stephen Harper will host costly twin summits. From those will come weighty communiqu├ęs, mostly written in advance, touching global hot buttons ranging from financial stability to national security.

From those summits, too, will seep the priceless partisan advantage of being seen by voters as a player in the biggest game. But Fowler and a lengthening list of foreign policy experts argue that while the political gains may be real, the image is an illusion.

Fowler, who didn't spare gutless, unprincipled power-seeking Liberals from his searing critique, blasted Conservatives for, among other things, abandoning a balanced Canadian Middle East policy for the craven purpose of winning Jewish votes at home.

Those words are not commonly heard. Guest speakers are rarely so blunt and it's unusual for even safely retired diplomats to be so undiplomatic.

But Fowler did more than say what others whisper. He also revealed a dirty little Ottawa secret.

It's often said that all politics is local. It's less frequently recognized that here and now in this capital, all politics is tactical.

Better than any spin doctor, that helps explains why those in power are optimists and their rivals pessimists. To hold on to government, Conservatives need voters to believe wildly rosy projections that economic growth and civil service belt-tightening will somehow slay deficits and hurry back boom times. To improve their fortunes, Liberals, NDP, and to a lesser extent the Bloc, must persuade Canadians that what's coming at the country is so wrenching that the status quo is unsustainable.

So it's no more surprising that Conservatives are bullish on the economy and relentlessly boast that Canada is back on the world stage than it is that Liberals are now publicly worrying about slower growth, rising health care costs and the demographic mismatch between jobs and skills. What's surprising is that someone had the temerity to indict both parties for willingly sacrificing national to political interests.

Fowler's specifics will be hotly debated. But many Canadians will agree with his conclusion that pressing realities too rarely inform party strategies.

At least until after the next election, Conservatives want Canadians to believe trend lines are positive and that any pain or suffering will be borne by bureaucrats. Liberals are selling the notion that there's work to do but that the tab will be dumped on anonymous corporations by freezing tax cuts.

What connects the two parties is this: Between now and when the ballots are next counted, optimists and pessimists will pretend not to have heard Fowler's truths.

30 March 2010 — Return to Cover