The Polite Revolution

By John Ibbitson

Well, the election is over now and John Ibbitson should be happy. As he writes in this pre-election primer on the Canadian political scene, “whether you are by nature a conservative or a liberal in your own mind, you should probably hope for a Conservative victory in the next federal election.”

Why? Because even though Canada became “the world’s most successful country” under Liberal rule, change – any change – is good. Every now and then you have to let some fresh air blow through the corridors of power. And, as Ibbitson sees it, the only alternative to the Liberals is the Conservative party. The Greens are scarcely mentioned here while the NDP are dismissed as representing the interests of labour and “silk-stockinged socialists” (whoever they are, and whatever their interests may be). No, if this country is going to become a more perfect union it’s going to have to make a turn to the right.

According to Ibbitson’s analysis, such a turn is unlikely to be a hard turn, and certainly not a “revolution.” His assessment of what’s wrong with our “dysfunctional” political system is mainly based on demographic trends, which tend to be gradual. And what the demographic tea leaves also tell him is that the Conservatives are unlikely to enjoy power for long. Their “long-term prospects for political prosperity are bleak” because their base is rural and small-town Canada while the Liberals dominate the urban center. And the cities are the future.

The reason the cities are the future is because urbanization is one of two “great global migrations” that will define the next century. This spells trouble for the Tories because, at least historically, urban voters don’t like Tories and Tories don’t like them. The Canada of the Conservatives is rural, “predominantly white, and happy to keep it that way.” And this makes matters even worse because the other great global migration Ibbitson highlights is the movement of immigrants from poorer to richer countries (that is, to Canada). These immigrants mostly settle in cities, where they have become the bedrock of the Liberal vote. And their numbers continue to grow as rural Canada continues to depopulate. These demographics, unless somehow mastered by the Tories, will define its political fate.

But mastering the demographics might not be so difficult. The election showed that steps are being made. What Ibbitson is describing is mainly an image problem, and political parties are expert at selling themselves as being all things to all people. Nor is the immigrant or urban vote as monolithic as he makes it out to be. The Tories can be hopeful looking into the future that attitudes will change.

After performing his political diagnostics, Ibbitson also has a vision for moving forward and “perfecting the Canadian dream.” The cornerstone of his blueprint for making the 21st century Canada’s century is a “realignment of federal and provincial powers.” This doesn’t involve a revolution but a devolution of power. Ibbitson is very big on giving control over domestic and social policy (back) to the provinces. In fact, he doesn’t see much of a role for Ottawa at all outside of foreign affairs and the odd regulatory function. The federal government’s “real purpose . . . is to defend the nation from its enemies, maintain the peace, secure the borders, and represent Canada before the world.” In other words, paying the people who wear uniforms.

There’s something to be said for this. Some correction to the Constitutional Drift of power toward the federal government is probably in order, and at the very least giving more power to the provinces will result in some fresh thinking about matters like health care. Unfortunately in order to leave Ottawa with some purpose Ibbitson also has to go on a tired rant about how important building up the military is. Our defence and foreign policy “lie in a shambles,” a “national disgrace.”

Are things really so bad? Granted, as Ibbitson ringingly declares, “the first duty of a national government, superseding all others, is to protect its people from external or internal threat.” But has the federal government let us down in this regard? When was the last time we were invaded? No matter, despite enjoying peace and security we are apparently sleeping on the edge of an abyss. We need to wake up and stop wringing our hands over protecting Canadian culture and economic sovereignty (mainly from the United States) and put more money into the armed forces so we will be able to “deter and repel” the real enemy.

It’s hard to tell who Ibbitson has in mind, except that he doesn’t mean the United States. They aren’t going to attack us. In fact, they’re the ones who are protecting us. So presumably what we need to do is protect ourselves from enemies of the United States. And work together with the U.S. in doing so, both at home and abroad. Always quick with concrete steps to be taken, Ibbitson tells us that, “at a minimum,” we “must develop the ability to dispatch at least one brigade of troops, fully equipped for action in hostile territory, and able to deploy at very short notice without having to bum a lift or beg for supplies from allied forces.”

But what’s wrong with bumming a lift? After all, we’re not going it alone: “It is well understood that this brigade would never be deployed in a unilateral action [never? even if we were under attack?] and would be trained and equipped to act in concert with, and in support of, larger allied militaries.”

Trained and equipped to act in support of larger allied militaries. You know what that means, don’t you?

What this all boils down to is that we need to make ourselves useful to the U.S. And in all likelihood that’s what the Conservatives will seek to do.

It’s easy to roll one’s eyes through the chapter on “Making Canada Matter,” but a lot of what Ibbitson has to say is equally glib and unconvincing. The book reads more like a stream of rhetorical talking points than the expression of a considered political philosophy. To take another example: We are told that “the great, unspoken price of a universal health-care system is its opportunity cost,” that is, the things the government could have invested in but didn’t because of the need to fund the health-care system. And of these “perhaps the greatest opportunity cost of all is the price that Canada’s post-secondary education system has paid, in order to feed the health-care beast.”

Huh? Why is universal health-care (the “beast”) being blamed for the state of post-secondary education? Since an opportunity cost can’t be strictly defined – it could be any number of opportunities and alternatives foregone – this is pure flim-flam. There is no evidence given for such an argument. One simply connects the dots between the fact that health-care costs a lot of money and “Canada’s universities and college remain grossly underfunded.” “No wonder,” Ibbitson rages, “in an international ranking of the world’s top five hundred universities, Canada’s finest university, the University of Toronto, came in 24th. . . . Proud holders of Canadian degrees should know that, within the top one hundred, the University of British Columbia ranked 36th and McGill University ranked 62nd, while McMaster University was tied with the University of Freiburg for 88th spot. If you hold a degree from another school, it might be best not to mention it.”

Even as a proud holder of a degree from the University of Toronto, I find this ranking (as I do all rankings of universities) to be nonsense. I know that the University of Waterloo, to take one local example, has a great international reputation, though according to this ranking a degree from Waterloo isn’t anything to be proud of. Says who? Here we do have a footnote that directs the reader to Ibbitson’s source. The data was obtained from a study done by the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Oh yes, I’m sure they should know.

The Polite Revolution is one of those timely books of op-ed journalism with a limited shelf-life, especially now that the political landscape has shifted. In hindsight, it doesn’t even provide much of an explanation of how we got here. As for the future . . . well, let’s hope we can at least still be polite.

Review first published January 28, 2006. The election referred at the beginning of the review was the January 23, 2006 Canadian federal election, in which the Conservatives won a minority government. I went to the official web-page of the “Academic Ranking of World Universities” to see how they came by their results. Apparently they look to see how many Nobel Prize-winners a university has, and how often faculty are being published in prestigious scientific journals. As they admit, “there are many methodological and technical problems” with the ranking.

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