Flavouring the Election Race with Memories of Liberalism

October 25th, 2000
By Naomi Klein

Is that Ralph Nader running for Prime Minister? It seemed that way when Jean Chretien entered the election with fists flying at fat cats, millionaires and "radical" right-wingers who care only about "the market forces."

Now, admittedly, Mr. Chretien could use an emergency tutorial from Mr. Nader on the etiquette of championing the working class. (Lesson #1: Don’t call factory workers uneducated, stunted citizens—as the Prime Minister did on Monday—especially when those workers are the very ones responsible for the economic boom you are hoping to parlay into a third term in office.)

But Mr. Chretien is doing his best. He even cancelled a Team Canada trade mission to China. There he was, all set to help Canada’s multinational manufacturers find low-wage factories where they can produce their goods cheaply and without pesky unions (presumably, he doesn’t think much of factory workers in China either) when he decided to stay home and lecture us about "Canadian values."

"I know the rich will take care of themselves," Mr. Chretien boomed on Sunday—except, of course, for the ones on Team Canada trade missions to China. But forget about trade for now. The new compassionate Jean Chretien is only interested in helping the world’s poor directly. "There is nothing that offends me more," he said on Monday, ". . . than a party that wants to form government and says that they will cut [foreign aid], the help to the poorest of the poor." That is offensive. Much better to do it the Liberal way: campaign on Lester Pearson’s legacy of international compassion, then cut foreign aid between elections, when no one is watching.

And this pretty much sums up the "the two radically different visions of Canada" being offered by the Liberals and the Canadian Alliance: It’s all about branding. With Stockwell Day, we get to vote for slavishly pro-business policies while identifying with an image of rugged capitalist cowboys on the global frontier, eager to push government out of the saddle so we can ride alone and free. With Mr. Chretien, we get virtually the same pro-business policies while feeling good about ourselves as compassionate Canadians.

On the one hand, there’s the Marlboro Man. On the other, President’s Choice Memories of Liberalism, designed to conjure warm recollections of Trudeaumania—without all those "interventionist" policies regulating foreign investment and building new social programs. This political spectrum is so narrow, it doesn’t even have room for the existence of the other three parties.

The sameness of the Liberals and the Alliance came out on Monday, when Mr. Day used an Ottawa-area high-tech company as an example of the kind of business that would benefit under the Alliance. Only the business owner in question stepped out of his role as backdrop and told the cameras that Liberal business incentives were keeping him plenty happy, thank you very much.

Mr. Chretien didn’t call this election because he has a radically different vision of Canada. He called it because voters almost always elect incumbents during economic booms. And it’s true, they do—or at least they did.

Take a look at poor Al Gore. He is losing because he can’t seem to get credit for the U.S. economy. It’s not that voters deny the economy is doing well. It’s just that after years of being told the market is magical—that it governs us, we don’t govern it—his claim that the Democrats are responsible for the boom is about as believable as his claims of inventing the Internet.

Mr. Chretien may well discover this flip side to laissez-faire government. The Liberals have spent seven years telling voters that the government is essentially powerless: powerless to improve our currency, to stand up to the World Trade Organization, to resist the voracious demand for tax cuts, to rebuild our social programs.

Glancing at the gaping holes in the social fabric these policies have left, the Liberals are rebranding themselves as the party that believes "millionaires can look after themselves." Only they may find the same thing the Democrats have found in the U.S. and New Labour is discovering in Britain. Loyalty to a tacked-on political brand image—as opposed to an honest political agenda—runs shallow; it is appealing one day and distasteful the next, as fleeting as fashion.

Stripped of meaningful political choices, citizens tend to exercise the only power they have left: as restless consumers, to switch brands.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.