Voters have every right to punish politicians

TheStar.com – News/Canada
Published On Thu Oct 28 2010.   By James Travers, National Affairs Columnist, Ottawa.

Voters nearly everywhere are mad as hell. They just aren’t sure who to stick it to anymore.

Very different results in the Toronto and Ottawa mayoralty races point to a singular conclusion: Public anger at politicians is driven more by disillusionment than ideology.

In Canada’s largest city, ratepayers rejected George Smitherman, a former Dalton McGuinty minister, in favour of the simple solution alternative, Rob Ford. In Ontario’s second largest city they elected Jim Watson, until recently another of the Ontario Premier’s cabinet colleagues, turfing Larry O’Brien, an incumbent who spectacularly failed to make those same simple solutions work.

A smug assumption here is that Ottawa is more advanced on the Tea Party learning curve. Four years of bitter experience taught the national capital to recognize false prophets promising cleansing change.

Another possibility is that voters in local elections simply did what they have been doing for decades in federal elections. Forced to choose between unconvincing alternatives, they used any available club to beat the stuffing out of the status quo.

Time will sort one theory from the other. Meanwhile party strategists here are searching municipal outcomes for federal implications.

Conservatives find hope for a downtown Toronto breakthrough in what they see as the hard right swing that cold-cocked a caricature lefty. Liberals find better prospects in the punishment heaped on those who mistook taxpayer money for their own and spent it like drunks.

Narratives woven from those competing perspectives will be repeated in every whistle-stop speech during the coming campaign. Left unspoken will be the gut fear that the jig is up for traditional political parties content to take their periodic turn at the public trough.

Seeping north from our stricken southern neighbour is the slow realization that the great political divide is no longer between right-leaning conservatives and left-leaning liberals. What now separates elites from the madding crowd is optimism and pessimism, secure pensions and vanishing jobs and, most of all, privileged access to a system that can be so profitably gamed.

That rising political spectre takes unique shapes on either side of the 49th parallel. In the U.S. it shows itself in the barely controlled rage at politicians who became apologists for speculators who brought the world to its financial knees as well as for too-big-to-fail corporations that, having been rescued by taxpayers, are now proving too small to protect American workers from globalization. In more stable and congenitally moderate Canada it surfaces in the frustration that drove Ford’s victory and in three consecutive federal elections where the clearest message from voters to politicians was “none of the above”.

Tracing Canadian disillusionment isn’t difficult. It begins in the withered accountability that followed Pierre Trudeau’s concentration of power in his office, spread to Jean Chretien-era “entitlement to entitlements” and is now inescapable in Stephen Harper’s hyperpartisan willingness to risk even national unity — as he did in the 2008 constitutional crisis — in pursuit of a majority.

Lost along the way was trust in a system that, despite its many faults, could once be counted on to act in the best interest of most citizens, most of the time. Growing in the vacuum created by lies, fraud and countless broken promises is the acidic judgment that parties are guided by self-interest and the powerful few who whisper in their ear.

Abused and abandoned to wander in a democratic wasteland, voters have every reason to be mad as hell and every right to pummel the nearest politician.

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