"Dithers" is the new Flip-Flop

A recent Economist article that portrayed Prime Minister Paul Martin as "Mr. Dithers" has resonated across Canada. According to the Economist, Martin has strayed from his fiscally austere roots to embrace the kind of populism he hopes will resonate with Canadians.

As finance minister, Mr Martin acquired a reputation as a tough and decisive deficit-cutter who transformed the public finances and oversaw the renaissance of the Canadian economy. But as prime minister, his faltering leadership has earned him the sobriquet of "Mr Dithers". ... Both before and since [last year's election], Mr Martin's main concern seems to have been to court popularity by parading a generous social conscience.

Like "flip-flop", the Republican talking-points victory that caricatured Democratic Presidential contender John Kerry's complex dance between anti-war populism and centrist power-brokering, "Mr. Dithers" has broken free of of its origins and taken root among millions of people - many of whom haven't even heard of the original article, let alone read it.

The epithet has rippled across Canada's media landscape and onto the tongues of Canadians everywhere. Now, like a skull-busting feedback whine, the term bombards us from everywhere. Whether this was intended or serendipitous, the Economist has scored a psychological coup, framing a complex issue in its own narrow terms.

Ultimately, the Dithers tag has painted Martin as indecisive and wishy-washy. In fact, this characterization isn't fair. Martin has been consistently decisive; this becomes apparent once his political loyalties are made clear. Martin is trying to serve two masters: the interests of business and the values of citizens.

On high-profile issues where citizens have taken a great interest, like missile defence, Martin serves the public, or in the Economist's words, "court[s] popularity by parading a generous social conscience." He knows that going against the majority on such a passionate issue would be a disaster for the Liberals come election time. On the other hand, as U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci explained, Canada's refusal to participate is "not a deal-breaker."

On more complex issues, like the recent trilateral agreement with the United States and Mexico, Martin serves the interests of business. The "Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America" was a statement of intent among the three countries to further harmonize their trade and security policies under a "continental" - read American - umbrella.

Canadian big business is delighted with the agreement. According to Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) President Tom D'Aquino:

The comprehensive agenda laid out by the three leaders represents a quantum leap forward for the continent, one that will improve the safety and economic wellbeing of Canadians and of our neighbours in North America. The new partnership agreement moves the North American agenda forward in a multitude of concrete and practical ways that add up to an ambitious vision for the future of our continent.

The "Partnership" endorses harmonization of external tarriffs across the three countries, a common security policy, a continental energy policy (meaning the United States will have even easier access to Canadian oil and gas), and a common policy for the movement of people - exactly what the CCCE wants. In fact, it makes a good summary of last year's CCCE discussion paper, "New Frontiers: Building a 21st Century Canada-United States Partnership in North America".

In D'Aquino's gushing words, "I think there is no doubt, as Prime Minister Martin has recognized, that the ambitious agenda laid out in this agreement certainly represents big progress, for Canada and for everyone in North America."

Is there any question which master Martin loves and which he despises? While they would prefer a Conservative government, Canada's big businesses continue to support the Liberals as the next best thing because in the end, the Liberals rarely let their populist leanings get in the way of policy.

Martin's intention to provoke the opposition into a vote of non-confidence through his omnibus budget bill - if that is, in fact, his plan - is a big gamble. The Liberals seem to have lost the ability to set the terms of public discourse. This bodes poorly for the party; without public mindshare, they must fall back on the weak promise of moderation in the face of both New Democrats and Conservatives.

The Liberals have all the advantages an incumbent could ask for: a long-running economic boom, strong finances, and opposition parties that either can't present a clear platform (the Conservatives) or can't get decent media coverage (the NDP).

Thanks to a strong economy, the government is awash in money, running massive, multi-billion dollar surpluses year after year. It has cut taxes significantly, doled out flashy increases to programs and the provinces, and still had enough left over to reduce Canada's debt-to-GDP ratio.

Thanks also to the economy, the Liberals have been able to get away, more or less, with having short-changed public services through the 1990s. Cities and towns are feeling the crunch today, struggling under downloaded expenditures, constrained in their ability to raise taxes or borrow. Slow starvation has made our public systems brittle, and only a strong economy has held at bay the stress that might otherwise blow open the fractures.

Canadians have keen eyes for hypocrisy and are growing more aware of these underlying problems, but framing coups like the Economist's "Mr. Dithers" caricature might just push voters the other way - into the waiting arms of the Conservatives.

And nothing would make Tom D'Aquino happier.

Ryan McGreal
April 1, 2005

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