REMEMBER Canada before Brian Mulroney? Consensus and prosperity reigned, according to the authors of this book. We had confidence in our national economic future and we all shared a faith in our uniquely communitarian and compassionate society.
Really? I seem to have been living in a different country, though I was here all the time and even spent three months traversing the land by rail only a few months after Mulroney's 1984 election victory. The Tories had yet to have any impact, but I sensed the country was deeply pessimistic about itself. Many ordinary people outside the political process felt some important matters in our national life had gone terribly wrong during the Trudeau years. They were mad as hell at the central government for, among other things, squandering their tax dollars - the vicious 1982 recession, from which Ottawa's local economy was cosily insulated, had, in many minds outside the capital, raised questions about the levels of taxes and public spending. People outside Quebec were also angry that the federal government appeared to be continually pandering to Quebec at the expense of other provinces. And many citizens were already nervous about how the changing world economy was going to affect Canada's ability to generate wealth. Economic malaise, after all, was one of the main reasons for Mulroney's election as prime minister eight years ago, no matter what we may think of him now.
But according to George Radwanski, Trudeau's hagiographer, Mulroney and his mean-minded band of followers have pillaged the land, run down our carefully constructed mixed economy, and worse, assaulted the Canadian soul. This book is long on emotional hand-wringing and short on facts, but who needs facts when they're rewriting history? All you need is indignation and verbiage, and Radwanski and Julia Luttrell blast away with plenty of both.
Let me illustrate the embarrassing vacuity of their thinking with a few examples. Among the many sins the Tories are accused of by these writers are the dismantling of the railways, the diminishment of the CBC, and the undermining of medicare. First, the railways: let's get some history straight. It's true that Via Rail, the national passenger system cobbled together during the Trudeau era from the ailing passenger services of CN and CP, was curtailed by the Tory government. But it's also true that Mulroney inherited a dreadful mess with Via. Any intelligent historian will have to conclude that it was really the Pearson-Trudeau Liberals who killed coast-to-coast rail passenger travel in Canada. For 20 years they did little to modernize the system, partly because some heavy hitters in their party thought rail travel was already an antique notion. And it was the Liberals who initiated passenger-service cutbacks, not the Tories. Jack Pickersgill, remember, a Liberal transport minister and later president of the Canadian Transport Commission, spoke out repeatedly against subsidies for rail passengers. By the time the Tories took office, passenger travel on many lines was such an unpleasant experience that you couldn't even pay (i.e. subsidize) enough people to use the trains to make them anything close to economically viable. And why should a strapped economy continue to pump hundreds of millions of tax dollars into passenger trains that carry so few people? We might as well bring back Red River carts while we're at it, and pay people to ride them, too.
I can't resist pointing out another howler in all this Liberal propaganda. Radwanski and Luttrell claim the railway as a vital symbol of Canada's national way of doing things, a distinct mix of public and private enterprise that they imply is morally superior to the way the Americans built their country. People who still buy this line, if you'll forgive the pun, are very careless shoppers indeed. The CPR and the CNR were public enterprises in about the same way as the recently failed US savings- and- loan institutions were. Public money was used to bail out private profit-making gone awry. Anyone who thinks we ought to take pride in being a country that fills private pockets with public money, as we did in building the CPR, or rescues commercial incompetence, as we did when we nationalized five bankrupt railways and renamed them the CNR, has, to my way of thinking, a warped sense of high achievement.
Now the CBC. Radwanski and Luttrell don't bother to offer evidence that the Tories are destroying our national public
broadcaster and hence our national culture. The fact that the CBC budgets have been cut apparently speaks for itself. But this book doesn't name any great Canadian shows that have been cancelled on radio or television, shows around which the nation used to gather, dramas that have given us common symbols and stitched our national fabric together. Know why? Because there weren't many such programs even before Mulroney. The truth is that apart from "Morningside" and a few other stellar radio shows, and apart from "The National" and "The Fifth Estate" on TV, the CBC produces very little regular programming that catches the national imagination. The good shows are still in place. Can it be that the Tories were onto something when they forced the Corporation to wring the fat out of its system? Whether or not that's true, the problem with the CBC isn't Mulroney or, for that matter, the Liberals before him. The problem is a massive and chronic failure by the Corporation itself, which has never managed to produce the compelling drama series and films that all that money and the proven reserves of Canadian talent should have spawned. Radwanski, "one of Canada's leading public policy thinkers," as the dust-jacket would have it, doesn't trouble himself with such minutiae. To him and his co-author the problem is that demon Muldoon, period.
Then there's medicare. Again, few facts are introduced to distract the reader from the authors' cascade of spleen. Radwanski believes our national health-care system is in trouble. I believe it will survive. And I've just offered as much evidence for my position as he does for his.
If there were a prize for Most Intellectually Dishonest Book of the Year, The Will of a Nation would be a leading contender. Virtually every chapter is shallow propaganda. The one issue on which I find myself in agreement with these writers is Mulroney's handling of the constitution. I believe, as they do, that the PM, for his own political purposes, aroused passions and raised expectations in Quebec that he subsequently couldn't satisfy. He may even have ripped apart the country permanently. I'm no supporter. But I'm not swallowing these dusted-off Liberal campaign speeches either.