John Ibbitson’s “incumbency hypothesis” in this fall’s Canadian provincial elections .. truth or dare?

Sep 21st, 2011 | By | Category: Canadian Provinces

One of the things keeping democracy in Canada alive — in the face of recurrent improbable odds, in Ottawa and elsewhere — has been a steady supply of very good people who watch over and write on the Canadian political scene (in all its vast diversity and both official languages).

A historical list could go on … and on, and on, etc. At or close to the top of my own would be Bruce Hutchison (1901–1992), who was born in (far) eastern Ontario, grew up in BC, and worked for the Victoria Times, the Winnipeg Free Press, and the Vancouver Sun. Probably his finest  book-length contribution to our local political literature was his 1952 biography of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, aptly entitled The Incredible Canadian — and currently available in a new 2011 edition, with an introduction by Vaughn Palmer.

At or close to the top of my own list of Mr. Hutchison’s still extant successors is John Ibbitson, who was born in 1955 in  the excellent small town of Gravenhurst, Ontario, educated (in English literature) at the University of Toronto, and is now Ottawa Bureau Chief for the Globe and Mail. I do not at all sympathize with Ibbitson’s broad ideological or philosophical posture (essentially right-wing and certainly conservative). But for some years now I have  found his newspaper writing on first Ontario regional and then Canadian federal politics not just instructive but frequently stimulating, intermittently admirably high-minded, and often enough rooted in some attractively deeper grasp of our sometimes all too complex (far) northern North American geographic moods.

John Ibbitson at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival in Ontario, September 19, 2010.

Two current Ibbitson pieces — one from Monday’s Globe and Mail print edition (“Harper’s moment to entrench Conservative politics has arrived”) and the other first posted on the newspaper’s website at 6 AM EDT Tuesday morning (“Are opposition parties’ calls for change falling on deaf ears?”) — nicely illustrate his unique contemporary genius. They also suggest, I think, a potential shift of focus for all we ardent Canadian political junkie-observers of 2011. Ottawa (as Mr. Harper has always wanted?) is becoming less and less interesting. The real action is moving to the provinces, and that may be where it will stay for some time? It has been in the provinces, after all, that  the Canadian service state of the later 20th century has for the most part arisen. And that is probably where most of its fate in the earlier 21st century will be decided.

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Manitoba NDP premier Greg Selinger on the campaign trail, September 14, 2011. Photo — Ross Romaniuk, Winnipeg Sun.

No one is always perfect. I found John Ibbitson’s ruminations on “Harper’s moment to entrench Conservative politics has arrived”— keyed to the start of the parliamentary session in Ottawa on Monday —  a bit drab and perfunctory. But that may not really be Ibbitson’s fault. The central message of the piece is that (even with less than 40% of the Canada-wide popular vote, I would still stress myself) PM Harper at last has a majority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons, and can now more or less do what we have long known he wants to do all too well. Ho hum, etc.

On the other hand, Tuesday’s “Are opposition parties’ calls for change falling on deaf ears?” has reminded me of just why I admire John Ibbitson’s writing on the Canadian political scene as much as I do. It deals in a provocative and striking way with the provincial election campaigns currently in motion in Ontario, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, PEI, and “Saskatchewan (and Alberta, sort of).”

The beginning and end of the piece nicely summarize its main theme — which puts a crisp finger on something that has at least some intriguing grains of truth about it, and has not been widely recognized, I think — at least as yet: “In provincial elections across the country, incumbency now seems to be an asset everywhere. Mere co-incidence, or have voters decided that the upheavals of the May 2 federal election are enough change for one year? … in every province where an election is underway, the incumbents – Kathy Dunderdale in Newfoundland, Robert Ghiz in PEI, Dalton McGuinty in Ontario, Greg Selinger in Manitoba and Brad Wall in Saskatchewan – have reason to feel encouraged. Time for a change? Maybe not so much.”

Public sector union activists prepare for October 6, 2011 Ontario election at Kempenfeldt Bay on Lake Simcoe. Nice work if you can get it?

This isn’t all that’s going on in Canadian regional politics at the moment, as best as I can make out. In some other degree, at any rate, it’s not just change or upheaval in the abstract that voters are starting to wonder about: it’s still more movement to the right. (Saskatchewan and Newfoundland don’t quite fit this second reading on the surface, but these surfaces are misleading. The incumbent Conservatives are well ahead on the Rock, eg, but the NDP has moved past the Liberals in the latest poll. And then remember alleged right-wing Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s virtually socialist position of 2010, on the province’‘s potash industry.)

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Federal CCF Party delegation attending the conference of Commonwealth Labour Parties in London, England, September 1944. Left to right : Clarie Gillis, David Lewis, M.J. Coldwell, Percy E. Wright, and Frank Scott.

Whatever else, there is certainly something to John Ibbitson’s “incumbency hypothesis” on what’s happening in the fall 2011 Canadian provincial election campaigns. And it is one of the various high virtues of his inspirational Canadian political writing that it can get you thinking your own higher thoughts.

I have found myself thinking about another name from my historical list of very good people who have watched over and written on the Canadian political scene. The suspect here is F.R. “Frank” Scott (1899–1985), born and bred in anglophone Quebec, and a “poet, lawyer and social philosopher” who for “more than forty years … helped to form the Canada we know today.” And I am thinking in particular about a workmanlike volume he prepared for the British Commonwealth Relations Conference of 1938, entitled Canada Today : A Study of Her National Interests and National Policy.

Maurice Duplessis (left), premier of Quebec, and Mitch Hepburn (right), premier of Ontario, in the later 1930s, at Hepburn’s Elgin County farm.

In a chapter of this late 1930s volume on the “Nationalist Movement in French Canada” Frank Scott wrote about “a new provincial party” in Quebec, “the Union Nationale, which has been in power since 1936, and … is pledged to give to the French Canadian the place in Confederation which he feels has been denied him. Its leader is Maurice Duplessis … His activities since taking office have been varied but always colourful. He and his fellow premiers , Mr. Hepburn of Ontario and Mr. Aberhart of Alberta, provide the only vigorous — if erratic — leadership to be found in Canadian politics today.”

Some 73 years later, a British part-time student of the global economy has been telling us about a “failure of political will both in the EU and US which is starting to make the contemporary economic scene resemble that of the 1930s.”  It may be, John Ibbitson’s “incumbency hypothesis” has finally made me think, that in Canada we are starting to develop some political resemblances to Frank Scott’s Canada of the 1930s as well.

Bible Bill Aberhart, premier of Alberta — on the radio in the 1930s.

Or, you might say, the more Stephen Harper actually does manage to perpetrate his long-heralded designs on the Canadian body politic of the early 21st century, the less important his own role in Ottawa will become. And the more we will start looking to such provincial politicians as “Kathy Dunderdale in Newfoundland, Robert Ghiz in PEI, Dalton McGuinty in Ontario, Greg Selinger in Manitoba and Brad Wall in Saskatchewan,” for “the only vigorous … leadership … in Canadian politics today.”

History, as has been so memorably said by another poet of another time and place, “has many cunning passages.”

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