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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Election 2000: Me versus We
Both Stockwell Day and Jean Chrétien are claiming
the Trudeau mantle. Only one sounds convincing

Saturday, October 7, 2000

Stockwell Day took his new election racing machine to Mississauga, Ont., yesterday, where it squeaked and squealed and proved itself badly in need of a lube job. Fortunately, Mr. Day has a couple of weeks of trial runs before the Prime Minister officially waves the green flag on Election 2000.

Disorganization at the banquet hall meant that Mr. Day's planned 11:45 remarks didn't begin until 12:45. Nobody in the room seemed to mind the early start on the curried lamb, but the leader of the Canadian Alliance should probably be troubled that CTV was forced to pull the plug on a live telecast of the event. Then again, Mr. Day, apparently determined to politic differently, dispensed with the old ritual of spicing up a stump speech with a decent clip for the TV folks.

Mr. Day is not a bad entertainer, but his meandering remarks on government waste and taxes -- prime Alliance themes -- lacked both focus and passion.

The entire outing was oddly flat, a word chosen advisedly given the way in which reporters of this newspaper were harangued yesterday by both Mr. Day and his entourage for the use of the phrase "flat tax" in a headline on Friday's front page. "It's not a 'flat tax'; it's a single tax," they insisted once too often. "They're not the same thing."

In fact, it's not even a "single tax" any more, given the party's new policy document, and therein lies the clue to Mr. Day's, er, flat performance. He can't hide the fact that, suddenly, this politician of conviction is fudging his convictions.

Elections are about choices, and the coming campaign has been shaping up as one of the starkest in Canadian history.

The Liberals like to portray themselves as the party of balance: some tax cuts here, some debt reduction there and plenty of new spending programs to cure society's ills. The Alliance, meanwhile, has been crystal clear about its objectives. It seeks to reduce the size of government and recommends policies that will leave more after-tax income in the hands of individual Canadians.

Kevyn Nightingale, the Alliance candidate in the Toronto riding of Willowdale, offered a succinct spin on the differences between the parties at yesterday's event. "We believe in lower taxes and smaller governments and that you can do it yourselves. The Liberals believe in higher taxes and big government and that they can do it better than you can."

But perhaps the best way of looking at this campaign is as the "Me v. We" election.

Mr. Day hails from Alberta, the most Me province in Canada. Albertans prize self-sufficiency and revel in the image of the lone cowboy riding the southern plains. Mr. Day essentially came of age in the 1970s, the Me decade. He represents the growing sense of individualism in Canadian society.

Mr. Chrétien, on the other hand, comes out of Quebec, the most communal province in Canada. Quebeckers have felt impelled by history to band together against assimilation. Moreover, Mr. Chrétien's political outlook was shaped during the era of the Pearsonian We policies of the early 1960s.

Interestingly, both party leaders have laid claim to the image of Pierre Trudeau. In his remarks since Mr. Trudeau's death, the Prime Minister has assumed for himself the We Trudeau mantle of active, engaged governments pursuing collective goals.

Mr. Day, in contrast, has staked out the Me Trudeau, the singular gunslinger speaking brave truths in contravention of conventional wisdom.

One doesn't want to be too dogmatic about anything in politics. Certainly, plenty of Me can be found in Liberaldom. The Chrétien government has cut taxes and will cut them again in about 10 days. Nor can Mr. Day and his party be characterized as pure libertarians. They are out to curtail government, particularly central government, but not to make it disappear altogether.

Still, compared with the way in which Canadian political battles have traditionally been waged over the mushy middle of the spectrum, the clarity of the Me-We dichotomy is a welcome departure.

The differences are everywhere. Take the brain-drain issue. In his short time in the House of Commons, Mr. Day has sparred several times on this matter with Mr. Chrétien. Each time, the Alliance leader has connected the brain drain to the need for tax cuts "to keep young Canadians at home" -- the Me solution.

The Prime Minister responds by reciting the programs his government has introduced, such as the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the new university research chairs, to ensure "young Canadians have opportunities in Canada" -- the We side of the equation.

But Mr. Day let down his side this week.

He got tactical about his so-called single tax, the centrepiece of the Alliance campaign.

Rather than stick to his original idea of a 17 per cent federal rate for one and all, the Alliance leader now promises he will retain a second rate of 25 per cent on incomes over $100,000 a year.

His explanation for the change has to do with the need to cover the costs of small cuts to gasoline taxes. But the real reason is that, by leaving a higher upper-income tax rate, at least until a second Alliance mandate, he limits the damage that can be done by those who say his plans benefit the rich. Liberals have been revving up for months to pummel him with the inequity argument.

Mr. Day insists that only 3 per cent of Canadians will not benefit from the 17 per cent tax. But these are the very same 3 per cent over whose threatened drain of brains he has spilled so much emotion.

The not-exactly-flat tax isn't the only fudge in the Alliance platform. But it's the most illustrative of a tension between the purists and the pragmatists in Mr. Day's camp. You can understand the position of the pragmatists. They are Me disciples, but they understand that the We appeal almost always trump the Me in Canadian politics.

Ekos Research Associates asked Canadians last year which among 10 overall national goals for Canada they would choose for the year 2010 if they were prime minister for a day.

"Best quality of life in the world" -- a We option -- led the way. In last place was "highest standard of living of industrialized nations" -- the Me option. Having the lowest incidence of child poverty finished third; the lowest overall tax burden came third last.

Mr. Day should understand that a conservative politician usually does best when working from a principled policy base, as Mike Harris demonstrated in winning Ontario in 1995. Yesterday, the Alliance leader sounded as if the conviction had been drained from him.

He needs to get it back if he's going to convince Canadians.

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