What happens in Canadian politics often matters to people, but what we see is often irrelevant.
Question period in the House of Commons and in the Alberta legislature has degenerated over the decades into a points-scoring show full of blustering and posing. It usually does not score points. The late John Turner had things memorably right when he called question period in Ottawa “bull---- theatre.”
The political talk shows on television are about on the same level; I long ago stopped watching them.
Lobbying is often done behind closed doors.
Debates over policy and administrative decisions take place in fairly chaotic and poorly informed settings that drift in and out of public view.
The federal Liberals often obscure their goals with virtue signalling, wishful thinking, and erratic judgment. The federal New Democrats never see a problem they don’t think money will fix. And the federal and Alberta Conservative parties have replaced policy discussion with stoking of emotions, usually anger; that approach held in their leadership campaigns.
If you went by the breathless media reports, Pierre Poilievre’s election as federal Conservative leader marked a watershed moment.
In fact, very little has changed in the electoral map. Most Conservative party members were registered for the leadership vote in the same old regions — Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, northeastern British Columbia, and many of the smaller centres of southwestern Ontario. The Atlantic provinces and Quebec showed little interest. The only large city with a reasonably strong showing was Calgary.
Poilievre will be left trying to drum up votes in the Toronto-area suburbs. He will pursue the old Reform Party goal of Alberta-Ontario coalition. The only question will be whether he will make any serious effort in Quebec.
In Alberta, the choice by late September boiled down to Danielle Smith or Travis Toews. Smith was offering the more lurid policy choices. Toews was offering a steadier and more competent hand, but was adopting stances meant to appeal to the same grievances that Smith was exploiting.
Smith had the advantage of being in line with a tradition that has coloured the province’s politics since 1935. That was the year that the election of a Social Credit government saw Alberta voters choose irrational gestures of hope over conventionality — as represented by the promise of $25 monthly Social Credit “dividends.” They later turned to a somewhat more sober reliance on oil money.
The contest between Smith and Toews looks like a choice between the two styles of government that Albertans have veered between ever since — William Aberhart versus Ernest Manning, Peter Lougheed versus Ralph Klein.
Some things have fundamentally changed, however.
One new element is an attack on institutions. Smith and Toews both want to intensify a steady degradation of federal authority. Either would have plenty of company in other provinces. Empire-building is a common theme among politicians.
Poilievre blatantly heads in the same direction. He has attacked the Bank of Canada. He is also engaged in an insidious campaign to undermine the media, a campaign intended to destroy the notion of reliable information and to leave supporters of all parties listening only to voices that constantly reinforce their preferred beliefs.
The other new element is the Conservative push for massive changes to basic policy. Underneath the constant noise lies a clear intent to privatize large swaths of health care and to dismantle the Canada Pension Plan.
Jason Kenney told an interviewer late in September that only Covid-19 had prevented him from moving faster and deeper with health privatization. His government has been trying for a couple of years to persuade Albertans to accept replacing the CPP with a highly flawed Alberta Pension Plan.
Poilievre would move in the same directions but he is far less willing so far to make them the core of his message to voters. He sees more potential in exploiting emotions and in sniping at small matters that serve as distractions.