Washington, DC - Seeing Canada's Liberal minority government budget unveiled from Washington, I got to appreciate the fact that postmodern Prime Minister Paul Martin is a ditherer.
I was hanging out in the U.S. capital with leaders of the Community Food Security Coalition who are trying to bring together all the foodies - from organic and local farmers to soccer moms to food banks - to block the strip-mining of U.S. social policy. As they see it, President George Bush's impending tax cuts, social security privatization and military expenditures lock in an austere New American Order.
As I look out from this perch on the world, I can't avoid thinking this is the political trajectory against which last week's Canadian federal budget should be judged. Although this U.S. direction is held up as a beacon by the Globe, the National Post, the Sun chain, big business orgs and the Conservative party, the forces of a Canadian alternative are sucessfully dithering forward with a different agenda.
So, much as I'd like to complain about all its sins of omission, the federal budget needs to be acknowledged and celebrated for steering clear of the U.S. economic mission - even if it's just because the Libs fear the minority government House will fall before voters are ready to reward Martin with a sweep.
There's new money for cities, childcare, culture, the CBC, sports, seniors on low incomes, aboriginal people and the environment - another way of saying public health.
And from here on Pennsylvania Avenue, this set of priorities dissed as soft and rudderless by Canuck columnists looks brave and compassionate.
Say what you want about Washington's top gun, Bush is no waffler. It's possible his brain can't hold two ideas to dilly-dally against each other. Despite the hallowed U.S. political tradition of checks and balances, and Bush's narrow margin of victory in the popular vote, there will be no time lost worrying about concessions to dissenters. This is leadership based on pushing through, not working through. Strange things happen in lands where abortion and homosexuality are sins but greed and gluttony are not, where plowing ahead rather than tending the garden defines leadership.
The Bush agenda sets the standard for where Martin's budget could have gone were he not such a waverer - or consensus-builder, as it used to be called before the Conservatives, National Post and Globe lost their testosterone-control pills and decided to measure the art of politics by decisiveness, the outstanding virtue of brainless male warriors.
"Not necessarily dithering, but dithering if necessary" is the Canadian way. It's the way of all politics attuned to the uncertainty principle (I'd call it chaos theory if I weren't such a ditherer) and the virtues of working through issues so we can all work together another day.
I should probably confess that some personal egotism may be getting in the way of my being properly objective and negative about the budget.
As I was reading the hefty budgetary measures around honouring Kyoto and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (support for home renovations that boost energy efficiency, and a series of commitments to explore tax changes to remove economic incentives for despoiling the environment and reward people who do the right thing) I was overtaken by déjà vu.
These are precisely the measures promoted by the Coalition for a Green Economic Recovery, and no one else, in 1992. It was co-chaired by late, great Liberal stalwart Gary Gallon, New Democrat Jack Layton and a mongrel eco freak - me. We held a media conference to propose tax breaks for home renovations increasing water and energy efficiency, and tax changes to remove penalties for favouring the ecosystem.
Believe it or not, the first person to call us after we held our media conference was a researcher for Paul Martin, then in opposition to the governing Conservatives and working on new ideas for the Liberal Red Book.
Anyone who wants to know what those ideas looked like way back then can check out back issues of NOW, the only paper to catch the drift of the new green economics. We argued that if the government got its incentives right, a host of new green businesses would crop up. I think it's fair to say that the government gets the point a mere 13 years later.
Of course, many things we asked for didn't show up in the budget. One was an end to the favourable tax treatment that allows managers of workplace pension and personal retirement savings plans to invest money outside Canada. Since the government bestows hefty tax deductions on both forms of savings, we argued that the quid pro quo or favour-in-exchange was that the subsidized money should be invested in Canada to create local jobs.
The government has gone in exactly the opposite direction, allowing Canadians' subsidized pension savings to be exported, and along with them their potential job-creating, environmentally friendly benefits.
But before we address these and other needed improvements to the federal Liberal budget, we must note that Canadian diversity can proceed quite well, thank you, in its dithering way. Some achieve greatness, while others have greatness dithered upon them.