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Hollow argument

Editorial by Bruce Wark


Dull, dull, dull. That was the media consensus after last week’s NS leaders’ debate. Call me crazy, but I found the debate infuriating. I even watched it twice, stopping the tape often the second time to take notes—and to groan and curse at the leaders’ leaden words. Rudyard Kipling called words “the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Apply his metaphor to the great debate and the leaders’ words fall into the class of hypnotics—tranquillizers prescribed to relieve anxiety, induce drowsiness and promote sleep.

“We will continue to be fiscally responsible,” said Tory premier Rodney MacDonald, while Francis MacKenzie pledged that a Liberal government “will be very fiscally prudent.” Fiscally responsible? Fiscally prudent? The catch phrases sounded positive and reassuring. But what the hell did they mean? My dictionary says the word fiscal refers to the complex array of taxing and spending decisions that all governments are forced to wrestle with. The buzz phrases fiscally responsible and fiscally prudent enabled MacDonald and MacKenzie to avoid explaining how they would perform the financial magic of cutting taxes and revenues while increasing spending and still balance the budget.

Darrell Dexter announced, “The NDP is committed to living within our means”—a slogan much beloved by right-wingers on both sides of the border. Stephen Harper used it in January during the federal election campaign to explain how a Tory government would restrain spending. And in sunny California last year, Terminator Schwarzenegger used “living within our means” to justify slashing social programs. Meanwhile, Dexter dispensed another right-wing bromide when he assured voters, “I am committed to making sure Nova Scotia remains open for business.” “Hey Darrell,” I shouted at my set. “What happened to the struggle for social justice?” Throughout the debate, the NDP leader sounded like a Yankee game show host repeatedly offering “a better deal for today’s families.” I laughed out loud when Grit leader MacKenzie told Dexter, “I want something more significant than a deal. What I want is a future!”

Right on, Francis! But at the moment, Nova Scotia’s future looks pretty bleak, with people heading off to work in Alberta, the ongoing crisis in the forest industry, fish plants closing, the fishery in decline and fuel prices rising. It might be the start of what American writer James Howard Kunstler calls “the long emergency,” a period in which the North American way of life will be threatened by the end of oil, climate change and other economic and environmental catastrophes. Add to all that record household debt, stagnant wages and the constant threat of unemployment, and it’s not hard to see why voters are fearful. Only MacKenzie seemed to notice the dark public mood, but he joined the other leaders in mouthing platitudes.

Rodney MacDonald talked about “growing the economy,” and “making sure that we’re competitive.” Darrell Dexter said we need to support our universities because “the best economic strategy will be an education strategy.” (So much for learning for its own sake.) Francis MacKenzie praised the premier for pushing something called “the transportation gateway concept” which apparently involves lowering the cost of shipping goods through Nova Scotia. “But at the same point, we have a role to help companies make sure their equipment is modern and competitive,” MacKenzie added earnestly. Round and round the rhetoric rolled as the three leaders dispensed their leaden tranquillizers. After awhile it was hard to tell them apart as they gabbed about “innovation,” “infrastructure” and “investment.”

Mind you, the leaders weren’t the only ones to blame for the gush of gobbledegook that cheapened their debate. The TV format sucked. Imagine having to grapple with complicated questions in just one minute or trying to refute an opponent’s arguments in 30 seconds. The format encouraged the leaders to spout the platitudinous sound bites woven for them by the spinning spiders in the political backrooms. A dull debate? No. A depressing one? Maybe. But I preferred to get mad.

Liquid paper: Due to an editing error in Johnston Farrow’s CD review of Snow Patrol’s Eyes Open, the band’s third album was referred to as its debut.

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