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A walk on Signal Hill

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I had just let my pug Charlotte off the leash on one of the trails crisscrossing Signal Hill when a loud-spoken voice started up somewhere on the other side of Quidi Vidi Lake. ‘Turn the stereo down’, a voice inside me responded. Then I remembered it was noon, Saturday, the scheduled time for the Federation of Labour’s demonstration at Confederation Building to protest some of the cost-saving measures in the recent budget of Premier Dwight Ball’s government.

All week long I’d been musing about the Liberal government in Ottawa responding to its revenue shortfalls by spending, and the Liberal government here doing the exact opposite. Same ideology but different necessities. Where was the common thread?

Ideologically, liberalism is supposed to create a level playing field that puts an end to entrenched privileges and gives the individual from all walks of life the rights, freedoms, and opportunities to thrive. In its purest form, liberalism is the can-do ideology of those who see no reason why anybody should be left behind.

The female voice that boomed up Signal Hill all the way from Confederation Hill sounded angry. Every now and then loud cheers interrupted it. I assumed I was hearing federation president Mary Shortall warming up the crowd.

Here we go again, I thought. People feeling betrayed.

Liberals shouldn’t have to betray anybody. After all, with their enviable position in the centre of the political spectrum, they can speak through both corners of the mouth. Pragmatic compromise, even at the risk of opportunism, always has been the political modus operandi, and no party has been better positioned to practice it than the Liberals.

 These days, conservatives are as comfortable acknowledging the disruptive nature of individualism as liberals are of accepting the need for traditional structure. The two have essentially become flip sides of the same coin.

Liberalism has been to western politics what Christianity has been to western religion: the basic principle that each individual matters. It’s also facing the same questions that have dogged organized religion for so long. In a recent article for the New York Times Book Review, American historian Beverly Gage accuses Liberals of having dropped the basics of equality and fairness from their agenda. “[T]oday’s leading Liberals don’t want to reduce inequality because they believe that inequality is the normal and righteous order of things,” she writes.

There was a time when liberalism was a well-defined alternative to conservatism. One side emphasized flow, the other structure; one progress, the other tradition; one the revolutionary finger, the other the polite curtsey; one the hand up, the other the hand down. But over the years of competing with each other, the two have become more and more alike. These days, conservatives are as comfortable acknowledging the disruptive nature of individualism as liberals are of accepting the need for traditional structure. The two have essentially become flip sides of the same coin.

And so the confusion starts. In the United States, liberals are accused of having turned their backs on the working class and quietly slipped into bed with the managerial elite. In Canada the picture is not quite as bleak; social liberalism with its faith in equality has deeper roots here. But there are no guarantees of ideological purity or consistency either. And so, while the government in Ottawa loosens the austerity belt, the government here tightens it.

Granted, public spending in this province had become unsustainable. The question was no longer whether public spending needed to be curbed, but how it was to be curbed.

There are enough trails on Signal Hill to keep you hiking over stick and stone of scrubby low forest for at least an hour. And for the full hour Charlotte and I crisscrossed, the speeches on Confederation Hill continued. I’ve been at enough similar rallies over the years to know what was said. It’s about the oldest conspiracy of all: every time governments screw up and need to be bailed out, they hit up the powerless and those who can least afford to pay.

Premier Ball and Finance Minister Cathy Bennett have defended the controversial Deficit Reduction Levy by insisting that, combined with all the other cost-cutting measures in their budget, it comes out fair. In doing so, they’ve admitted that what you see isn’t always what you get. Things that look bad may not be so bad after all. Of course, things that look good may not be as good as they seem either. But don’t worry — they know best.

 There’s been no lasting breakthrough in political thinking.

Maybe they do, but how is the average person to know? All the average person has to go on is the political brand and the promises that come with it. And as far as the Saturday crowd outside Confederation Building was concerned, the Liberal brand did not deliver. Not by a long shot.

“Thanks for coming out,” I heard the female voice from before say as Charlotte and I made our way down Signal Hill towards Forest Road. Among the other phrases I picked out were “all across the island” and “Newfoundland and Labrador”. I assumed they referred to betrayal and anger. There was defiant chanting again. I couldn’t tell whether the hated levy was told to go to hell or the entire government.

It occurred to me that in down-to-dirt practice we’ve made a lot of progress, much less so in intellectual development. There’s been no lasting breakthrough in political thinking. The more we discuss alternatives, the more we seem to return to the same old game that’s played with worn-out party logos behind which elites, whether appointed by us or by themselves, make the decisions. When mistakes are made and protests break out, they’re promptly dismissed as unrest in the usual corners and quarters of dissent.

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