Yann Martel: It’s a Question of Character

(Through Rose-Coloured Glasses)

Saturday, April 30, 2011
Project Democracy

by Yann Martel

It’s a question of character. Policies, after all, come and go; they can be changed when the circumstances require it. Throughout Canadian history, governments of whatever stripe have ruled—spending or cutting, creating or abolishing—not according to party ideology but to the perceived needs of the nation. So, for example, the Liberals favoured free trade in 1911, but opposed it in 1988. More recently, the Conservative party, which espouses a populist, small-government, hands-off approach to governance, embarked on a massive spending spree after the 2008 crash.

What this shows is that in Canada, essentially, any government will do. Two mechanisms explain this miracle of governance:

First, most prime ministers—at least those who have lasted more than a few months—have grown into their role. They’ve looked beyond the narrow confines of their party platforms and seen what the nation actually needs.

Second, when a prime minister has failed to rise to the occasion, he or she has lost power at the next election.

The relations between the Prime Minister who has a fragile hold on a great deal of power and the millions of citizens who each have a solid hold on a very small parcel of power is an ever shifting equilibrium.

To maintain that equilibrium requires of the Prime Minister astuteness, toughness, vision, integrity and all the other qualities that make for a leader. Citizens, meanwhile, must remain informed, must see beyond their own self-interest, must participate.

The whole game is called democracy, and it’s a crazy, delicate, wonderful game. It’s worked because most of us have played according to the rules. But that’s changing. I’m an anyone-but-Harper-as-PM not only because of policy differences, but because I don’t think he’s playing the same game.

The controlling of everything and everyone, the shutting down of Parliament to avoid a vote, the elimination of the long-form census without any consultation, the appalling treatment of Helena Guergis, the campaign-in-a-bubble, it goes on and on, and the man behind all this creeps me out because I don’t feel in him the spirit of Canadian democracy. He rather feels like an import from the American Tea Party.

And he doesn’t read, my pet peeve. Works of the literary imagination seem to play no role in his vision of life. As far as anyone knows, he hasn’t read a novel, play or poem since his university days. Is that who we want at the pinnacle of our political elite, a stiff, triumphantly post-literate ideologue, a man who doesn’t even seem to like people let alone books?

I say again: it’s a question of character. Please, vote for anyone but Harper. Check out www.projectdemocracy.ca to find out how you can make your vote really count in your riding.

Yann Martel is the author of a collection of short stories and three novels, most notably Life of Pi, which won him the 2002 Man Booker Prize, was a global bestseller and is being adapted to the silver screen by Ang Lee. His most recent novel is Beatrice and Virgil.

Martel also ran a guerilla book club with Stephen Harper, sending the Prime Minister a book every two weeks for four years, a total of one hundred and one novels, plays, poetry collections, graphic novels, children’s books and so on. Each gift was accompanied by a letter explaining the worth of the book. For all his efforts, Martel received not a single reply from the Prime Minister. The first fifty-five letters have been published as a book,What is Stephen Harper Reading?. The complete letters will appear eventually. Yann Martel lives in Saskatoon.

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