“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best” –
German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898)
Today’s politicians might be forgiven for amending the Iron Chancellor’s observation to something like this: Politics is the art of learning to live with the impossible.
There are plenty of examples in Canada and the United States.
Take the American struggle with health insurance. It’s been a huge issue for a quarter-century, ever since Hillary Clinton tackled the file for her husband, President Bill. There was some optimism that they would come up with what Americans really need: a Canadian-style single-payer insurance scheme to protect everyone, regardless of age, medical condition or ability to pay. The Clintons could not do it. The insurance lobby was too powerful.
Barack Obama set out to make health insurance his signature domestic accomplishment. But the best he could do was the Affordable Care Act (known as ObamaCare), a patchwork that infuriated its opponents without satisfying its proponents. Donald Trump promised to scrap ObamaCare and replace it with something much better. But the replacement law, in the version before Congress, is dramatically worse. It would strip more than 20 million low-income Americans of their health insurance while raising the cost for millions of others.
Part of the problem is the distrust that so many Americans feel toward their government. It is odd: they will trust profit-driven insurance companies to take care of their health needs, but not their elected representatives.
Distrust of government also stands between the United States and meaningful gun control. When I lived in the U.S., I came across Americans who told me they kept as many as six or seven firearms in their home, because they could not trust the authorities to protect their family.
Gun control will not happen until the U.S. repeals the Second Amendment – the right to keep and bear arms – and that is not going to happen. It is politically impossible.
In Canada, the problem is not so much distrust of government as it is fear of constitutional change. Earlier this month, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, a Liberal, called for the reopening of constitutional negotiations to, among other things, formally recognize Quebec as a distinct society within Canada. It would tidy up that messy loose end from the 1982 round – the refusal of Quebec’s Parti Québécois government to sign the revised Constitution, which included the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, well aware of what happened to Brian Mulroney’s Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, quickly slammed the door. "We are not opening the Constitution," he declared.
Yet it is time, surely, to rethink the Constitution. Interprovincial trade and commerce, for example, has moved from the Confederation era of telegraph lines, canals and wagon roads to one of pipelines and high-speed internet. What authority, if any, should a provincial government have over pipelines that cross its territory? The question is current because of the confrontation between Alberta and British Columbia over the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline to carry Alberta oil across B.C. to the coast.
The federal government has approved the project, but is that good enough in this time of heightened environmental concern? British Columbia would say not. And what about the rights of First Nations whose lands are on the pipeline route? Nobody thought about the environment or First Nations when the British North America Act was adopted 150 years ago.
And what about the dear old Senate? It’s a relic of bygone days if there ever was one. Every prime minister stews about the upper house, and they all discover it is impossible to do anything about it. Trudeau wanted to make the Senate less partisan and more independent. So far, he has succeeded only in encouraging it to obstruct his budget and legislative program.
It’s time to abolish the Senate. If that is impossible – and it is – Trudeau will have to learn to live with the impossible.