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Keep True, NDP

Keep True: A Life in Politics

Howard Pawley

University of Manitoba Press, 2011, 304 pages.

Howard Pawley was elected to the Manitoba legislature in 1969 and served as a cabinet minister in the first NDP government of Manitoba. For most of the 1980s, he governed as premier of the province. “Keep True” is his political autobiography. In his privileged role as both insider and player, Pawley comments on a range of major issues that he faced in public office, from the implementation of public auto insurance in Manitoba to the free trade debate of the late 1980s and the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord. His account adds to the historical record on these issues. It also has a wider message, offering the reader advice on how to build a movement for political change.

Given his credentials, Pawley seems well qualified to give such advice. It is clear from his story that he is an astute political tactician. Throughout his career, he courts the activist vote, mentioning his involvement with a Cuba solidarity group in the early 1960s and his support for refugees from Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s. He consistently positions himself on the left of his party, at least in his heart if not always in his speeches. Such discretion may be necessary, as it wins him support among core constituencies without alienating moderates and non-supporters. As leader he seeks party unity, showing loyalty to allies and a measure of generosity to opponents within his party, while seeking alliances outside the party when possible in order to build consensus. If he cannot reach a consensus with opponents, he suggests useful ways to fight; in reflecting on the battle for public auto insurance, for instance, he considers the measures that might have been taken to divide opposition and drive a wedge between insurance agents and private insurers. But above all Pawley emphasizes the need for political activists to be activists — not just to philosophize, but to organize and do the practical work of party building.

In saying this, however, Pawley emphasizes that pragmatism is not everything; when criticizing the governments of Bob Rae and Tony Blair (though not, curiously, the Manitoba NDP government of Gary Doer which repudiated Pawley’s effective use of fiscal deficits to fight unemployment), he says that pragmatism “should not come at any price. One must, after all, live with oneself.” A political leader must “keep true” to his convictions.

Of course, it is easy to give such advice. The question that arises naturally is whether the author of the advice followed it himself. Why did he not go much further in government than those social democratic leaders he criticizes?

Was it a failure of analysis? When Pawley takes up the issue of the Canada–US Free Trade Agreement, he begins by saying that he is not “doctrinaire” and generally prefers a freer system of trade to one based on protectionism.

This, however, is nothing more than conventional wisdom. It does not ask what should have been asked, at least by a social democrat. For the real question was protection of what? People or private profit? Labour or capital? What Pawley does not say is that the FTA and all successor treaties amount to capital punishment for social democracy. They outlaw social democracy by making measures to exercise democratic and popular control over business so outrageously expensive that an elected government could not take them; even modest environmental protection would come at an exorbitant price. Although Pawley criticizes Bob Rae for not implementing public auto insurance in Ontario, he does not say how or whether Rae’s government could have done so under the free trade agreements.

Similarly with the Meech Lake Accord, which Pawley supported as premier and continues to defend. Pawley repeats the claim of the Mulroney government that the accord was necessary to keep Québec in Canada, even though today, 22 years after the accord’s demise, Québec remains in Canada. While he supports the use of government to achieve greater social equality, Pawley either fails or refuses to see the accord for what it was, a plan to strip the federal government of its powers. Such a plan could only have worked to level down Canadian social programs to the much lower American standard. Pawley resents the personal attacks made upon himself and the other first ministers by Pierre Trudeau. But his feeble and apologetic defence of the accord withers before the insults and stinging rebukes of Trudeau that were so much more effective in galvanizing public opinion to what was really at stake in the legal fine print.

But what is most regrettable is that Pawley says nothing about the path never taken, for there were alternatives. Indeed, the early 1980s were a time of the most radical challenges to capitalism that social democrats had ever attempted. One might look, for instance, at the Mitterand nationalizations of the 16 largest industrial and financial groups in France, or the Alternative Economic Strategy of the left led by Tony Benn in the British Labour Party, or the Meidner plan for a wage earners fund in Sweden.

Of course, Manitoba is a small province and not a sovereign state. But Pawley does raise the possibility of a Manitoba oil and gas corporation, with revenues to be invested in an Alberta-style heritage fund. Good idea. Unfortunately, it is mentioned only in passing; we are never told why his government did not act on it. Or what about a public banking system similar to the Alberta Treasury Branch? The idea is not mentioned, although the previous NDP administration of Edward Schreyer passed legislation to implement one. Since such schemes were implemented by Conservative governments, why couldn’t his government have done the same? Would an agenda of such policies have made his government unelectable? Undoubtedly they would have been barred by free trade agreements, but Pawley was not thwarted by such agreements. Was there really nothing to be done?

There thus appears in his memoirs an enormous vacuum where there should have been a vision. It is perhaps this that led his government to appear adrift, without a progressive agenda, and which allowed bitter and unproductive debates over abortion and French language rights to fill the void, throwing his government into reactive mode and deflecting it from dealing with bread-and-butter issues.

Was the absence of vision at bottom a failure of leadership? That is, was it all Pawley’s fault? Some have said he was too dependent on advisors with their own agendas, some perhaps hostile to his own. His own account does not reflect on this question. But would it really have been different with someone else at the helm? Certainly, Pawley fared no worse than most of the left of his day, in most cases no more successful in implementing a political alternative than his own government.

Keep True is a better read than its rather lame title might suggest. Pawley recounts his career in a clear, crisp and concise manner. His record of his time in government can be helpful in teaching activists how to build a progressive movement capable of winning political office. This would be of no small benefit: as the crushing of the Occupy movement shows, those who wish to effect democratic change will need the power of government as well as the support of the streets. But if activists need guidance on what to do when they form government, they will need to look further.

Canadian Dimension May/June 2013

This article appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. SUBSCRIBE NOW to get a refreshing and provocative alternative delivered to your door 6 times a year for up to 50% off the newsstand price.

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James Petras, professor and author

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