Volume 41, Number 2: March/April 2007

Thinking Bigger, Doing Better

Without the assent of the NDP, Harper’s Conservatives are unlikely to remain in power much longer. Chances are that, in the coming months, Layton & Co. will once again bring down a minority government, sending Canadians to the polls for the second time in a little over a year.

What the best outcome of the next federal election might be is a tough question. Of course, there is one consummation devoutly to be wished by all but the most die-hard reactionaries: the sound defeat of the Tories.

The Harper government’s track record needs little review to arouse alarm at the prospect of a Conservative majority: prolonging the misguided aggression in Afghanistan, prevaricating on Kyoto, cutting social spending while plumping the defense budget, besting Bush in condoning Israeli belligerence, defunding the Court Challenges program, and countless other ill-advised and unjust actions.

Sure, they’re doing a little greenwashing – dumping Rona Ambrose as environment minister – as if assigning former Treasury Board head John Baird to that portfolio redeems the Tories’ lame approach to such vital issues as climate change or water resources! And they’re appearing to shed a layer of their social-conservative skin by backing down on resurrecting the gay-marriage debate. Minor makeovers aside, however, they are preparing to take the country ever farther down the road to an enfeebled central state, an alignment of Canada’s economy and foreign policy with that of the U.S., and the entrenchment of a punitive law-and-order agenda.

That much is clear. Less so is the likelihood of a government committed to the kinds of social and environmental policies required to maintain a decent quality of life for current and future generations of Canadians. With five parties drawing on federal funding in the next election, one could be forgiven for expecting some choice at the ballot box. But instead we’re offered a lot of old wine in new bottles.

Liberal Hopes, Neoliberal Futures

Many left-leaning citizens harbour high hopes for the renewal of the Liberal Party under Stéphane Dion, especially in light of his avowed commitment to environmental reform. However, as Murray Dobbin has pointed out, Dion has surrounded himself with all the same people behind the neoliberal Chrétien-Martin juggernaut of 1993. So, with respect to social and economic policy, a Liberal victory will take us out of the fire and back into the frying pan. And, even though Dion did name his canine companion “Kyoto,” and may well be sincerely committed to combating climate change, the Liberal Party in power has a track record on the issue that is nothing but disappointing. There is only faint hope, then, that the talk about significantly reducing greenhouse gases is more than hot air.

What about counting on the NDP to represent a progressive vision in parliament? It’s true that Layton’s leadership got off to a good start in 2004 with a campaign that promoted worthwhile fiscal reforms, like introducing an inheritance tax and a twenty-per-cent tax on profits of over ten per cent by financial institutions and closing corporate tax loopholes. But the decision in 2006 to make the Liberals the target of attack backfired badly, enabling the Conservatives to form a minority government. To boot, the party ran a Blairite campaign, took stands on crime-fighting that led some veteran party supporters to tear up their membership cards, had little to say on the economic front, and made some embarrassing flip-flops on Quebec, the Clarity Act, and a host of other issues. A nadir was reached recently when Layton appeared to betray basic party democracy by refusing to articulate clearly the 2006 NDP convention resolution on the immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

The Establishmentarian Green Gambit

The disheartening performance of the NDP, along with mounting environmental awareness, has some left-inclined voters looking hopefully at the Green Party, now that there has been a changing of the guard with former Sierra Club of Canada Director Elizabeth May taking over from small-“c” conservative Jim Harris. The contours of May’s politics remain unclear. The establishment perceives her as a borderline radical, and, although she has made some encouraging statements like advocating withdrawal from NAFTA, she’s bending too far backward in an effort to dispel any image of herself or the party as overly anti-establishment. Witness her offer to vet the Green Party’s economic program with the Fraser Institute and the C.D. Howe Institute – as if these aggressively right-wing think tanks constitute a standard of economic good sense! And if we want a neoliberal green policy, for that matter, Layton’s NDP is poised to furnish it.

So, where does that leave us? Under the dem-ocracy-challenged first-past-the-post electoral sy- stem, the best outcome for the next election would be a Liberal minority government, with strong showings from the Bloc and the NDP, and some breakthroughs for the Greens. With a Liberal minority, the Liberals can be prodded to take the social dimension of federal Liberalism – mostly a kind of brand posturing – more seriously, particularly if parties to the left of the Liberals maintain a balance of power and if strong unions and social movements exert constant pressure.

Thinking Bigger, Doing Better

But this is hardly an ideal scenario. Regrettably, there is no chance that the recommendations of the Law Commission of Canada concerning the desirability of a mixed-member proportional electoral system will be implemented any time soon. (It is worth noting that the LCC, a vital advisory body, which also took welcome positions on such issues as same-sex marriage, vulnerable workers and institutional child abuse, recently had its funding eliminated by the Tories.) But with the citizens’ assembly deliberating on electoral reform in Ontario, the question of proportional representation will remain on the political agenda in this country. There will also be a second referendum on PR in B.C. in 2009. It is an objective that must be pursued zealously at all levels of government by those who are committed to a more robust democracy.

As for the Left, more specifically, we need to do some innovative thinking on how to stem the policy drift of parties that claim to articulate our aspirations and devise ways of making leaders more accountable. Far beyond discussions of strategic voting, we need to make strategic interventions that can tip public debate toward progressive issues and stir a broad and spirited public response. This past year, the climate-change naysayers were routed, in spite of the powerful vested interests behind them, and the environment took centre-stage among the political concerns of Canadians.

Can we mobilize similar responses on other key issues? Can we challenge Canada’s mounting militarism and subservience to the American empire? Can we re-legitimize the goal of a fairer distribution of wealth and income in the public mind? Can we render our electoral system more reflective of the popular will? These are not quixotic aims – and yet there is too little concerted effort to realize them, especially beyond the boundaries of partisan parliamentary politics. In these discouraging times, some solidarity of purpose and action by progressive citizens, organizations and parties around a common minimum agenda would be a step in the right direction.

– Andrea Levy and Dennis Pilon, for the CD Collective