Electoral dilemmas and participatory theatre

A voting sign hangs in the window at 85 Thorncliffe Park Drive in East York, Toronto. Photo by Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star.

It’s that time again when we get to exercise that limited democracy that we are allowed in our centralized system of ‘representative’ government hemmed as it is by corporate money and power.

Those we get to choose from are largely part of a class of professional politicians, mostly former lawyers or business executives with the occasional teacher thrown into the mix. Many such as Andrew Scheer have never been anything but career politicians. It’s a sad kind of symbolic democracy as opposed to any real self-rule with democratic decision-making embedded broadly in workplaces and communities. Then democracy in Canada might be a question of everyday life rather than the periodic sanctioning of parliamentary royalty.

Still, I can’t quite bring myself to spoil my ballot or do a none-of-the-above as many of anarchist friends recommend. Or as one wag had it “I’m not voting because I never liked participatory theatre.”

The choices this time may offer slightly more opportunity than four years ago when it was a referendum on the authoritarian neo-conservatism of the unpleasant Stephen Harper. Then Justin Trudeau, donning the mantle of our sensitive feminist saviour, swept the country with enthusiastic ‘sunny ways’ optimism. He told several whoppers including a high profile promise that this was the last time Canadians will vote using the restrictive first-past-the-post voting system that discounts anything but constituency plurality votes. Well guess what? That promise didn’t even make it out of the first year of his mandate.

In the course of their 2015 sweep the Liberals managed to snooker an ambitious NDP. That party’s backroom in alliance with a group of MPs around leader Tom Mulcair (Michael Cassidy and Hélène Laverdière, among others) sought to don a responsible image based on sober spending and balanced budgets. As the official opposition (after Quebec’s Orange Wave of 2011) it believed that it was only a few cautious steps from power. To the disgust of many party loyalists it donned New Labour clothes borrowed from the UK’s Tony Blair. A good barometer of this was its foreign policy positions – undying love for all things Israeli and gentle support for regime change in Venezuela and elsewhere.

The Liberals, equipped with facile promises and deficit spending commitments, easily outflanked the NDP to the left, inheriting the popular anger against Harper to craft a landslide. Financial rectitude replacing social justice didn’t quite cut it for the NDP. It lost over half its seats dropping from a high of 103 seats to just 44.

This time around it feels different. Theoretically the Liberals should have been vulnerable from the left given their betrayal of promises from electoral reform to climate change. Any time they came up against the interests of corporate Canada, whether it was SNC-Lavalin or Kinder Morgan and its Trans Mountain Pipeline, the Liberals caved. But the NDP entered this election season in rough shape. The party had gone through a bruising leadership race. Many incumbents had decided to retire. Jagmeet Singh, a left wing Sikh and Ontario MPP, easily won the leadership race after defeating a number of sitting MPs like Charlie Angus and Niki Ashton.

The coalition behind Singh included the Sikh community, leftovers of the Mulcair camp and the party’s backroom who calculated the inexperienced politician would be the easiest to control. In the beginning Singh looked pretty hapless, lacking the glibness and ability to pounce so necessary in the mediascape of superficial politics. The NDP tumbled in the polls with the clear danger it might lose official party status. Singh barely won a by-election in Burnaby but has since surprised many, including despairing insiders, with his performance during the campaign. He has started to come across as a kind of anti-politician rising above the partisan bickering of Trudeau and Scheer.

The NDP campaign with its message of “we are in it for you” has moved back to traditional social democratic ground stressing progressive tax reform and attention to climate, housing and poverty issues. There is some hope that new blood amongst younger NDP candidates (a record 27 Indigenous) might just solidify a clearer social justice stance for a party that has lacked solid philosophical moorings tending to blow with the wind in recent years. As in the past, new left caucuses such as Momentum and Courage have started to gather to encourage such a development. But we are in a situation of climate emergency where we need not some long march to eventual transformation but significant institutional change in the short term.

The issue context for this election has a real sense of urgency about it. Climate change has climbed to the centre of many voters, particularly younger ones, concerns. Hundreds of thousands hit the streets in September to give voice to their dread about an unlivable climate in the near future. The conservative right, committed as they are to carbon capitalism, have tried to deflect voters concerns with a series of artificial moral panics about being “swamped by immigrants particularly refugees” or being “having economic security undermined by runaway deficits and a flood of taxes”. Singh’s bon mots during the leader’s debate comparing “Mr Deny (Scheer) to Mr. Delay (Trudeau)” were particularly apt. Neither leader has the inclination or stomach or policies to tackle the climate emergency.

This has led an increasingly large number of voters to consider voting for Elizabeth May and the Green Party who have the clearest policies and plans to deal with the climate, if little else. This has lead to an almost pathological response from many NDPers who seem to feel they ‘own’ the centre-left of the political spectrum. Only Conservative ranting against Trudeau, as personally responsible every evil in the world, rather than simply an (admittedly annoying) run-of-the-mill Liberal opportunist can compete with NDP bile over the Greens.

Fact is, these two parties need really to merge (or at least in the short term cooperate) to become a significant enough force to challenge Conservatives and Liberals with their joint commitment to carbon capitalism. What’s more, both have spotty records on number of issues and are prone to an opportunism that plagues the centre-left particularly when it closes in on the levers of power.

We may be better off with them holding a minority veto than dealing with the pressures and limits of government, but that together they could rally close to a third of the electorate and challenge the electoral arithmetic even in our undemocratic first-past-the-post system. Minority government (depending on its make up) may provide more possibilities to champion climate health and the fight against galloping inequality.

An alternative to a capitalism based on environment-destroying growth is once again not on the ballot. This would require the kind of institutional changes that would allow us to end corporate rule and redefine what we mean by democracy. A pole pushing such changes is essential if we are to survive as a species. In Canada it could emerge either inside or outside (hopefully both) of a new centre-left political formation that is more open and democratic than anything currently on offer.

My personal prediction? Conservative minority with a resurgent Bloc Québécois with the task of keeping it in power or not. The Bloc are now faced with a choice between nationalist opportunism or seeing the lot of the Quebecois as part of a fragile broader world.

Richard Swift is a longtime activist, journalist, author and former editor of New Internationalist magazine for more than two decades. His most recent book is SOS: Alternatives to Capitalism (2014) and he is the producer of a 2013 CBC Ideas program on degrowth.

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