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Outflanking the NDP: The Liberals and the left

Canadian Politics

Justin Trudeau. Photo from Flickr.

For Canadians of a certain age, it is tempting to see the results of the 2015 federal election as Back to the Future. The Liberal Party that dominated Canadian politics from the 1890s into the first decade of the 21st century is once again in office, and the prime minister is the son of a former Liberal PM who presided over the country for more than 15 years.

This Liberal Party is not the party of the past, however. The old Liberal “government party” was a classic centrist, catch-all, big-tent party. Liberal liberalism was thin at its ideological core: beyond con- sistent aspirations for national unity and a leading role for the federal government, Liberals were resolutely centrist and pragmatic. On economic and social policy, sometimes they tacked to the left as they did in the mid-1960s, but more often they tacked to the right, as they did in the 1990s. It was simply a matter of whether the prevailing electoral winds were coming from their left or their right.

The government-party model was apparently so durable that when the Progressive Conservatives won a majority government in 1984, Brian Mulroney had no better idea than to follow the Liberal example. Mulroney tried to be all things to all people, anchored with a majority of seats in his native Québec and strong representation across the rest of the country. The Meech Lake constitutional accord was to be the crowning step in achieving the dream of national unity. Instead, it turned into a political disaster that was compounded by the failed referendum on the Charlottetown accord. By the end, the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois wiped out the Tories in Québec and the hard-right Reform party wiped them out in the West. Both legs of Mulroney’s centrist party had collapsed; with their replacement by two new ideological parties, the ruin of the old government-party model was complete.

Canadian Dimension, February, 1976; cover art by Kelly Clark.

Jean Chrétien followed with three successive majorities, but these lacked the solid base in Québec that previous Liberal governments had enjoyed. Instead, Chrétien had to rely on Ontario, but this was a Potemkin village that relied on a serious split between the PCs and Reform/Canadian Alliance to deliver a Liberal majority. When Stephen Harper united the right in 2003, he deprived the Liberals of a reliable electoral base. That led to precipitous Liberal decline, from Paul Martin’s minority and subsequent defeat to a dispiriting decade in opposition under the inept leadership of Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.

Harper, unlike Mulroney, did not try to recreate the old government party. His was a different enterprise, based on 21st-century media and information technologies and new “big data” marketing. Instead of making catch-all appeals for broad public support, Harper focussed on identifying and micro-targeting potentially Tory-friendly niches in the electorate. Most often this was accomplished by the politics of division, the strategic deployment of “wedge issues” that confirmed Tory voters by defining threats to their interests posed by opposition parties, communicated by relentless negative advertising. Harper’s base — roughly one-third of the actually-voting electorate — has remained with the Conservatives from 2006 to 2016, and shows no signs of weakening any time soon.

Resisting the call to unite

The problem for Harper, evident in his capacity to achieve a majority in only one of three election wins, was that this base, solid as it has been, was not enough to achieve a secure grip on office. Even in 2011, his one majority was based on only 39 per cent of the popular vote. Even worse, the policies that kept the Tory base solid tended to alienate the two-thirds of Canadians not part of that base.

The maintenance of this precarious regime rested upon the division of the opposition between the Liberals and the NDP (and now in a few places the Greens as well). Harper’s wedge politics kept his base secure, but was entirely reliant on all those whom his divisive politics had alienated refusing to set aside their own partisan differences. Throughout the Harper years, the call to unite the centre-left was heard more and more strongly, especially from younger people with few ties to partisan tradition but strong aversion to Harper’s right-wing agenda.

But these calls were met with stony silence or outright rejection the closer one came to the inner councils of both opposition parties. Resistance grew deeper when the NDP replaced the Liberals as the official opposition in 2011 with its “Orange Wave” in Québec — now both parties had claims to opposition pre-eminence as the Liberals could no longer pose as the only alternative. External exhortations to unite the centre-left having failed, the NDP carried high hopes into 2015 of riding into national office by displacing the apparently floundering Liberals altogether.

The surprising secret of the 2015 election is that the centre-left did unite after all, but unexpectedly under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, who forged a winning appeal not by copying the Harper Conservatives but by offering a distinctively progressive alternative — something the NDP failed dismally to do.

Trudeau’s path to office has not always been straight, but he has shown a remarkable learning capacity and a willingness to think outside the box of conventional political wisdom. To illustrate this, take two key episodes en route to his election.

The first was the opposition response to Harper’s Anti-terrorism Act (C-51), the notorious “police-state bill” still on the books. Seizing on the opportunity of two lone-wolf terrorist attacks and hysteria around the Islamic State, C-51 provided a classic example of how the politics of fear can be used to undermine basic freedoms and the rule of law. The conventional political wisdom (based on a single instant poll) was that C-51 was a political winner for Harper and that the opposition would fall into a yawning pit if they did anything but say “Ready, aye ready.” Trudeau and the Liberals obediently complied by declaring they would vote for C-51, on the promise to amend it when they came to power.

By contrast, Tom Mulcair and the NDP forthrightly opposed C-51 in its ugly entirety. Media pundits and spin doctors pronounced that the NDP had foolishly embarked on a death spiral.

Right lesson from wrong decision

The pundits and the spin doctors were wrong. In the wake of C-51, the NDP soared in the polls while the Liberals continued to flounder. Mulcair was widely seen to have acted courageously on principle, while Trudeau was perceived as a gutless opportunist.

Astonishingly, however, Mulcair drew the wrong lesson from making the right decision, while Trudeau drew the right lesson from the wrong decision. This became evident in the decisive moment in the leader debates when Trudeau outflanked Mulcair on his left with his pledge to deliberately run deficits as a Keynesian countercyclical measure.

To the Harperites, this was rank heresy: they exulted that Trudeau had committed political suicide. Bizarrely, this appeared to be Mulcair’s thinking as well: the NDP, he declared, would never — “under any circumstances” [!] — run deficits. Wise dispensers of conventional bromides both inside and outside the NDP were adamant that any, even distant, brush with deficit-spending by the NDP would be a killer for the party. The political bean-counters neglected to take the next logical step: if that were true, the NDP was already screwed anyway as any kind of alternative to Harperism. Mulcair was left as just another greying middle-aged male in a suit promising a Harperism-lite barely distinguishable from the original.

Trudeau, on the other hand, appeared as the dashing young guy who could think outside the box and was offering a hopeful alternative. Ironically, Trudeau’s economic prescription was actually not too far away from an emerging consensus of some elements in the business community that deficits might not be such a bad idea after all. In terms of the orthodox wisdom of the political backrooms, however, Trudeau was taking the risk of branding his party as fiscally irresponsible and confirming the Tories’ negative image of him as immature, “just not ready” for the big time. It was a gamble that Trudeau won, decisively. In one deft stroke, he won over a substantial section of the progressive vote, which he carried through to Election Day. In a poll con- ducted by Abacus, a majority of those who self-identified as being on the Left indicated that they had voted Liberal.

Nor did he campaign in a traditional way. The Liberals made effective use of social media to reach younger and first-time voters in a way that no other parties matched. This is a time when throughout the western world new populist movements have been successfully assaulting the political elites from extreme right-wing positions. The Donald Trump takeover of the Republican party and then the White House and the Brexit victory in the U.K. are already in the books; Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front in France, Beppe Grillo’s bizarre Five-Star movement in Italy, and extreme right parties in other European countries are all banging loudly on the doors of power. Most of these parties campaign in non-traditional ways using social media to outflank the mainstream media. Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain offer rare examples of anti-establishment populism from the left. The Trudeau Liberals used populist methods, but on policy fall short of the improvisational radicalism of Syriza, now prisoner of an EU creditor death grip, and Podemos, which failed to make it into government. Yet in light of the Trump and Brexit victories, the Canadian Liberal model does beat its nearest alternatives.

Liberals in charge of centre-left

While it is too early to take the full measure of the new Liberal Party in power, it is clear already that it is not copying Harper’s divide-and-rule micro-targeting model. But the big-tent centrist model of past Liberal governments is not exactly what it appears to be aiming at either. Trudeau’s lofty approval ratings, virtually unchanged over a year in office, are based on the capacity of his government to retain the potential NDP (and Green) supporters swept up in the campaign. The core Tory base remains more or less firm and little effort has been expended in hunting for Liberal support on the right. Trudeau’s Liberals are in charge of a nearly united centre-left.

This is certainly how Trudeau is perceived abroad. In a rapidly darkening con- text of right-wing populism, he is viewed as one of the only representatives of liberal progressive values still standing in the West. Canada’s warm welcome to Syrian refugees, for example, is in stark contrast to the xenophobic racism on ugly display almost everywhere else.

Of course, the NDP has always argued that Liberals like to campaign from the left and govern from the right. Yet a year after the election, they have not dialed back their economic interventionism. In fact, their 2016 Economic Statement doubled down on yet larger deficits to finance an ambitious (and very much needed) infrastructure program. To be sure there was criticism of plans to mobilize private investment through a public-private infrastructure banking scheme. The process will have to be watched closely, but it is at least on the right track.

The same can be said for their national climate change plan, with an imposed carbon pricing regime that is vociferously opposed by Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, de facto leader of the reactionary right. In order to get premiers on side, Trudeau has been forced to make compromises with Christy Clark in B.C. on the Site C Dam and Petronas LNG mega-projects that have deeply angered environmentalists and First Nations.

But such compromises are a necessary part of governing a divided and contentious country. One wonders how an NDP government in Ottawa would have responded to Alberta NDP premier Rachel Notley’s open threat that she will not cooperate with the national climate plan if Ottawa does not approve the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline designed to bring Alberta oil sands bitumen to Asian markets — over fierce B.C. protests. Keeping alive any kind of climate change plan will be very difficult with the know-nothing climate change deniers assuming power in Trump’s America. In the face of these headwinds, Trudeau’s intentions at least seem admirable.

Keeping the Liberals honest

There are other reasons to argue that the Liberal victory represents something rather different from previous Liberal regimes. For years, political scientists have been bemoaning the steadily declining participation of young people in electoral politics. Millennials seem to have been tuning out altogether, with grave consequences for the future of democracy. Suddenly, in 2015 there was a reversal, a sharp spike in voting by first time voters and millennials. Almost all of these votes went to the Liberals. (There was also a sharp increase in First Nations voting, with much of this also going to the Liberals).

When one looks at the Trudeau cabinet, one sees greater gender parity and more ethnic and religious minority representation than ever before. But above all, one sees serious generational change — in remarkable contrast to the gerontocracy on view to the south, where even the Left darling of the campuses, Bernie Sanders, is a septuagenarian. One has to credit Trudeau, very much at home in the millennials’ social media world, for having recruited a wide variety of impressive young candidates (some now in his cabinet) — precisely the kind of people the NDP should have been recruiting, but by and large did not.

Where does this leave the leaderless and directionless NDP? In a word, the best role might be that of the stern voice of progressive conscience to keep the Liberals honest. In view of the onslaught of the reactionary right building around the world, it may have to be a loyal opposition.

Reg Whitaker is Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at York University and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria.

This article appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Canadian Dimension (Short Change).


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