Friday, January 14, 2011

Jack Layton & the NDP: Ho-Hum

I attended the New Democratic Party’s recent open house with Party Leader Jack Layton earlier this week. Layton was in Sudbury on a campaign-style tour, to discuss NDP priorities, and to hear from Sudburians about issues which are important to them. A good number of Northeastern Ontario MP’s were also in attendance, including Sudbury’s Glenn Thibeault, and Nickel Belt’s Claude Gravelle (along with Carol Hughes from AMK, and Tony Martin from Sault Ste. Marie; France Gelinas, Ontario MPP from Nickel Belt, was also on hand).

Before I continue, I probably should clarify a few points with regards to my own personal bias. As many of you probably already know, I’m not a member of the NDP, nor have I ever been a member of that Party. I am currently a member of the Green Party of Canada, and am possessed of a partisan bias. I have never been a big fan of Jack Layton’s, as I’ve always perceived him to be more “slick” than “substantive”. My opinion of Mr. Layton, however, has mellowed somewhat over the past several years, having seen Mr. Layton in action now on several occasions here in Sudbury. He still retains those slick qualities which are a turn-off to me, but he seems to have grown into his leadership role over time,.

Certainly, I’ve always had respect for Layton and his passionate defence of a number of issues which are important to me. I had once considered the NDP as a party which I could support because of their policy positions on many things. However, having seen the NDP in action provincially, and having witnessed the federal NDP flip-flop or outright ignore many of the issues which that Party claims to be important, I think it’s fair to say that my impression of the NDP is that it is a Party which lacks integrity inasmuch that they will sacrifice principles for electoral gains at just about every opportunity, particularly under its current Leadership.

I just don’t really trust the NDP to do the sorts of things that they say they want to do.

I believe that there are many members of the NDP who understand that the old ways of doing business in the brown economy are coming to an end, and that we need to start planning for a different kind of sustainable economy. Change will need to be transformative. However, Jack Layton and others in leadership roles in the NDP just won’t talk about the sorts of profound change Canada needs as we head into the 21st Century. The NDP continue to perpetuate the needs of the status quo over the real needs of Canadians, despite their members being engaged in moving the bar forward.

I truly think that, generally speaking, the NDP’s members are out in front of their own party on many things. I used to wonder why this was, but every time I did, I recalled that the NDP remains in the thrall of organized labour, a movement which doesn’t always possess the most progressive of outlooks on a complete range of issues. The labour movement, in my opinion, continues to have a long way to travel before they are able to shed their pro-brown economy outlook. I think they’ve started to head in that direction, mind you, and I’ve seen some progressive initiatives, such as Blue-Green Canada, come out of the labour movement. But there’s a long way to go yet.

(One last admission: I’ve been a pretty big fan of Sault Ste. Marie’s Tony Martin for quite some time now, and have followed his career for a number of years. Martin is the kind of politician that I like: hard-working and low-key, committed to his constituents, and not blinded by partisan rhetoric. It was nice to see Martin here in Sudbury this past week)

No, for me, the NDP remains a party of the status quo. And that was really on display earlier this week when Jack Layton came to town.

Ostensibly, the open house was not a pre-election campaign, as Layton made clear when he told the audience that the NDP doesn’t want an election, but would be prepared to fight if one was called. Layton took the tack that he was here in Sudbury to discuss the sorts of things which the NDP want to see in the upcoming spring budget. I’ll give the NDP the benefit of the doubt about this for now (and given their recent showing in the polls, I can understand why they don’t really want an election right now – even though I believe they will gain seats at the expense of the Liberals, who appear set to completely implode).

But with many pundits predicting an election this coming spring, I think that we have to treat these January tours by Layton and Ignatieff as filling a campaign niche as pre-writ excitement builders. Both leaders are travelling to ridings which they are targeting to hold and win (in fact, Ignatieff’s own tour is only going only to those ridings where there isn’t a Liberal incumbent).

The NDP are currently entrenched in Sudbury (and throughout most of Northeastern Ontario), so it makes sense that Sudbury and Nickel Belt will be ridings which the NDP will be defending (and from a position of strength, I might add, as MP’s Thibeault and Gravelle both have had some pretty good and positive public exposure, and have largely avoided controversy, with but one exception: flip-flopping on the long gun registry vote). I note that the Ignatieff’s current tour won’t be making any stops in Northeastern Ontario, so I think it’s probably fair to say that Liberal candidates in Sudbury and Nickel Belt will largely be on their own, these ridings having been written off by their Party. And that’s an astute assessment, in my opinion, as I don’t think the Liberals have much of a hope here in Sudbury or Nickel Belt, unless Ignatieff can pull these local campaigns up with the national campaign (although many believe that the Liberal’s national campaign will be a disaster in the coming election; I count myself amongst those who believe that Harper is going to tar and feather Michael Ignatieff from head to toe, and that’s also why I think that Layton and the NDP can make some modest gains. And why I think that Stephen Harper will finally get the prize he so desperately wants: a majority government).

Layton talked about a range of issues while he was in Sudbury a few nights ago, mostly all of which I couldn’t disagree with him on. The primary focus of the NDP for the “budget” (or, the “election” if you prefer) appears to be fairly modest: helping seniors by reforming the Canada Pension Plan; removing the 5% HST on home heating and restoring the EcoEnergy program to help with energy efficiencies; pour more money into health care to better improve the system. A number of other matters were discussed, and I know that his Party supports a really broad range of policies. Those three items, though, appear to be the priorities. Very modest. Even Ho-Hum.

That’s not to say that they’re not important. But it is to say that the NDP continues to think small. They might suggest that they’re thinking in terms of realistic and achievable goals, and I can’t disagree with that assessment. These policy items, particularly the priorities, tend to be both realistic and achievable (depending on how you define “pouring” money into health care anyway…if success on health care proves to be of the same sort of success the NDP defined last year’s “win” with EI reform, that money poured in might really just be a trickle..or a drip).

Isn’t it better to be thinking along the lines of looking for small, realistic, achievable wins, rather than offering a grand vision which would renew Canada, but likely would be much more difficult to implement, especially in a minority government situation? I’m sure many would answer yes to that question, and most NDP supporters would agree. I just can’t agree, however, because I believe that the time for proposing incremental changes has come and gone, and that only bold initiatives which are transformational are going to move us forward to where we need to be.

The NDP continues to view the political world through a lens which puts issues into silos, treating each issue as a discreet matter with its own solution or solutions. Through this lens, solutions for, say, employment policies may or may not compliment solutions for the environment, or for the economy for that matter. That’s one of the reasons why the NDP makes it easy for others to be critical of that Party, making the “tax and spend” moniker sticky.

And I saw that on display this week with Layton, who talked a very good talk about all of the things which our government needs to start doing better, most of which will cost more money. Aside from a commitment to end the billion dollar subsidy to the fossil fuel industry (which is great), there was no discussion regarding the flip side of the spending coin, that being revenue sources to pay for all of the good things Layton wants for Canadians (and he even failed to make the link between ending subsidies and using that money to help pay for programs when he had the chance).

Now look, I know that the NDP’s platform is costed, and when it comes out, it makes some of these linkages that I’m talking about. But my point is, why am I the one talking about the need for these linkages? The NDP loses in credibility every time it promises something new and fails to identify a funding source for it. Layton and the NDP need to do a better job of telling me what they are going to cut to finance their promises, or where they are going to find revenues through taxes and/or user fees. But since the culture of that Party is to look at issues in discreet silos, these things aren't top of mind.

And that, dear friends, is why I joined the Green Party, and why when listening to Jack Layton speak very well in front of a crowd of people who probably shared very similar values to my own, I felt proud, happy and content to be a Green. That’s because I know that Greens truly get it when it comes to a holistic approach to policy development. We have policies which integrate with and support one another, based on a stated set of values.

For Greens, the concept of “sustainability” is always first and foremost, particularly in economic policies. Greens understand that there is now a need for transformational change. And we aren’t scared to tell people what, exactly, we stand for, and make it available to them in writing. Sure, we’ve got a problem with delivering the message, but there isn’t any problem with the message itself.

A transformative, holistic and sustainable approach to policy and action is what Canada needs right now. Not more spin in the place of debate and discussion. Not more incremental, single-issue successes, offset by an equal number of back-sliding losses. We can’t keep doing the same sorts of things we’ve been doing for the past 50 or 60 years, because our economic activities are contributing to a climate crisis, and because we have run out of inexpensive fossil fuel energy to power our economy. Things will change, whether we want them to or not. To me, it only makes sense to plan for change, rather then to pretend that the old brown economy, and all that came with it, can continue to trundle along its merry way.

NDP members get this, too, I think. Yet they continue to support a party which perpetuates the brown economy’s status quo through its failure to want to address these important issues holistically. Sure, ending fossil fuel subsidies will help reduce greenhouse gases maybe, and free up revenue. But if the NDP truly thinks that’s the kind of transformational change Canada needs right now, they’re clearly not thinking big enough for my liking, or for Canada’s need.

I know that the NDP supports implementing a carbon emissions Cap and Trade system. I didn’t hear Jack Layton discuss that here in Sudbury. Will he discuss it on the campaign trail? Will he, if elected Prime Minister, or if he participates in a coalition government, insist that such a price on carbon is necessary, rather than just mouth some easy words about targets? An honest conversation with Canadians about our economic and environmental circumstance in the near future continues to be something which the NDP doesn’t want to have with Canadians.

The Green Party, however, does, and will continue to engage Canadians on these issues, because we understand that these are going to be the biggest issues facing Canadians over the next few and many years, and that real solutions require transformational changes. In the context of a heating planet and the end of cheap energy, I don’t think little promises for incremental action, are going to get us all that far, even if they are welcome. Go ahead, make those changes. But let us dare not be satisfied with these truly modest proposals when so much more needs to be done.

Thank you, Jack Layton, for coming to Sudbury, and for reconfirming my commitment to my Party. You’re a good man, Mr. Layton, and I know that there are many good people on your team, such as Mr. Thibeault and Mr. Martin. But your time isn’t now. Canada needs more than you are offering to give.

1 comment:

RichardE said...

Hi Steve,

As a politico in Sudbury of course I read your blog whenever I can. I don't often agree with it, but I do respect the tone with which you approach your opponents. It is far too lacking in our political discourse.

You'd make a good New Democrat.

Richard