Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Politics of Polarization Not Suitable for Greens

“Partisanship is what’s strangling democracy.” – Elizabeth May, Vancouver Sun, Friday May 6, 2011 (“May is only one voice, but it will be loud”)

Unquestionably, with the election of more Conservative and NDP MP’s to the House of Commons, we can expect to see the most polarized parliament in Canada’s history. With the moderating influence of the Liberal Party whittled down significantly, the parties who cling to more extreme ideologies will have the run of the House for the next 4 years.

Canadians may scoff at the notion that the Conservatives and New Democrats are “extremists” in any context. Certainly, we’ve witnessed Stephen Harper’s apparent move to the centre over the course of his minority parliaments (from his refusal to run deficits to tallying up the biggest deficit in Canadian history), and the newspapers continue to report on the NDP’s apparent support of small businesses and other platform planks which seemingly have positioned Layton’s party as more centrist.

Only time will tell if these positions continue to be maintained. Already, we are seeing fractures occurring along ideological lines, with comments being interpreted as “anti-American” made from the NDP’s deputy leader, Thomas Mulcair, which question statements made by U.S. President Barack Obama about photos taken of Osama bin Laden. Calls have been made by Conservatives MP’s to end the short form census, and of course during the election campaign, Conservative MP Brad Trost waxed poetically about reopening the abortion debate in Canada.

It’s true that we can’t expect our elected MP’s to be anything but partisans, given that they ran under the banners of their respected parties. Elizabeth May, newly elected MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, will also be performing a partisan role in the new parliament, as will the handful of Liberals returned to Ottawa. People join political parties for a reason, and are often elected because of their partisan colours.

The NDP and the Conservatives, however, are the two most partisan political parties which have ever faced off against one another in the House of Commons. Despite both parties apparent moves to the centre of the political spectrum, these parties are composed of members who have arrived in their current position of MP’s as a result of their ideological and partisan leanings. Although Party Leaders can try to stifle the ability of backbenchers (and cabinet ministers, for that matter) to speak their minds in public forums, the fact is that it’s more difficult to actually change the minds of individuals who hold a strong set of beliefs.

Much work in parliament goes on behind the scenes of Question Period, and from what I understand, MP’s often generally get along with one another and work together on issues across party lines. Committee work in particular can be rewarding when MP’s decide that there is some room to accommodate the views of others for the good of the whole.

However, in the last minority parliament, we saw the Conservative Party provide their MP’s with a playbook on how to frustrate committee work for partisan reasons. Time and again, Conservative MP’s used the playbook to shut down committees, or to render their work ineffective. Clearly, there was a concerted move by Conservative partisans away from working with the other parties for their own partisan reasons. Now that the Conservatives will have control over all of the Committees, given their false majority situation, I expect that the Committees will be used as blunt instruments against the NDP Opposition, all for political gain.

Stephen Harper has already demonstrated that he’s not above using the Senate in this way. When appointed Conservative Senators killed Bill C-311 without holding any debate, despite the fact that the Bill had been approved by our elected parliament, it was clear that partisan politics trumped the democratic will of the MP’s elected to represent Canadians. Now with a false majority in the House, it’s likely that Harper and the Conservatives may start to believe that they have been handed a real opportunity to make substantive ideological changes.

At an all-candidate’s debate in Sudbury during the election, Conservative candidate Fred Slade tried to give his party the credit for actions taken by Brian Mulroney’s government. To the raucous applause of those in attendance, Slade was called out by Will Morin, the candidate for the First People’s National Party, who pointed out that it was, in fact, the Progressive Conservative Party which was in power at the time, and that today’s Conservatives are similar in name only to Mulroney’s brand.

In an article appearing recently in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, journalist Gail Lethbridge also reminds us that this Conservative Party isn’t your father’s PC party (“Harper’s quiet revolution could be a bumpy ride”). Tellingly, she reports on remarks apparently made by Preston Manning about the May 2nd election result, where Manning refers to “Reform Conservatives”.

The New Democrats, too, certainly have their share of ideologues. Despite an apparent move towards the centre, the NDP remains a Party with an anti-business “Us” vs. “Them” bent, largely because of their affiliation with unions, but also in part due to the anti-corporatist nature of many of their members, who share views with which I am sympathetic. However, I’m not sure how much new MP’s who might put on an “I Still Hate George Bush” t-shirt every now and then really understand about their Party, especially when its policies continue to promote the very corporatist agenda against which some of its members continue to rail.

Sure, the NDP’s recent platform offered tax breaks to small businesses, but at the same time, the NDP wanted to establish a multi-billion dollar carbon emissions trading scheme, which would raise the prices of goods and services in an unpredictable way. A cap and trade scheme won’t be friendly to most businesses which produce goods, big or small (but it will be friendly to the financial sector traders, who stand to make big profits); but big international businesses will be better positioned than their smaller home-grown counterparts to provide flexible responses to fluctuating markets. And before the NDP supporters chime in that the cap and trade scheme is intended to apply only to the largest emitters, let me be clear that when prices rise on things like energy, due to cap and trade, all businesses are impacted.

And people are impacted as well. The NDP’s plan to reduce carbon emissions will have a negative impact on the very “hard working” families which they purport to be the champions of, due to expected rising prices. The NDP in their platform offers little in the way of offsets for individuals and families which will have to absorb the costs passed on to them by the large emitters. It’s one thing to make the things that we don’t want more expensive, like emissions-producing gas guzzling SUV’s, and the fuel on which they operate; but the flipside of the coin is you then have to give people back their hard-earned money to make better choices. And to ensure that those living in or close to poverty have some mechanism to either absorb the higher costs, or spend their limited resources on better options.

The NDP’s position on cap and trade really has led me to conclude that the Party just doesn’t understand the economic consequences of its environmental policies. While they do seem to get the notion that reducing our carbon emissions is a good thing, and that putting a price on carbon to make carbon-intensive goods and services more expensive to consumers is the right way of doing that, the outcome of their policies will simply be to make many goods and services more expensive, period. There will be inflationary economic consequences to this approach.

But, then again, I wouldn’t really expect the NDP to move forward on their environmental policies anyway, given the way that cap and trade could impact the working class. And now we’re back to ideology.

In this past election, we saw the NDP champion lower gasoline prices, ostensibly because the price of fuel for cars is getting out of hand and unmanageable for working families. Of course, figuring out a way to lower fuel costs isn’t going to be at all helpful for reducing carbon emissions. Which leads me back to my earlier hypothesis: do the NDP really understand what we need to do to fight the climate crisis? I think that they do, however it then begs the question, Why for goodness sake do they propose policies which hinder the fight? And the answer is, because of the NDP’s over-riding ideology of protecting the jobs of workers. In this ideological context, the NDP will always sacrifice everything else, although they will try to convince voters that they really can have it both ways.

That’s because the NDP wants to appear to be all things to all people. Their unworkable and contradictory election platform is clearly evidence of this trend. What the NDP has developed into is a slick PR machine, which will say and do whatever it takes in its quest for power. But behind the machine are real people who have many good ideas about their areas of interest. What is absent, though, is a mechanism for bringing these ideas together in a way which makes sense when viewed through a comprehensive spectrum. Right now, with big labour running the show, good ideas aren’t always allowed to emerge and flourish.

The NDP likes to measure their success in small wins, rather than broad and truly transformative policy initiatives, even though they may talk about such. Take the notion of electoral reform as an example. We certainly heard Jack Layton talk about this on the campaign trail recently. It’s been a part of the NDP playbook for many years. Yet, when provincial NDP governments in B.C., Ontario and Nova Scotia have been handed the reigns of power, the issue of electoral reform suddenly appears to be too big to take on. Indeed, it’s been left up to uninspired Liberal governments in both Ontario and British Columbia to pay lip service to electoral reform.

Voters on May 2nd, might have shared some concerns about the NDP’s economic policies. Many likely bought into Stephen Harper’s messaging that an NDP government would be disastrous for the economic health of Canada. Sure, Harper’s “the sky is falling” messaging, repeated by some of the bigger financial institutions, might have left an appalling taste in the mouths of NDP supporters, but I know it found resonance in the business community and with middle class voters. With Jack Layton being forced to backtrack on some of the economic estimates made in his platform (particularly those regarding expected revenue from cap and trade) in mid-campaign, it’s no wonder that the questions were being raised.

With parliament now effectively polarized between the left and the right, where might Greens find themselves in the years to come? Certainly, it’s advantageous that Elizabeth May will be occupying a seat in the House, but wedged between partisan ideologues which do not share her set of values, and who are hell-bent on scoring political points, what might the outcome be?

The other day, I attended an event here in Greater Sudbury, where I ran into an individual whom is very political and whom I have a tremendous amount of respect for. The conversation eventually worked its way towards the idea that the time will be coming where a choice is going to have to be made between “us” and “them”, and Canadians are going to have to figure out just which side they are on. We both figured that if push ever came to shove, we both knew on which side we would find ourselves. But the whole notion that we may be forced to make that kind of choice was one which I found personally distasteful, even if perhaps likely.

Greens aren’t about making that choice. Indeed, Greens tend to be very anti-ideological when it comes to left/right issues. We like to say, “Neither left or right, but out in front”, which sounds kind of like a hokey political slogan…until you start to look into it, and the culture of our Party and its policies. Trust me, I thought it was hokey, until I did the necessary exploration. Greens inhabit a world which has largely been freed from the left-right ideological divide, and instead wish to rely on science, evidence, and the collection of facts for a kind of comprehensive and holistic decision-making, which is viewed through a lens of shared values. But, since the real world remains entrenched in the division of the left and right, there are consequences for Greens.

First, our message is often poorly understood and reported by the mainstream media which just can’t shake itself from viewing the world through the left-right lens. Since the mainstream media remains for the time being the “keeper of the message”, it makes it that much more difficult for we Greens to advance our message on just about every issue. We saw just how influential the mainstream media has become in promoting political parties one over the other during an election. Elizabeth May’s exclusion from the televised Leader’s debates might have been the turning point for all of the parties involved in the campaign. Had May been present at the debates, everything could have turned out differently, as the start of Layton’s rise in the polls can be pinpointed to his small successes in the debates.

Second, when communicating with voters, it can be difficult for Greens to get our message across, because our policies don’t always fit comfortably into voter expectations. Again, this is due to the fact that voters, informed by the media, often view the world through a polarized lens, whether or not they understand the concepts of “left” and “right”. The old notion goes that voters are won and lost one at a time. That’s because voters will most often look towards their own self-interest when casting ballots. There has to be something on offer from a Party which appeals to the individual. With Green policies, difficult to explain as they are, the personal touch is often lost, at least in many cases. Certainly most of our policies have been designed for the betterment of the community in mind, and only secondarily for the betterment of individual voters. Perhaps we Greens could learn a thing or two from the NDP and Conservatives about promoting a buffet of policies for groups of voters, instead of offering up a full 9-course meal. However, I suspect that would be very difficult for Greens to do.

Third, within our Party there remains an undercurrent of left-right tension. Despite all of the “out in front” stuff, which is very real, the Party is a big-tent party, and within its walls, former NDP’ers, Liberals and Progressive Conservatives have all found a home, mingling with those whom have never had a political affiliation, and with those whom have been active only in the environmental movement. The big-tent nature of the Party has led to some tension within the Party in the past, and will likely continue to do so. Whether the tension is because of the “left/right” lens, or between the “deep greens” and the “pragmatists”, tension exists, and it needs to be worked out in a healthy manner.

With electoral success, I suspect that the emerging tensions within our own party will at first have more to do with the disillusionment of the deep greens, who have witnessed the Party transform itself from a truly grassroots organization into a stronger, more centralized political party. Deep greens will need to make a choice as to whether to continue to support this Party, despite the Party’s continuing efforts to centralize and give the Leader more authority, or to abandon the Party. I hope that most will stay because, really, where else might they find a home?

Some of the other factors which might lead to the Green Party figuring out what it wants to be in a polarized parliament rest now with the other parties. With the NDP having just elected a large contingent of Quebec MP’s to parliament, there is a real possibility that tomorrow’s NDP will shift towards a bit of a different direction. Already there is some suggestion that the NDP might not be the strong federalist voice that its traditional supporters perceived it to be, due to comments made by some of the recently elected MP’s, along with Jack Layton’s election campaign musing about opening up the Constitution.

The Conservatives, too, may not decide to pursue a more ideologically pure agenda, despite what just about every Canadian thinks. A Conservative Party which continues to play a more moderated role in parliament, maybe in a bid to destroy the Liberal Party fully and completely, would provide less room for Greens to find support. A more ideologically-driven Conservative Party will create opportunities to grow Green support, especially if the Conservatives foil Jack Layton and the NDP in the process (which we’ve seen before on the long gun registry bill and the corporate responsibility bill).

And finally, there’s the enigma of the Liberal Party, which is the Party that I believe continues to pose the biggest challenge to the long-term success of the Green Party. I believe this because I think that the Liberals, in an effort to rebuild themselves, are going to be looking carefully at Green policies, and that they’re going to find a lot of those policies to their liking. A watered-down version of Vision Green, with a bit of a Liberal spin, could be a very compelling platform for centralist voters. Especially those who have tired after 4 years of Conservative false majority rule. If the Liberals advance our policies, even in a weakened form, what need might there be for a Green Party at all?

Of course, the Liberal Party also provides we Greens with a potential opportunity for partnership down the road, if events play themselves out as I think that they may. Of course, this is not to suggest that there is likely to be reconciliation between the Liberals and all of our policies (Afghanistan comes to mind), but there may be a critical mass of partisan interest formed, once the Liberals start getting their act together. What Greens should then focus on is becoming a more viable partner. With only one MP in the House, and a tiny fraction of the vote share, that’s not going to be an easy task to accomplish.

In a polarized parliament, though, the Green Party needs to tread carefully, and do everything right if there is to be a future at all. At least with May now sitting in the House, there remains hope that the Party can continue to shape political discourse. Another electoral failure would quite likely have doomed our Party. And although the risk remains that we could disappear into political oblivion, there still remains a flicker of an opportunity that the opposite will happen. But we need to play all of our cards right, and exploit the opportunities as they arise. Or else we will be squeezed out by the NDP and a rebuilding Liberal Party.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be construed as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada).

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