Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Politics as Usual: Why The Liberals and the NDP, Together or Separately, Will Continue to Fail Canadians

Yesterday, I started writing a blog about all of the interesting things which political commentators have had to write about this past summer. I also began looking at why a merged NDP-Liberal Party would not appeal to the growing restlessness, found particularly amongst today’s youth, for real change. Today I’d like to expand further on that topic, as I feel there is a lot more at play here than a desire to unite Canada’s political “left”. The restlessness we’re feeling is something which I believe can’t be addressed in the context of left-wing / right-wing politics, at least when neither the left nor the right has any desire to address the big issues of our time. Those issues, of course, all have to do with the end of inexpensive energy and a warming planet.

I realize that you might not be interested in my “environmental mumbo jumbo”, in which I place a significant emphasis on the threats which the perils of climate change and peak oil pose to our society. Keep in mind, though, that these really are both economic issues, whether you want to believe so or not. Not only are they economic "issues", peak oil and the climate crisis are very significant threats to the health and well-being of our economy. And that means your job, and your family’s employment and prospects for employment.

As neither the Liberals or the NDP seem the least bit interested in engaging voters on either of these issues (or on the growing gap between the rich and the poor – and here I am clearly suggesting that the NDP, with its move to a more centrist political view, has clearly moved away from seriously wanting to tackle poverty – an opinion which I know is sure to rile NDP supporters. But take a very critical look at today’s NDP, which has in my opinion failed the very people whom it purports to defend. Look at what Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horvath is offering voters in the upcoming provincial election: cuts to taxes which may provide short-term relief, but will lead to long-term pain for people, especially our poorest). As such, it’s inconceivable to me that a merged party would be a better vehicle to offer a shared vision, when currently neither the NDP or the Liberal Party has been able to articulate anything close to a comprehensive vision for our nation.


In my humble opinion, there are only two national political parties who are offering compelling visions of Canada. The Conservative Party, the one which gets the most press, does have a vision for Canada, and they are doing what they can to slowly implement that vision. That’s why the Canada of today has started to look quite different than the Canada that existed 20 years ago. That the Liberal under Jean Chretien began the process of taking Canada to the right (beyond where Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney had led) does not change the fact that this vision is now completely owned by the Conservative Party.

"In Opposition To" as the Only Alternative

In contrast, the New Democrats and Liberals have only offered their tentative opposition to the rightward direction itself (or, in the case of the Liberals, really just the pace of moving towards that direction). There has been no compelling narrative offered by these parties which stands in contrast to the vision of the Conservative Party. They have instead simply pointed to themselves, appealing for our votes on the basis of being the “other”, served up for our consumption with the whip-cream and cherry of boutique niche policies proposals.

NDP-Liberal Party Merger

I agree in part with the Globe & Mail’s Robert Silver, who acknowledges that politics as usual isn’t working but suggests that there are significant issues with a Liberal-NDP merger which likely won’t be overcome (see: “A counterintuitive alternative to a Liberal-NDP merger”) . Silver, in particular, is concerned about the baggage carried by both of these parties, and a lack of desire for involved members to take ownership of the other party’s baggage. Liberals will not be comfortable with the socialist heritage of the NDP, while the NDP won’t accept the corporatist agenda of the Liberal Party.

For a merger between the Liberals and the NDP to ever work, there will need to be significant accommodation made by both parties, including the further watering down of big-issue items. While the Star's Chantal Hebert expounds about there being only two tribes (see "Shifting political landscape holds major consequences for all parties"), it’s not at all clear which tribe Liberal Party supporters truly identify themselves with. There will be extremely disenchanted Liberals and NDP supporters alike, should there be any merge. Grits on the right, and Dippers on the left will be disenfranchised. They may decide to stick it out for a while (especially left wing New Democrats, who unlike disenfranchised Liberals, will have no other place to go should they think about leaving), but ultimately whether the new merged party proves to be successful or not, hearts and hopes will be broken.

Silver believes that the solution to this situation is the creation of another political party altogether. That’s where I disagree with him, although I understand where he’s coming from. A new party wouldn’t carry the same baggage as the old parties, and would allow its grassroots members to drive the policy bandwagon. However, again, the likely outcome of such a new party will be to offer Canadians a mushy centre-left suite of boutique policies. And it’s not at all clear that Liberals or Dippers would abandon ship in numbers enough to make yet another political party work.

The Green Party of Canada

In contrast to the Liberals and New Democrats, the Green Party of Canada is the only party other than the Conservative Party which is offering Canadians a compelling vision for the future. In fact, it’s fair to say that the Green’s vision of Canada is quite different again from the Canada that we know today. Where the Green Party has failed (and failed considerably, in my opinion) has been in its ability to “get the message out” about this alternative vision. While the Green Party must take some responsibility for its lack of communication, the fact is that entrenched powers have worked to undermine the Green Party’s ability to broadcast its message.

Getting the Message Out

In the previous election, the Media Consortium chose not to invite Green Party Leader Elizabeth May to either of the two national televised debates, despite the Green Party’s commitment to running candidates in just about every riding in the country. The importance of the televised debates in an election campaign can not be understated. May’s participation in the 2008 debate saw Green support jump to almost 7% nationally. Layton’s blows against Ignatieff in the 2011 debates have been credited with his rise in personal popularity in Quebec, and his party’s successes there over the Bloc this past May.

Unlike in 2008, none of the national party Leaders seemed to be all that concerned about May’s lack of invitation to the debates. In 2008 you may recall that both Harper and Jack Layton were initially supportive of the Consortium’s decision to sideline May. Only Stephane Dion, and an outpouring of emotion from Canadians, led to the Media Consortium’s ultimate invitation. Layton eventually publicly changed his mind.

In 2011, Layton and Ignatieff both mumbled that it would have been their preference for May to be there, but they stood by and did nothing to try to change the Media Consortium’s mind. With May out of the debates, Green support evaporated to about 3% nationally.

With media and political interests stacked against the Greens, it’s really no wonder that the Green Party has had such a difficult time in getting the word out about its vision.

I often wonder whether the Orange Crush would have happened at all if May had been in the debates. That she would have been able to communicate the Green Party’s vision of Canada to voters would not have been assured. While she made Stephen Harper look bad in the 2008 televised debate, she did little to talk about what a Green Canada would ultimately look like. She may have fumbled her opportunity in 2011 as well. But even a fumble would have been a success in part, for I have no doubt whatsoever that May would have outshone any and all of the Leaders in the televised debate. It is quite possible that enough progressive voters might have instead opted to throw their votes to the Greens rather than to the NDP, and the Orange Crush might not have ever happened. And the Liberals may not have suffered their worst defeat ever. And the election might not have brought about a false majority government for the Conservatives.

But playing the what-if game, while fun, really gets us nowhere. That the Green Party offers a compelling and complete vision of a Canada which rivals and stands in contrast to a Conservative Canada isn’t particularly helpful when no one (well, very few) knows that it exists.

The Zeitgeist of our Times is Restlessness with an Increasingly Disfunctional Status Quo

As Canadians grow increasingly restless in a world fraught with increasing economic, environmental and social instability, looking at an NDP-Liberal merger as a way of appealing to the zeitgeist is really a lot like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. A merged NDP-Liberal Party will only offer itself up in opposition to a Conservative vision of Canada, rather than articulating its own vision. This is because a merged party will be hamstrung by forced compromise, and born in compromise, there will be no ability for it to articulate a bold vision for Canada’s future. That it may gain power in the next federal election will not be enough to move Canada in a direction in which an increasing number of Canadians desire Canada to go. That it may slow Canada’s drift to the right may be commendable, but on its own, that can never be more than a compromise goal. If the big issues of our time remain off limits (and they almost certainly will in a party born of compromise, pursuing niche boutique policies), the restlessness will remain.

Politics as Usual Isn't the Answer

The Liberals and the NDP, separately or together, have so far not provided a viable vision for a future Canada. As long as both parties remain mired in boutique politics which fail to address the very real and compelling issues of the day, Canadians looking for real hope would be better served by turning away from the old line parties, whose primary goal appears to be the ascension to power at the expense of good, comprehensive public policy.

Politics as usual can't be the answer. It's clear to me that Jack Layton understood this, as he wrote so very passionately about this issue in his last letter to Canadians. That Layton led a political party which has become, in my opinion, increasingly devoid of passion and good public policy, seems somewhat ironic. However, in the pursuit of power, Layton and the NDP felt compelled to abandon the pursuit of good public policy, and instead concentrated on the politics of spin and boutique issues as a means of achieving power. Had Layton ultimately found himself one day in a majority government situation, it could be that he would have offered up a vision which Canadians could embrace. That he failed to offer such a vision while pursuing power has been the primary reason that I am not a member of the New Democratic Party.

Politics as usual isn't the answer to the growing restlessness of our times. And that's why real vision and real change won't be found amongst today's NDP or Liberals. Mired in the politics of spin, pursuing power at all costs, those two parties will not decide to stop playing political games. And as long as they are playing games, they will fail to make an effort to get down to the business of engaging Canadians on the significant issues of our time.

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

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