Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Door Exists for the Liberal Party. Will Liberals Step Through It?

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been blogging about the media’s ideas related to an NDP-Liberal Party merger, and I’ve shared my own thoughts about why I think it’s a bad idea. I’ve expressed the notion that a merged Party of grits and dippers would become a party of compromise, offering little in the way of bold vision, opting instead for the sorts of boutique public policies voters have become familiar with in the past little while emerging from the NDP and Liberal Parties. I’ve suggested that the zeitgeist of the times, the growing restlessness within the Canadian electorate (especially amongst younger Canadians) demands something newer and more significant – public engagement on the real significant issues of our time, which include the climate crisis and the end of inexpensive energy. I probably should have added democratic renewal to the list earlier this week. I’ll do so now.

I continue to believe that a Party of Compromise just won’t work. The result of a merged NDP and Liberal Party will be to drive blue Liberals away, and to leave the socialist element of the NDP feeling that they’ve lost their home. The Liberals can’t embrace the socialist aspects of the NDP, and the NDP just can’t buy into the corporatist policies of the Liberals. In this context, the only kind of party which could emerge would be a populist party offering up boutique, niche policies, but largely asking for your vote because they’re not the Conservative Party.

The NDP and the Politics of Spin - Not Good Enough

Canada deserves better than a party devoid of vision, wanting to govern for the sake of governing only, and setting itself up only in opposition to something else. That’s really a good description of both the current NDP and Liberal parties. We’ve seen the NDP move toward the centre of the political spectrum under Jack Layton, and the abandonment of principles in favour of populism and spin. Getting elected has become more important to the NDP than good public policy.

The NDP’s opposition to Stephane Dion’s emissions-reducing carbon tax, coupled with Jack Layton’s cynical scuttling of Paul Martin’s government at a crucial time in global climate change negotiations has shown that the NDP isn’t serious about the climate crisis. Provincial New Democratic parties have followed his lead: in British Columbia, the NDP opposed the globally renowned carbon tax introduced by former Premier Gordon Campbell and his Liberal Party. In Ontario, we actually have the perverse situation where NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has proposed public policies which will make it easier for Ontarians to consume more gasoline and electricity, which will only increase our dependence on fossil fuel resources at a time when those resources are becoming more expensive.

Jack Layton also used to talk a lot about Canada’s democratic deficit, and the NDP have long argued for proportional representation. Yet it’s clear that the NDP has only ever been all talk on this issue, despite that NDP supporters might insist otherwise. But the facts speak for themselves. When in power provincially, NDP governments in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have done nothing to implement reforms to antiquated first-past-the-post electoral systems. Instead, it’s been left up to Liberal governments in both Ontario and BC to hold referendums on electoral reform (twice in BC), and although the Liberals in both provinces were clearly not committed to reforming the system, at least they put it to the people. The NDP have never done that.

Instead, what we’ve seen from the NDP have been efforts to frustrate Canada’s democratic processes. In 2008, Jack Layton’s initial reaction to leaving Elizabeth May, the Leader of the Green Party, out of the crucial televised leader’s debates was to throw his support to the broadcast consortium. Only when supporters within his own party rose up and demanded May’s inclusion did Layton change his mind. In 2011, when the broadcast consortium made the same decision about May’s participation, Layton mumbled words of disagreement, but did nothing to try to convince the consortium and Canadians that the consortium’s decision wasn't in the interests of democracy. Instead of supporting the principles of an open and accessible democracy, the NDP’s knee-jerk response has always been to put their party's own interests first.

Ideology and Politics

Some may say that all political parties behave this way. I guess that’s probably true, however it’s my observation that some political parties tend to do it more than others. And the NDP has, in the past decade under Layton, clearly led the pack in putting politics before principle. And yes I say that knowing that I'm torn up inside because Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party are remaking my Canada in their own image even as I write this blogpost. However, while Harper has sacrificed some ideology for political gain (most notably at the end of 2008, during the coalition crisis, when he bowed to pressure from the centre and left to inject massive stimulus dollars into the economy, raising the deficit to an all time high, which was clearly something fiscal conservatives were reluctant to do). The Conservative’s continued attack on the Long Gun registry also comes to mind, although even that attack on what should be perceived as a tool which assists with his law-and-order agenda at least appeals to the anti-government libertarian supporters within his party.

The Liberal Party has been more difficult to pin down on the issue of whether they’re more or less willing to sacrifice ideology for political gain. But that’s only because it’s very difficult to describe the Liberal Party of Canada as a party driven and motivated by ideology at all. The party may share some broad idea of promoting a progressive and liberal Canada, but beyond that, the Party’s successes have either been driven by singular policies (rather than vision or ideology), or by simply opposing the “other”.

Liberals Moving Left?

Most political pundits have suggested that the Liberal Party has shifted leftward on the political spectrum, having been squeezed by Harper and the Conservatives on the right, due to the Conservatives own leftward shift. Despite producing one of the most right-wing Prime Ministers in history in the form of Jean Chretien, I’m not certain that the leftward shift of the Liberals under Ignatieff was as pronounced as the pundits claim. Certainly Stephane Dion’s Liberals fought the 2008 election campaign to the left of Paul Martin’s Liberals in 2006, but I believe that Ignatieff actually took the Liberals further to the right in 2011, having abandoned the more progressive public policies on offer from Stephane Dion.

OK, I realize that what I’ve written here defies “mainstream” thinking. Jean Chretien a right-winger? Stephane Dion’s new tax proposal a “progressive policy”? Ignatieff moving the Liberals to the right of the political spectrum instead of the left? Definetly not mainstream. Let me try to explain.

Climate Change as Political Game Changer

Stephane Dion has been involved in the issue of climate change for quite some time. You may recall that he was the Minister of the Environment at the time when Jack Layton joined Stephen Harper to take down Paul Martin’s government. You may also recall that Dion, during the Liberal Leadership race, decked out his supporters symbolically in green scarves. His carbon tax shift proposal had everything to do with his desire to address the climate crisis and the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

It’s often forgotten that along with putting a tax on emission-producing goods and services, Dion’s proposal would have put more money back into the hands of working Canadians in the form of a sizable cut in personal income taxes. This would have left Canadians with more money in their pockets, with which they could choose to pay for carbon-heavy goods and services, or perhaps save by choosing instead goods and services which produce fewer emissions. Dion also championed policies previously proposed by Paul Martin which would have assisted lower-income Canadians (Martin’s national child care strategy comes to mind).

That he lifted his Green Shift carbon tax proposal from the Green Party holus bolus, save some tinkering to water down the expected results doesn't matter. Dion acted boldly when others who probably should have did not.

When Ignatieff became the Liberal Leader, he quickly disposed of Dion’s carbon tax policy (despite the Liberal membership’s recommitment to it at the same convention which saw Ignatieff anointed Leader). Ignatieff then began to embrace the tar sands as an economic boon to Canada, further scaring away green supporters in his own Party and distancing himself from Dion’s record, which at the time was considered to be one of failed public policy.

Good Public Policy / Bad Messaging

That Dion’s Liberals were soundly defeated in 2008 probably did have something to do with his progressive carbon tax proposal. Explaining it to Canadians was a difficult job, and not just for Dion. I remember watching the Liberal Party’s candidate for the Nickel Belt try to explain the policy at the Chamber of Commerce all-candidates meeting in Hanmer. After failing miserably to make any sense at all, the Green Party’s Fred Twilley had to step in and explain her Party’s own policy to her and everyone else in attendance.

No, clearly the communication of the carbon tax shift was an abject failure. And the Conservatives calling it “Stephane Dion’s tax on everything” didn’t help. But what also hurt was Jack Layton’s (in my opinion, inexplicable) attack on the policy. Layton and the NDP claimed to be interested in combating climate change, yet the sound public policy of taxing emissions was rejected by the NDP in favour of establishing a cap trade emissions trading scheme.

NDP Sabotage of Environmental Issues for Political Gain

Layton said that a cap and trade scheme would make the big polluters pay, instead of the little guy. He was partly correct; certainly, the big polluters would pay to purchase carbon credits up front. However, these costs would clearly be passed on to consumers down the road. And without the benefit of the offsetting cuts to income tax in their wallets, those consumers would have no extra wealth to pay for the rising costs of goods and services. So the manufacturing industry (especially small businesses, which have fewer resources to absorb additional costs) and average Canadians (especially those living in poverty), lose. Meanwhile, the real profiteers would have been the banks and the financial managers. That hardly fits the NDP’s claim to represent the interests of the little guy.

But Layton and the NDP wanted to draw a clear distinction between themselves and the Liberals, and try to convince Canadians that they were the better defenders of the environment through their muddy cap and trade proposal, which was even more difficult to explain to Canadians than Dion’s tax cut. But unlike Dion, Layton didn’t really bother to try. He simply reassured Canadians that the proposal was on the level, that environmentalists liked it, and that it was being implemented in other places, like Europe. So he avoided all critical analysis.

The Liberal Record on the Environment: Nothing to See Here, Keep Moving

That Michael Ignatieff dumped the good emissions-reducing carbon tax policy and chose to adopt a cap and trade position (and then not talk about it) says a lot about how the Liberals had embraced politics over vision. Was Ignatieff’s move ideologically motivated? Probably not so much, because the Liberals have only ever demonstrated a wishy-washy commitment to environmental issues anyway.

Does that hurt, Liberal Party supporters? What, aren’t the Liberals the Party that ratified the Kyoto Protocol? Sure, Chretien signed the document – but then he and the governing Liberal Party did less than nothing to implement it. Instead of developing a plan to lower emissions, in keeping with international commitments under Kyoto, the Liberals invested in the tar sands and let emission rise without intervention. Instead of a real plan for emissions reduction, we got Rick Mercer running around challenging average Canadians to reduce their own emissions through a 1 tonne challenge, while oil and gas companies were encouraged to ramp up unfettered production.

It has been more important for the Liberals to be perceived to be taking action on the environment rather than to actually take action. Stephane Dion actually wanted to change that with a serious proposal. And the Liberals stabbed him in the back after one failed election, and then turned their back on his good public policy in the next.

Hope for Change? Not So Much.

Could the NDP and the Liberals change in time for the next election? Yes, sure they could. The Liberal Party actually probably has the best chance to do so, along with the most motivation. The NDP will likely want to continue to cling to the notion that cap and trade, which has failed in Europe and Chicago, and which was rejected by the U.S. Congress, is the best tool in the climate crisis, largely for the political reason that a carbon tax is a policy position “owned” by the Liberals (and the Green Party). Instead of proposing a comprehensive set of policies to address climate change, we’ll probably end up with more of the same: a real hodge-podge which might take one step forward (eliminate corporate welfare to the wealthy oil and gas companies) and two steps back (remove taxes from home heating and gasoline so that Canadians can burn more emissions; establish an unworkable cap and trade scheme which makes the finance sector richer, average Canadians and small businesses poorer, and likely does nothing at all for actually reducing emissions when dubious “offsets” are factored in).

The Liberals, on the other hand, actually have a real chance of going back to Dion’s good public policy proposal. With the B.C. Liberal Party’s success with their carbon tax (now being looked at in Europe, Australia, and the U.S. as a model for moving forward towards a low-carbon economy), and with the Ontario Liberal Party’s success in encouraging renewable energy production, it’s quite possible that the Liberals might try to embrace the environment as their next big policy theme. That they will probably do so in a cumbersome and awkward way may doom them to failure again, given the difficulty in communicating to Canadians the importance of the issue, and how public policy can be implemented.

The Environment, and the Left and the Right

That the environment has become an issue equated with the “left” side of the political spectrum has been something which has saddened me personally, especially after having been embraced by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives. However, the right has firmly established its credentials as the anti-environment fossil fuel industry-coddling side of the political spectrum. It didn’t have to be that way. Certainly the media has played a big role in entrenching the notion that “saving the environment” is a left-wing idea, and will harm the economy.

Saving the environment, as Greens know, would do no such thing. It’s actually a smart economic investment, especially when you factor in how much it will cost to not save the environment! If media pundits actually gave the whole issue more than a passing thought, it would quickly become clear that the lack of “environmental” policies on offer from the Conservatives are actually the biggest source of harm to Canada’s future economic fortunes. We Greens understand this, but we have a hell of a time getting this message out. Largely because Canada’s media simply doesn’t want to hear it.

Stephane Dion understood the issue, and he was thrown under the bus by the media and eventually by his own party.

The NDP might understand the issue intellectually, but they’re not actually willing to go to Canadians with solutions, for fear that those solutions will harm the jobs of unionized employees in carbon-intensive industries. And because they believe that there are few additional votes in the issue. Since the environment is an issue of the left, those left-wingers predisposed to wanting to save the environment will be voting NDP anyway, so the issue remains in the background, and solutions are complicated compromises which won’t be analyzed by anybody anyway.

The Conservatives might even understand the importance of the environment too, but since they are beholden to big business and because their core voter demographic are wealthy older white men, the best that they can do is to attack the environment at every opportunity, and keep everyone else divided on the issue.

Of course, the Green Party understands this issue. But our problem is getting the word out, especially when the NDP (and at least under Dion, the Liberals) pretend to be champions of the environment, without actually (for the most part) wanting to propose workable solutions (and by workable I here mean solutions which also make economic sense). The Green Party has failed on the basis of its political abilities, in my opinion, and not on issues of public policy.

Love, Hope and Optimism?

There are still reasons for optimism, though, and they may be found in the growing restlessness of our times, especially amongst our youth. However, I believe that real hope for change won’t be found in the NDP, unless youth can be the catalyst for change. Butting up against entrenched union ideologies which promote the brown economy over a low-carbon future, however, will be difficult for young idealists to overcome.

Instead, I believe that the best possible way forward lies with the Green movement, which in Canada right now is best represented by the Green Party. However, the Liberals have a chance to join the club, if they truly want to be game-changers. It will require Liberals to move into increasingly uncomfortable territory, however, and such moves will be opposed by some of the entrenched interests in that Party.

In short, the Liberal Party could become the Green Party, only with access to a better communications strategy. That door is open to the Liberals right now. They question is will they even acknowledge that the door exists, and perhaps dare to step through it?

(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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