Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Restlessness with the Status Quo and Appealing to the Zeitgeist of Our Times

As summer draws to a close, it can’t now be said that this past August was a slow news month for Canadian political commentators. With the unexpected passing of Jack Layton, former Leader of the NDP, Canada’s political commentators have been in overdrive. Last week saw, for the most part, praise for Layton’s years of public service, which put aside partisan politics. However, there were a few political commentators (such as the National Post’s Christie Blatchford) who refused to jump on the non-partisan bandwagon. Since Layton’s funeral on Sunday, more commentators have joined the anti-Jack chorus. Most, such as Sun Media’s Ezra Levant, are, not surprisingly, on the right-wing side of Canada’s political spectrum.

Interestingly, these right-wing commentators, like Levant, have put Stephen Harper in their sights, because he authorized a state funeral for Jack Layton, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The hyper-partisan far-right-wing (and here I must draw a distinction between neo-cons like Levant and many others who are comfortable referring to themselves as small-c “conservatives”) must believe that they can somehow benefit from these kinds of attacks on Harper. Maybe they think that he can be kept in line, or risk some version of a Canadianized Tea Party arising either in the midst of his own political party, or outside of it.

A Strong and United Conservative Party

The chances of that happening, however, are, in my opinion, not very good. Harper continues to dominate the right-wing of Canadian politics in a way which George W. Bush never did south of the border. Party discipline in Canada has always been more severe than in the United States, where Republicans and Democrats often work together on issues, or oppose the positions of their own parties. In the U.S. Congress in particular, there has always been a bigger sense of independence for legislators to go their own way (or, some would say, to look after their own interests first).

It’s not that way in Canada. Or at least, when party discipline does start to fall apart, that becomes a notable exception. And as far as Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are concerned, the party should be considered the strongest that it’s ever been. Even with pundits like Levant chirping at Harper from the far right.

No, there is no threat of a Wildrose or Tea Party-type usurpation of power on the right wing of the Conservative Party, despite the notion that Harper has taken his party further towards the centre. With an election four-years away, unless a significant number of Conservator legislators broke with the existing Party, there really isn’t any opportunity for a Canadian Tea Party to muddy the Conservative waters. Hence, it should be clear sailing for the right in Canada for some time now.


Elsewhere, however, party politics has started to breakdown, and it’s given Canada’s political commentariat a number of stories to write about this past August. Most notably this has happened in Quebec, where Pauline Marois, Leader of the Parti Quebecois, is fast becoming the captain of a sinking ship. Several PQ MLA’s have already abandoned her, choosing to sit as Independents in the legislature. A few others are openly positioning themselves to challenge her leadership. Apparently, it’s not so much that Quebeccers have lost their interest in separatism (although recent polls show that support for separation is the lowest it’s been in quite a while); it may have more to do with the overall zeitgeist of our times.


Around the world, and within Canada, people are looking at governmental and political institutions and are coming to the conclusion that those institutions aren’t working well. In short, more and more people are determining that the status quo is failing them. This increasing uneasiness with the status quo is manifesting itself in different ways, depending on where one lives.

In the United States, Americans have turned to the Tea Party, a movement which is difficult to describe, because it apparently means different things to different individuals, even as it attempts to be all things to everybody. In general, the Tea Party movement advocates for reducing government spending, leading to smaller government. It may also stand for less direct intervention of government in the lives of average Americans, although it remains unclear if that’s a shared goal of the movement, given the concerns raised by some Tea Partiers over pensions. At its worst, the Tea Party movement may be something more sinister, arguing for more middle class austerity measures and declaring war on the poor. This despite the fact that most Tea Party supporters are themselves middle class Americans.

The Canadian Experience

In Canada, our own dissatisfaction with the status quo has played out differently. I believe that Canadians have generally been a little less dissatisfied with our political and governmental institutions than citizens of other nations, yet it can’t be denied that over the past decade, Canada has moved considerably to the right. That this movement occurred in increments does not alter the fact. And, with a Conservative government currently enjoying a majority in the House of Commons, we can expect our nation to be carried even further to the right during Harper’s mandate.

The May 2011 Federal Election

The May 2011 federal election might not have been the significant expression of dissatisfaction with the Canadian political landscape which many pundits have made it out to be. Certainly, in the Province of Quebec, it can clearly be said that voters expressed their frustration with the status quo, choosing to boot the Bloc, while turning to the untested NDP under an enigmatic Jack Layton. As much as the NDP want us to believe that Quebeccers have embraced them, the truth is that the NDP gained seats primarily as a result of a rejection of the BQ. However, that Quebec did not turn to the Liberals or the Conservatives is notable. The NDP, and Layton in particular, offered Quebeccers a compelling narrative, while the Liberals and Conservatives didn’t.

In fact, the Liberal narrative on offer in Quebec was resoundingly rejected by Canadians outside of that province. But clearly the Liberals were delivered a body blow by a national rise in NDP support in the final days of the election. Canadian voters increasingly opted to try out Layton and the NDP, and as a result, Liberal MP’s fell in overwhelming numbers to Conservatives. This happened because the Canadian right stood firm against a divided left. The fact that it looked like the Orange surge could have swept Layton or Ignatieff into a minority government situation in the final days of the campaign might have actually increased Conservative fortunes in key ridings.

Voters didn’t abandon the Liberal Party wholesale. Instead, more voters opted to give Layton and the NDP a chance. Some right-of-centre Liberals clearly switched allegiance to the Conservatives, rather than risk an NDP minority government. This happened in the Greater Toronto Area in particular, which you will recall was an area the Conservatives had invested a significant amount of campaign time and money. It paid off.

Electoral Results: Dissatisfaction with the Status Quo?

But we should not interpret Harper’s majority government as dissatisfaction with the Canadian status quo. It can not be ignored that the percentage of the popular vote which cast their ballots for Conservative candidates was relatively unchanged between 2008 and 2011 – approximately 40%. That means that the other 60% of voters cast their ballot for other parties. That can only be interpreted as a rejection of the Conservatives. It is only because of Canada’s archaic first-past-the-post electoral system that the political will of Canadians expressed on May 3, 2011, to reject the Conservative Party somehow perversely led to a Conservative majority government.

And we can not forget the almost 40% of Canadians who, for whatever reason, chose not to cast a ballot at all in the election. If these non-votes had been counted in a FPTP situation, Nobody would be the Prime Minister of Canada, with Harper serving as Leader of the Opposition. That 40% of our electorate has chosen to disengage itself from our political processes is the clearest indicator yet that the status quo is failing Canadians.

I am not here, however, suggesting that the Conservative Party does not have a true mandate to govern. On the contrary, I understand the rules very well, and although I believe that those rules, which have led to the absurd outcome of a false majority government, need to be changed, I am not at all suggesting that the Liberals or the NDP should now be governing in Harper’s stead, either separately or together, due to their combined vote totals. What I am suggesting is that the 2011 election, which saw a significantly different outcome than the 2008 election, wasn’t really all that different in any significant way – other than in Quebec.


Yet, as we emerge from the summer of 2011, there is a growing restlessness in Canada. This restlessness did not culminate in the praise offered to Jack Layton and his family at Saturday’s funeral. Instead, Layton’s death and the outpouring of grief may prove to be the spark which lights the fire that sweeps through Canada in a way that the May 2011 election did not. Already, prominent Liberals are openly discussing the option of considering a merger with the NDP, despite attempts by Liberal interim Leader Bob Rae to play down the talk.

Yesterday, Justin Trudeau, the bright light of Liberal youth, said that a merger should be on the table for discussion.

That the NDP itself appears to remain uninterested in a merger does not take into consideration the aspirations of many of its supporters, who are growing increasingly hostile to Canada’s right-wing government. I would not be surprised if one or more of the yet-to-be-announced NDP leadership hopefuls opens the door to discussing a Liberal-NDP merger.

A Liberal-NDP Merger

A merger between the NDP and the Liberals may at first blush appear to appeal to the zeitgeist of the times, uniting the left and threatening to topple the Conservatives in the next election. Chantal Hebert, in today’s Toronto Star, writes that there really are only “two tribes” in Canada, despite the presence of 4 national political parties (“Shifting political landscape holds consequences for all parties"). A merged Liberal-NDP party, however, will not ultimately prove to be the animal many think it would be. And that’s because whatever kind of hybrid animal it turns out to be will be an animal of further compromise.

Political Compromise in Place of Vision

Already both the Liberals and NDP have abandoned the kind of bold thinking that these two parties used to be champions of in the past. Whether it was the NDP thumping away about medicare, or the Liberals offering a vision of Canada with its own constitution and Charter of Rights, those days are gone now for both parties. What we’ve seen increasingly emerge from both the Liberals and NDP are populist boutique issues, designed to target specific voting blocks, rather than comprehensive public policies to address the big issues of the day. While some of these boutique policies may be decent, there has not been any over-arching vision for a future Canada on offer. Instead of a 7-course meal, the Liberals and the NDP offer only one choice from Column A and one from Column B.

This has happened not because Liberals and New Democrats can no longer count amongst themselves the sort of bold thinkers who dominated their parties in the past. There are Stephen Lewises, Tommy Douglases, Pierre Trudeaus and Lester Pearsons in those parties today. Jack Layton may have even been one of them. Certainly Stephane Dion and Justin Trudeau are; perhaps even Bob Rae fits the bill. But as long as Canadian politicians find themselves straight-jacketed by spin and appeals to niche voter targeting in their quest for power, we’re unlikely to see the boldness of spirit which will appeal to our growing restlessness. The zeitgeist of our time demands better than a Liberal-NDP merger.

(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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