Friday, February 6, 2015

Sudbury By-Election Shows the NDP in Eclipse

Wow. What the heck just happened here? Apparently – the unthinkable. Watching the #Sudbury hashtag on Twitter last night, which was trending nationally after the polls closed at 9 PM Eastern Time – our city took a verbal beating from the twitterati for having the – I don’t know what, so let’s go with “questionable judgement” – to send Liberal Glenn Thibeault to Queen’s Park after all of the nonsense – shenanigans – anti-democratic backroom dealing – pending criminal charges? – after all of that was exposed to the public eye over the past 4 weeks of the Sudbury by-election.

I’m not going to re-cap the ins and outs of the scandals which continued to erupt here in Sudbury even as the polls were closing last night. Suffice it for me to say that the Liberal Party is going to have a lot of explaining to do over the next little while to justify some of their actions – for some Liberals, possibly that explaining will occur in front of a judge. I don’t care how much of a partisan Liberal you are (and certainly, there are likely fewer of those in Sudbury today, even after last night’s victory (and not just because all of those imported election helpers are being bussed back to Toronto and Ottawa today), you’ve got to admit that after what went on here, the election was the NDP’s to lose.

By-Election Was NDP's to Lose

Let me be clear here: the NDP wanted to win this by-election. They threw everything that they had into it. They brought in MPP’s, MP’s – NDP leader Andrea Horwath practically lived in Sudbury these past 4 weeks. They brought in federal party leader Tom Mulcair to offer his pointed observations of defector Glenn Thibeault (the famous “he’s beneath contempt” remarks). The even trotted out an endorsement from former leader and now near-NDP deity Ed Broadbent. And by putting everything that the NDP had into this election – from both the provincial and federal levels – the NDP are going to have to wear this loss as millstone around its collective neck.

By all rights, the Liberals, even with a great candidate like Thibeault, should not have ever been in contention here. Throughout the campaign, Thibeault found himself on the defensive – to say the least. Actually, the anger and ire that was palpable on the ground here in Sudbury directed at Thibeault and the Liberal Party was so pungent you could almost taste it in the frozen air as you walked down the street.

Yet, for all of that, the NDP, which took the Sudbury riding in the 2014 general election, didn’t get the votes. What happened?

Factors at Play Against NDP Success?

There are likely a number of factors which I won’t explore in any great detail here, besides to list them: the nomination of a relatively unknown candidate who did not live in the riding or the City; an early election call which caught the Party flat-footed (they didn’t nominate their candidate until 5 days into writ period); a weak performance of their candidate on the issues and NDP policy; the negative tone coming from the NDP campaign and its allies (United Steelworkers, OPSEU); and, the reliance on the electorate’s anger over Thibeault’s floor crossing as a motivating factor.

Some other factors might have worked against the NDP. The presence of a strong independent candidate, former Liberal turned whistle-blower Andrew Olivier, may have initially trumped some of the NDP’s momentum at the outset of the election, but frankly Olivier peaked early, and polls in the final week of the election showed that his vote had collapsed (indeed, the polls showed that it was Shawbonquit who had the momentum going into last night – the final poll before e-day actually had her three percentage points ahead of Thibeault). So it’s not clear to me that the Independent’s presence was damaging to the NDP – if anything, Olivier’s revelations seemed only to reinforce the NDP’s campaign narrative.

A strong Liberal ground game which pulled their vote may have been a contributing factor – to a degree. The fact is, the NDP also had a very strong ground game in play here, so I’m not sure the Liberal effort was determinative.

Voter turnout might also have played a role. In 2014, 52.5% of eligible voters in Sudbury cast ballots in the general election. NDP candidate Joe Cimino (whose resignation this past November triggered yesterday’s by-election), received 42.24% of the vote to the (then) Liberal candidate Andrew Olivier, who got 39.34%.

Turnout last night, however, was lower (only 25,747 voters cast ballots in the by-election, vs. the 22,725 who voted in the 2014 general election – by a quick calculation, based on similar numbers for eligible voters over the past 7 months, that means voter turnout here was down to around 40% - not bad for a by-election, but still a significant reduction from 2014). A lower voter turn out favours the parties with a strong ground game – but, again, it’s debatable that the Liberals performed better than their NDP counterparts in that department.

So after all of this analysis, we appear to be at a stalemate. Some factors might have had a small impact on the NDP’s loss – but was it enough to overcome the tone, mood, atmosphere and outright public hostility which Sudburians were expressing about the Liberals (mainly) and Thibeault (to a lesser, but still palpable extent)?

The NDP's Problem is the NDP

I’d argue that the primary deciding factor in the NDP’s loss (and I will continue to phrase it that way, rather than identify what happened last night as a Liberal win – for all of the reasons I’ve stated above, this election really was the NDP’s to lose) goes right back to the NDP itself as a Party – here in Ontario at the provincial level under leader Andrea Horwath, and federally under Tom Mulcair.

An interesting poll was released yesterday from EKOS which shows that support of the federal NDP has continued to plummet. EKOS has Tom Mulcair’s NDP down under 18% nationally. Back in the fall, EKOS was tracking the NDP in the mid-20s, where they’ve consistently polled since the spring of 2013 (before that they were higher).

Eric Grenier’s poll aggregator,, has the NDP slightly higher – but still at only 20% (and that doesn’t take into consideration yesterday’s EKOS poll). Say what you want about polls, but there’s really no denying the validity of the trends they reveal – and the trend here for the NDP has been one of failure – of being brought back down to where they used to poll in the 1990s.

Why is this? What’s going on? Why are people abandoning the NDP? Are the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne in Ontario and Justin Trudeau nationally that much better – that much more progressive – than they were under McGuinty or Ignatieff/Dionne? It’s certainly not clear to me that’s the case. So what is going on?

NDP has Lost its Way

What is clear to me, and apparently to a growing number of Canadians, is that the NDP has lost its way. In pursuit of electoral success, the NDP has shifted to the right of the political spectrum, but not enough or in such a way as to capture the imagination of centrists – but instead to portray itself as a Party willing to abandon it’s long-held principles in the pursuit of power. In short, the NDP doesn’t really stand for anything much any more.

And that was so evident during the Sudbury by-election. For the most part, the NDP’s strategy was to vilify Liberal candidate Glenn Thibeault on a personal level – to try to shame him. By emphasising the personal attacks – and let me be clear here, attacking another candidate on a personal level can be a very effective political tool when used at the right time, and Sudbury was probably the right time – left the NDP with little opportunity to discuss issues or publicly take positions on matters of local and provincial importance.

Sure, NDP candidate Suzanne Shawbonquit came out in favour of bringing a PET scanner to Sudbury (as did every other candidate), and she had some words to say about striking CCAC nurses and a lot more to say about potential lay-offs of nursing jobs at our local hospital (layoffs that haven’t happened yet, but the NDP enjoys dealing in rumours). Sure, she said some words – but she failed to articulate anything resembling a plan for finding a way forward. Saying that “we’ll stand up for jobs” isn’t really offering much in the way of substance to voters.

Was this Shawbonquit’s fault? No – it wasn’t. Although she was probably the worst candidate the NDP has offered up to Sudbury voters in decades, the fact is that her own Party had only thin gruel to give her in terms of ideas, initiatives, and substance on local issues. And that’s really the part of the growing trend which has shown that even the NDP doesn’t really understand what it stands for any more.

And so the NDP is in eclipse. And ultimately, that’s not good for Canada, because the NDP’s voice should be a strong one on many of the issues of importance to Canadians today – issues that the Liberals and Conservatives don’t want to touch, like climate change. But instead of a strong voice for Canada, the NDP is withering on the vine. I sincerely hope that both the provincial and federal parties engage in a lot of soul-searching over what happened here in Sudbury, because the disaster that befell the NDP here could be indicative of what awaits it later next year.

A Way Forward for the NDP

It looks to me like the NDP has two serious problems that it has to find a way to overcome. The first is leadership. Both Mulcair and Horwath have taken the NDP uncomfortably to the right of the political spectrum, and by doing so they’ve abandoned the core values of the party in pursuit of “populist” politics. We saw that play out in great detail here in Sudbury. New leaders are needed which will engage party membership so that a new and comprehensive plan for a way forward can be created. This new plan must be based on substance, good public policy and a return to supporting core values.

The second problem may be more difficult to overcome. In short, the NDP has to convince its allies in the Labour movement to get on board with taking real action on the climate crisis – or it needs to abandon Labour to the do-nothing Liberals. I realize that sounds very strange to many ears, but the fact of the matter is that a labour movement which refuses to take the climate crisis seriously, a movement which champions jobs in the fossil fuel sector over stranding assets, is a liability for the NDP going forward. Labour is a liability because by ignoring climate justice, it is working at odds against social justice.

The NDP's Dumb Economic Policies

Here in Sudbury, Suzanne Shawbonquit was forced to parrot the provincial party line that electricity rates (which the NDP in this province still want to refer to as “hydro” – even though less than a quarter of Ontario’s energy mix comes from water power. We probably should be calling our electricity bills “nuke bills”) are too high for people on fixed incomes – for seniors and for those living in poverty. The NDP’s solution, of course, is to lower the rates. They apparently also want to introduce a cap on gasoline prices in Ontario now too, for similar reasons.

Of course, if you artificially lower or cap prices, someone has to end up paying the difference. That would be the taxpayer – or, as increasingly preferred by neo-liberal governments – our children, born and unborn, with cost differentials made up through debt). It’s pretty easy to follow the route of the NDP’s plan to its conclusion: subsidizing fossil fuel use leads to higher taxes or debt – both of which will end up impacting those living on fixed incomes considerably. Along with the rest of us. In short, if you set out to develop the dumbest economic strategy that you could, you would arrive at the NDP’s plan.

And that’s to say nothing of the climate crisis. When you artificially lower the price of a good, chances are people are going to consume more of it. So much for conservation efforts. And since the rich are more able to consume, they’re going to be the big winners of this scheme – not seniors on fixed incomes, or those living in poverty. In fact, those living in poverty get hit twice here, even though their initial bills may be somewhat lower. They get hit through an unstable economy where higher taxes or debt is used to finance subsidies. And they get hit again by climate change.

Shifting Economic Paradigms

The labour movement, however, endorses consumption, because consumption creates jobs. That’s true – right up to the point where it isn’t true any more because the economy has collapsed because you’ve pursued a foolish, unsustainable fiscal policy. And that’s the heart of the problem – as long as labour is married to an economic paradigm dependent on growth (and as long as the NDP follows Labour’s lead), the very people whom the NDP claims to champion are actually put in increasing jeopardy.

To find success going forward, the NDP has to abandon a growth-centred economic development paradigm and replace it with one focused on sustainability. But that’s clearly not going to happen until Labour either gets its own act together – or until the NDP tells Labour to bug off.

I can’t see either of these things happening – yet they must happen. If they don’t happen, the NDP will continue to slip into irrelevancy. Ontario and Canada don’t need two Liberal parties. We need a party which understands and works toward implementing a sustainable economic paradigm.

I guess that’s why I’m with the Green Party, after all.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and of Canada)

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