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My Election 41 Rant

A story from my childhood that’s stuck with me is one my dad told me of first moving to Montreal in the 1970s. Fresh out of university, unsure of what to do next, and just settling into a big(ger) city, he took a job working in a factory. He was promoted from the floor about a week later. Many of his co-workers that week had been in the same positions for years, if not decades. The key difference was not my dad’s Bachelor of Sciences degree, it was that he spoke English, and his co-workers didn’t.

A generation later, in the wake of a revived sovereigntist movement, and second referendum, my late grandmother – a resident of the west island suburb of Lachine, told me a story of how a neighbour hoisted a Canadian flag on the veranda, only to see it burned. Linguistic and cultural tensions were already high because Lachine had elected an Anglophone mayor, owing to a vote-split amongst the Francophone candidates.

This is all to say that, while I was raised and live in Alberta, I’m not unaware of – or insensitive to – the politics of Quebec, and the long-time disadvantages most Quebecois faced. I studied political science in university, focusing mostly on contemporary Canadian politics. In my experience – theoretical and practical – I’ve yet to see any indication that another round of constitutional negotiations is what’s going to settle historical grievances or federal imbalances (that, likely, would get worse) or any other tensions between two of our founding peoples.

In a very different context (the assination of Martin Luther King Jr.), Robert F. Kennedy implored an audience simmering on racial tension to “understand. We have to make an effort to understand”. Those words strike me as apt in almost any situation where there’s great tension. We have to understand both sides – not just our own, and attempt to reconcile the two. I’ve never been convinced that increasingly assymetrical federalism, and/or economic concessions, will settle this issue. But an effort to understand our own country, what makes regions and peoples different, and more importantly what binds us as a country – and a nation – is a pretty significant first step.

It’s my opinion that another round of constitutional talks – even just raising the prospect of it – will lead to no good. In the worst case scenario, it becomes another broken promise from English Canada that will make Quebecois nationhood a more enticing concept. I really hope we don’t go down this road.

With that being said, here are some abridged, largely stream-of-consciousness thoughts before the polls start closing in Atlantic Canada.

Le Ciel est Orange
The NDP looks set to make a historic breakthrough in Quebec, giving them the boost to become the official opposition, or – if crazy things happen, and who’s to say they won’t – the government, for the first time in their history, pushing the Liberal Party into third place standing (again, a first). They’re drawing support from all corners – the soft national/sovereigntist one being the concern – but one way or another, they could win anywhere from 25-55 seats, depending on which numbers you believe. Which will be a big jump from their previous record of 1.

Add in their standing as the most prominent alternative to the Conservatives in most places west of Ontario, and their slow growth in Atlantic Canada over the past dozen years, it’s hard to see the NDP failing to supplant the Liberals, and having a pretty good chance of making this a permanent situation.

And while I am more often than not a Liberal voter, this wouldn’t bother me, except for their position and actions on reopening the constitution. Frankly, I think that 1) in government, they’d govern no different than the Liberals (as history at the provincial level shows), and 2) having a unified centre-left option in a true 2 party system would be a positive development for Canada (brokerage parties FTW). An even NDP-Liberal split, where they spend a few cycles beating each other up (like the PCs/Reform Alliance did) will probably bring this merger about. Or the Liberals will implode, and it will happen by attrition regardless. In any case, whatever centre-left alternative emerges in the next couple of election cycles is unlikely to be an affront to moderate voters. My apologies to the few people who still think the NDP are a social democratic party. The fact is you’re miles away from the Regina Manifesto.

What’s Good for the Liberal Party is Good for Canada
The giant of the 20th century in federal politics looks poised to hit a record low in at least 2 of 3 categories – popular vote % and standing in the House of Commons look assured, but they have a good chance of staying above the record low 40 seats they won in 1984 (which was good for second place against the Mulroney landslide).

Nonetheless, few would disagree that this represents a political all-time low for Canada’s Natural Governing Party, one that they will have a difficult time recovering from (unless they default back into second place due to a NDP implosion). Michael Ignatieff hasn’t excelled as leader, but he will take an unfair burden of the blame, as the leader who happens to be at the helm at this point in time.

The Liberal Party has been in decline for 50 years. Electorally, they lost their base in the west to Diefenbaker in the late ’50s. They benefitted for 60 years from a toxic Conservative party in Quebec, but lost that advantage when Mulroney took over as Tory leader, then after his party’s implosion, to the Bloc Quebecois. Their Ontario base is receding, and the polls are showing stagnation and NDP growth in the Atlantic. Save for the historical quirk of the PC/Reform-Alliance vote split in Ontario, this is a party that is incapable of winning a majority, and has been for 30 years now.

More worrisome is the fact that nobody seems clear what the Liberal Party stands for. The progressive strain of Liberalism (not neo-Liberalism) has failed to fashion a response to the changes in our society over the past 40 years, namely declining industrialization, and increasing globalization. Even politically successful centre-left leaders (Chretien in Canada, Clinton in the US, Blair in the UK) achieved their success by following neo-liberal/neo-conservative agendas. Unless you see social issues as wedge (and practically, they’re not in Canada), there’s not much to distinguish a liberal identity from a small-c conservative one.

Specific to the Liberal Party in Canada, beginning with the “nation” vote in 2006, they’ve shied away from their traditional, strong defense of federalism. It was with utter disappointment that I watched them fail to take a strong stand against the NDP’s approach to Quebec and the constitution this election. Another piece of their traditional agenda seemed to have passed on.

Without a clear agenda, it’s hard to say why a political party should exist. History at the provincial level shows that a centre-left government – whether it’s Liberal or NDP – will be fairly similar. Partisans of both the orange and red variety will surely bristle at this notion, but I’d be interested to see them explain how the governments of Romanow or Doer or Dexter fundamentally differ from those of McKenna, Charest, or McGuinty. For most voters in that ideological ballpark, they want to see a coherent centre-left agenda, and they don’t care under whose umbrella they find it.

My advice, then, to Liberals is that if the party is worth saving, it needs a contemporary ideological foundation to be built on. You’re not being punished for bad behaviour, you’re being punished for irrelevance.

An Electoral Majority, Not a Political Majority
Ryan McNutt made a good point yesterday about Prime Minister Harper seeking an electoral majority, not the broad, consensus-based majorities we’re used to. Should the election night results match the polls, it will be well worth asking whether this is a realistic goal. To take nothing away from the NDP – who have run an excellent campaign, and Jack Layton – who has done well connecting with voters and staying on message – an element of their surge has to owe to a frustration voters are feeling with the Conservatives and Liberals. There has to be a point where the Conservatives ask themselves how far this approach can take them.

With that said, I think they’ll move incrementally closer to a majority, and we’ll see the NDP-Liberal flip the polls are indicating. The BQ, who like the Liberals seem to be searching for an identity, will hit a new low as well. Duceppe will lose his seat, May will fall short of winning hers as well.

Prediction: Conservatives 146, NDP 79, Liberals 61, Bloc 22. Voter turnout will tick up, but I think the surge in the advanced polls owed more to them being on a long weekend than renewed interest from the public.

Enjoy the results, go vote if you haven’t and still can, and stay just as involved and active as a citizen after the election ends. Democracy is a regular function, not something that happens for 36 days after a non-confidence vote. We as Canadians will get the parliament we vote for, and the government we deserve.

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Election 41: When It Happens, Let’s Make It Count

Friday’s vote in the House of Commons means that we Canadians are spared for the time being from going to the polls. Maybe for 10 days, maybe for 10 months. My guess is that the between the support of the NDP and the Bloc, the Conservatives will be able to marshal Parliament through a fall sitting. Following the Vancouver olympics, they will bring forward a motion that neither party can support, sending Canadians to the polls in March or April of 2010.

Canadians don’t seem eager to go to the polls. Which is funny, because if you believe the polls from the last couple of months, a majority of them also want to see someone besides Prime Minister Harper lead the country. Which is even funnier, because polls indicated that Canadians (outside of Quebec) overwhelmingly opposed the idea of a coalition government between the Liberals and NDP (supported by the Bloc Quebecois) when it was proposed several months ago. I’m at a loss for options that will therefore please the majority of people (at least those responding to these polls).

In any case, it looks we’re headed for another election soon – certainly before the 40th Parliament’s mandate expires in 2012, and likely before 2010 is finished. I think the combination of a lack of enthusiasm for an election as well as for the status quo indicates one thing – voters don’t believe the election will change anything. You can’t blame someone for thinking that – polls indicate the next parliament will look like the current one, and if recent elections are an indication, the campaign will be more about fearmongering and name-calling than serious policy considerations.

Most Canadians seem to be unsatisfied not just with government, but with the level of discourse and debate in politics. The next election is an opportunity for voters – to ask tough questions, demand to see policy and discussion surrounding it, and to reward those party leaders and candidates who do so. Done right, another early election can be a good thing.

Which is why I was encouraged to read Michael Igatieff’s speech to the Toronto Board of Trade.

Ignatieff Speaks

Almost three months ago, I blogged about Michael Ignatieff’s town hall in Edmonton. He outlined a vision for Canada, and with speeches such as today’s on the economy and last week’s about Canada’s place in the world, he’s starting to articulate how he would move the country towards that vision. We need more of this. There is certainly a place in political speeches to critique the actions and views of other parties, but when that becomes the prime focus of your speeches, and you move away from informed critique to ad hominen attacks and misinformed generalizations, everyone loses out.

While you may not know it if you just tune in during elections, especially the leadership debates, our four national party leaders are all smart, accomplished people – as is BQ leader Gilles Duceppe. Between the five of them we should be able to have a real debate about the values and future direction of our country.

Michael Ignatieff is an accomplished author and public intellectual. He has written extensively about nationalism, national identity, and foreign policy. He has studied and lectured at some of the world’s leading universities. Let’s hold him to account, and make sure he spends his time talking about issues like foreign policy, the economy, and nationalism, rather than demonizing the Conservative government.

Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper addresses the worlds media

Stephen Harper was the Policy Director of the fledgling Reform Party, and one of the more active minds of his generation. He challenged the status quo and helped present a coherent vision of a more conservative Canada. As Prime Minister, he has abandoned selling a vision, choosing instead to advance causes like Senate reform by stealth, and to woo voters with piecemeal measures one microtargeted group at a time. Mr. Harper has been Prime Minister for 3 1/2 years, and there’s a good chance he’ll continue to be Prime Minister after the next election as well. With this office, what is he trying to accomplish? What is his ultimate vision for Canada, and how does he see us getting there? The Prime Minister would be well-served by laying his cards on the table. We can judge for ourselves if someone is not a leader, or just visiting Canada. So let’s hear less of that and more of where you want to take our country.

Jack Layton in Edmonton I

Prior to his election as leader of the NDP, Jack Layton was a respected Toronto City Councillor, President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and author on the issue of homelessness. Since then, he has spent more time on the campaign trail spouting platitudes about “working families”, demonizing the Liberals and Conservatives, and railing against big corporations. Aside from the “NDP Budget” he extracted from the Liberal Party in 2005, we haven’t seen or heard much about what the NDP stands for. Our cities face significant financial challenges, both in raising revenue and addressing the need for infrastructure and services. Homelessness remains a significant problem. Let’s hear you talk about how you would address those.

Elizabeth May, Green Party leadership candidate

And wither Elizabeth May? For all the talk that Michael Ignatieff was invisible all summer, what has Elizabeth May been up to? Besides turning up to announce she was running for, then contest and win, the nomination in Saanich-Gulf Island, Ms. May has been conspicuously absent in recent months. You would think the leader of a party on the outside of parliament would be making a compelling case that her party would be different than the dysfunctional caucuses inside the House. It would, you know, try to make parliament work.

More importantly, where is May, the lifelong environmental leader, to speak out as we head towards the next round of climate change talks in Copenhagen. Isn’t this precisely the type of issue she got into politics to address?

It’s important we don’t place all the burden or blame on our public officials. Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. As citizens, we have a responsibility to hold public officials and candidates for office to account. As we head towards another election, we have an opportunity to demand more of party leaders and candidates for office. We can demand that they discuss issues seriously. We can reward the ones who do, and punish the ones who don’t. These things take time and effort – to vote, to analyse and discuss party platforms and policy issues, to volunteer our time in support of people and causes we support – but good government and serious debate don’t magically happen. It takes the time and effort of citizens and officials at all levels.

If our citizens and our public officials are up for it, Election 41 can be a good thing. We should all do our part to make it happen.