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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A fresh issue for spring election: democracy

A fresh issue for spring election: democracy
Written by Administrator   
Monday, 14 March 2011 07:39
The NDP should let the Liberals spend their campaign money telling people not to trust Harper while it reaps the benefits of people looking for someone they can trust.
Published March 14, 2011 The Hill Times
POWELL RIVER, B.C.—The odds seem to favour a spring election, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent $300-million pork barreling blitzkrieg suggested. That is now reinforced by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's musing about a confidence motion based on Harper's contempt of Parliament (yet to be formally declared). But in anticipating yet another campaign, it is worth remembering that without the NDP, Canadian politics (outside Quebec) would look an awful lot like the U.S.: two political parties, economically and socially right-wing, both with a recent history of dismantling the activist state and gutting its revenue base through huge tax cuts. All the while pretending to compete for our hearts and minds.
To be sure, the Conservatives—who should rightfully be called the Republican Party—are by several degrees worse than the Liberal Party in their effort to diminish democratic governance. Harper runs a ruthless autocracy with contempt for every aspect of democracy from watchdog agencies to Parliamentary committees, from to access to information to casual abuse of power for personal vendettas—and topped off with a relentless assault on the political culture through the defunding of civil society.
It now turns out that the Harper government may be much more corrupt than even the existing record shows. The Canadian Press did an FOI on the Integrity Commissioner's Office formerly headed up by the now discredited Christiane Ouimet. The documents revealed 42 of the 228 cases under scrutiny involved alleged misuse of taxpayer dollars, approximately 50 involved charges of "gross mismanagement" and an incredible 60 complaints involved contraventions of Acts of Parliament and many others counselling breaking the law. Not a single complaint resulted in any action.
Given the Harper record, it is easy for people to see the Liberals as a genuine, even mildly progressive alternative. It is now busy following its age-old script by poaching issues either championed by the NDP, such as opposing corporate tax cuts and appealing to "working families," or pretending to oppose the jet fighters when their policy would actually result in the same purchase—just through a competitive tender. Ignatieff has also gone after Harper on the billions that will be spent on new prisons (after supporting most of his crime bills). It could all sound pretty appealing.
But it is important to recall just how awful this party was under the regimes of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. Martin made the largest cuts to social programs of any government in Canadian history—far out-distancing Brian Mulroney in the savagery of the cuts. He also did his best to undermine social program universality by eliminating federal funding tied directly to health, education and social assistance—giving the provinces instead a lump sum transfer payment which could be used for anything.
Martin then topped it off with the largest package of tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations ever implemented in Canada: $100-billion over five years (compared to Jim Flaherty's cuts of $60 billion over five years). He was also responsible for implementing a ferocious "labour flexibility" program designed—successfully—to flatline Canadian wages and salaries through deliberately creating a seven-year recession.
This is the Liberal Party of Canada and it is beholden to Bay Street no matter who its leader is. Its current head is a man whose very philosophy questions the notion of right and wrong—"Let's see... is torture okay or not?" That may well be why Canadians trust him the least of all federal leaders.
Nevertheless, for the third election in a row, those who want to preserve and enhance a progressive social and economic agenda for the country have to rely on the Liberals getting more seats than the Conservatives—and governing with some kind of support from the NDP and the Bloc. If that happens, the kind of government we get will be largely determined by the balance of Liberal and NDP seats in the House.
The irony is that when Harper does his now-predictable drop from the high 30s in the polls, it is the Liberals who benefit. Recent developments were typical. For several weeks, Harper was pushing into potential majority territory—enough polls that it looked like a trend. But whenever he gets this close, Harper demonstrates his arrogance and almost pathological lack of impulse control. He does something brazenly stupid. This time it was defending the lies of Bev Oda, his minister of International Cooperation. It brought him down, according to one poll, from a 12.5 point lead over the Liberals to just five points. But it also whacked the NDP from nearly 19 per cent to just 14.5 per cent.
It seems that when people get scared of Harper, some of them abandon the NDP for the Liberals as a stop-Harper strategy. But the only way the next Parliament will produce anything resembling progressive policies is for the balance of power to shift towards the NDP. Ignatieff is hostile to a formal accord or a coalition, an idea he already killed once. He will not be easily persuaded if the NDP has even fewer seats this time around and he has more.
But what will determine which opposition party does best? Will there be a real contest of ideas in this election? Not likely. Federal politics are now so constricted by geographic and demographic considerations and by the narrow calculus of voter preferences that many of the issues that the majority of Canadians care about will not get any play. The number of issues that appear to be effectively off the electoral table include child care, climate change, Canada's place in the world, the Afghan war, fair taxes, and the obscene gap between rich and poor. There is little likelihood that either party will make these leading campaign issues.
And still there is no talk of a coalition by either the NDP or the Liberals. Perhaps if the NDP had publicly pushed for such an accord, and forced Ignatieff to explain why he opposes one, it could have protected its left flank from the policy poaching now being conducted by the Liberals—pushing to identify four or five policies they were both committed to. But the conventional political wisdom is proceed with extreme caution.
We cannot, regrettably, expect anything bold from any of the opposition parties, including the NDP which would benefit the most from taking a risk. But if the NDP designs its election platform from its strength, it will do two things. First, it will emphasize trust. Layton scores very high on this factor and in a battle to rid the country of Harper that will have two advantages. First, in a trust battle Ignatieff is barely in the game. Secondly, Harper, while he maintains his lead on economic issues, is very vulnerable on the character front. His countless violations of democracy, his defending the indefensible, his control freakishness and hyper-partisanship—all grate on Canadians at a fundamental level.
While online polls are unscientific and can be manipulated, a recent one asked on what issue Harper was most vulnerable. With almost 27,000 people voting, just 11 per cent said corporate tax cuts and only four per cent said fighter jets. Eighty-six per cent said "secrecy and control."
That could be refreshing—an election about democracy.
The NDP has already teased out the democracy issue by its initiative on abolishing the Senate and secondly, proportional representation (again a risk-averse approach: the order should have been reversed). While Ignatieff is threatening a non-confidence vote on Harper's contempt for democracy the polls consistently show that people trust him even less than the autocrat he wants to replace. That could be a nice setup for Jack Layton—let the Liberals spend their campaign money telling people not to trust Harper while the NDP reaps the benefits of people looking for someone they can trust.

Abbotsford NDP Candidate David Murray with Ed Broadbent at Halifax convention
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