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So, What Now? Part Two: Ending the Cynicism

Wednesday May 16, 2012

The next essay in my series on next steps for Lead Now and electoral cooperation supporters within the NDP.  Apologies for the delay in posting, as I noted earlier, a personal crisis has delayed these postings.  I look forward to your comments!

As we look to the future as members of Canada’s opposition party and as social democrats, what do we see?  A future of the NDP supplanting the Liberals permanently as the leading opposition party and occasional alternate government?  A future of the NDP becoming this country’s new natural governing party?  A future beholden to all the same interest groups and systemic issues that turn Canadians off of politics?

A future where we will one day be just as corrupted by power as the Liberals and Conservatives have been?

I am a New Democrat and committed to establishing a New Democrat led government but the NDP’s appeal lies not just in its policies but in its approach and its attitude. I did not join the NDP in order to simply recreate a re-branded Liberal party. I do not believe that is what Canadians want.

The cynicism that has marked Canadian politics of late must end.  This is how we begin to offer a positive new vision for Canadians.

End of an Era 

When historians look back on the political era that began in 1993 and hopefully will end in 2015, they will call this the Chretien-Harper era. These two Prime Ministers are far more alike than most give them credit for. In particular, they have both embraced a ‘no-holds barred’ tactical style that heavily alienated their opponents. Although ideologically I personally may have been more comfortable with Jean Chretien, the damage done by his premiership has led to the rise of Stephen Harper and set the stage for ever-increasing rounds of fiercer battles over smaller and smaller policy differences.

Let’s recap some of the similarities between their two premierships:

  • Both won majorities on popular vote totals that were less than 40% and then claimed that these represented mandates from Canadians to govern as they saw fit without restraint.
  • Both used divisive rhetoric pitting region versus region, frequently in east vs west battles, but also exploiting linguistic divisions.
  • Both used divisive tactics against their opposition, allowing them to achieve their ‘majorities’ on the backs of a largely divided opposition.
  • Both used and abused the powers of the Prime Minister’s office to bypass Parliament.
  • Both whipped their MPs to an unprecedented extent.
  • Both of them achieved their majorities coinciding with the collapse of one of the old style brokerage parties.
  • Both routinely accused their opponents of being ‘unCanadian’
  • Both claimed to exclusively speak for all Canadians
  • Both claimed that only their values represented ‘true Canadian values’

There can be no denying that Stephen Harper has taken many of these traits to their next logical step, beyond what Chretien ever endorsed.   That being said, Stephen Harper was arguably driven to his current position by what happened in Parliament, particularly in the early years of his first government.

Stephen Harper has been a keen student of Jean Chretien and he has learned his lessons all too well.  In the era of ideological parties, the friendly dictatorship is becoming intolerable and leading to new rounds of divisive partisan spite.

New Democrats have an opportunity to end this cycle of division before it spirals into an unrelenting war.

Principles for a New Paradigm

If there is to be a new political paradigm for this country we must first establish some guiding principles for what we hope to offer to Canadians.

  • All Canadians deserve a seat at the table
  • A government must have the support of 50%+1 of the electorate
  • Every Canadian deserves a local representative of their interests in Ottawa
  • Every region of Canada deserves appropriate representation
  • Canada’s First Nations deserve appropriate representation
  • We are all responsible for our national well-being

These are the basic, guiding principles that should be the basis for governing this country, if we are to create a new paradigm.  It must be a paradigm that is based upon democracy, cooperation, and inclusion.  It must speak directly to the heart of the issues that have arisen in the 2 decades since the 1993 election that are undermining Canadian democracy and will eventually undermine our national unity and economy.

These principles also offer an optimistic vision for New Democrats to offer, an alternative to the harsh partisan rhetoric.

Although electoral cooperation is now not on the agenda for the NDP or for any other party, we remain the political party that has most embraced coalition opportunities, the party that has reached out to other parties more often than not.

Lead Now supporters and other pro-cooperation forces within the NDP can still pursue our ultimate goals, a Canadian government that is representative, responsive and respectful.  We can do that by continuing to articulate these critical principles, by holding the NDP to its promise of proportional representation and by embracing Jack Layton’s unrelenting optimism.

A Progressive or Conservative Canada?

Starting from the beginning we have to review how our democratic institutions in this country are working.  A new paradigm will require different behaviour from our politicians of all political stripes.  It will mean embracing new parliamentary practices.

It will mean doing things differently.

Proportional representation has been one of the stated goals of Lead Now and for many Lead Now supporters.  The idea has been largely driven by the idea that proportional representation will mean that a government will be formed by progressive forces in Canada, instead of by a Conservative party with a plurality of votes.

But as we have noted, not all of the political parties that are called ‘progressive’ necessarily fall into that structure.  And creating a political structure to ensure that one party never forms a government is dangerous and risky.  It presumes that we can ensure that an entire segment of our population has no right to participate in the political process beyond opposition.

I don’t want to live in Canada that aims to cut off an avenue of legitimate democratic participation.

Political parties that are in power for long periods of time invariably become corrupt and moribund.  This can happen to any political party, even the NDP.  Party members are often themselves unable to prevent it.  Periods in opposition can be healthy and necessary for a party to rejuvenate.

I would even argue that because the United States almost always features Republicans and Democrats governing together in some capacity without any stretches of genuinely ‘being in opposition’ that this has led to the long-term and deep systemic corruption that marks the American political system.

In order for our positive message to genuinely reach all Canadians it must not be a message of inclusion for all of those we define as ‘progressives.’  It must be a message that offers the opportunity of inclusion to many Conservative voters.  We cannot frame our message as one that is designed to permanently exclude Conservative voices from our new ‘Progressive Canada.’ We cannot frame our institutions with that intent.

This is just as bad as creating a ‘Conservative Canada.’

Next Up: So, What Now? Squaring the Circle, Reforming Our Institutions and NDP Policy

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Agustin permalink
    Friday May 18, 2012 5:04 pm

    Jack, if the NDP values and promotes the paradigm shift you are describing, I will certainly vote for them.

    However, most of Mulcair’s headlines lately have been about pitting the East versus the West in economic battles. This gets his name on the papers, but in the same negative way you described in this blog post.

    • Sunday May 20, 2012 3:35 am

      I’d be lying if I said I didn’t share your concerns. I do. I’m still evaluating what’s happening. Bu I will say that is incumbent upon NDP members who believe in doing politics differently to push their representatives in that direction

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