Layton’s speech capped a campaign in which he had studiously avoided warning Canadians about any potential threat from Harper and the Conservatives. This odd fact was driven home to me a few days before election day when a newspaper reporter phoned to do an interview. Clearly frustrated, he told me he had been on the ndp campaign plane for three weeks and that despite repeated efforts, he couldn’t get Layton to say anything of significance about Harper, except a one-off shot at his proclivity for decentralization. The ndp leader was quick to attack Paul Martin and the Liberals, but all he would say about the front-running Conservatives was that they were “wrong on the issues.” Shortly after the election, arguing that Canadians wanted Parliament to function and for the sniping to end, Layton said that he could and would work with Harper. But based on ominous early warning signs from the Conservatives, he must now be wondering if Harper will work with him.
ollowing negotiations with the Liberals that seemed designed to fail, Layton broke with the Martin government in a letter to health minister Ujjal Dosanjh on November 7, 2005. He wrote that he was halting talks with the Liberals vis-à-vis stopping “the growing privatization of public health care in Canada” because “in our view, on this key test of whether the Government has a real desire to make the present Parliament work, we must regretfully conclude that there seems to be none.” Three weeks later, the ndp joined with the other two opposition parties to defeat the minority Liberal government in a vote of non-confidence.
Inside the ndp, the move was divisive. By voting day, it had created a veritable chasm within the broader left community. The federal election “badly tested the relationship” between social movements and the ndp, wrote Canadian Auto Workers economist Jim Stanford in the Globe and Mail a few days after Harper’s victory. “ndp strategists precipitated the election, sensing a moment of opportunity to win more seats. But their decision was made over the explicit objection of many progressive movements. They had used the Liberals’ fragile minority position to extract impressive, important gains (child care, new legal protections for workers, the aboriginal deal, and others); they wanted to solidify those victories, and win new ones.” Leaders from these progressive constituencies “all wanted the election later, not sooner.”
The most visible sign of division was Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove’s campaign to stop the Conservatives by supporting New Democrats in ridings where they were likely to win and Liberals elsewhere. Three weeks after the election, the Ontario ndp executive suspended Hargrove from the party; its president, Sandra Clifford, explained that the sum of the union leader’s actions led to the suspension. “It was appearing with the prime minister… hugging him. Saying that he wanted a Liberal minority government,” Clifford said. In effect, the party had decided that it was an expellable offence for members to advocate strategic voting. While many insiders wanted Hargrove to “buzz off,” others were just as concerned about the decision to bring down the government; some also saw the entire ndp campaign as strategic and found Hargrove’s dismissal deeply parodixical.
Prime Minister Martin had promised to call the election within thirty days of the release of retired justice John Gomery’s final report on the Liberal sponsorship scandal, which was delivered as planned on February 1, 2006. Either way, therefore, a trip to the polls was imminent. But ndp strategists thought it dangerous to allow the government to set the terms of debate, and were concerned that on the key issue of political ethics the party would be caught in a squeeze between the Liberals and the Conservatives. They believed that the Liberals would accept virtually all of Justice Gomery’s recommendations and that a chastened Liberal Party could win a majority government.
Still smarting over Martin’s successful last-ditch appeal to ndp supporters to vote Liberal to stop Harper during the 2004 election campaign, Layton’s team was determined not to let history repeat itself. Polls indicated that ndp supporters were the most worried about a Conservative government and, the thinking went, many would vote strategically again in the event of a successful campaign to demonize Harper. So, as revealed by ndp press releases, campaign literature, and Layton’s speeches, to prevent erosion of ndp support the party concentrated its fire on the Liberals, only sporadically mentioning the Conservatives in its attacks. The most memorable ndp television advertisement depicted Canadians giving the corrupt Liberals the boot.
These messages set the tone. Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians, for one, told me that she felt pressure “not to critique Harper,” and that the top priority was “to win more seats for the ndp.” During the election, the Council was involved in the Think Twice coalition, made up of groups that came together to warn Canadians about Stephen Harper’s record. “If the ndp was not going to talk about Harper’s record,” Barlow said, “we felt we had to.”
The ndp and the wider progressive community are divided over whether it really matters if a Stephen Harper or a Paul Martin is in power. The standard party answer during the election campaign was a flat no, a position Maude Barlow couldn’t agree with.
Though author and social activist Naomi Klein had similar reservations about Layton’s tactics, she reasons that his strategy was “pretty much vindicated by his having won so many seats.” Klein speculates that Canadians may have a growing appreciation of minority governments and that the ndp could win many more seats in the next election.
“Why not” she asks. “The party stands for what many Canadians want.” At the same time, however, Klein insists that Layton “has a lot to prove. He must show that he can be a counterweight to Harper.” Moreover, the Canadian left requires a “strategy of revival” akin to the ones adopted in places like Mexico and France. In those countries there is considerably more policy interplay between social movements and political parties. The left, Klein contends, needs to be “more than a conference and less than a party.”
lein’s comments echo debates from years ago. In many respects the 2006 ndp election strategy had its origins in the political wars of the 1980s, wars that culminated in the landmark free trade election of 1988. Until that decade, strategic voting was not an important consideration in federal election campaigns, for the simple reason that left-leaning Canadians were no more alarmed by the prospect of a Tory government than a Liberal one. Conservative leaders like John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield, and Joe Clark were in the Red Tory tradition: fiscally conservative, socially progressive, and not joined at the hip to big business. They were no greater anathema to the left than the Liberals, and so during the election of 1984, leader Ed Broadbent painted his ndp as the only genuine alternative by dubbing the Liberals and Conservatives the “Bobbsey twins of Bay Street.” It was good politics and the ndp won thirty seats, managing to resist Brian Mulroney’s Conservative tide, which left the Liberals with a mere forty MPs.
Though depicting the Liberals and Conservatives as Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee worked in 1984, the replication of this strategy had dire consequences in the next election. Under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, neo-conservative revolutions were surging forward in the United States and Britain. Happy to swim with the current, the Conservatives abandoned their historic opposition to free trade (which dated back to John A. Macdonald), and began negotiating a far-reaching agreement with the US.
Rarely were business and labour so polarized as in the 1988 federal election campaign. On the table was a deal that threatened to undo the most fundamental difference between Canada and the US: the state’s right and responsibility—vigorously exercised north of the border but largely neglected to the south—to mitigate the harsher effects of the free market. Trade unionists, social activists, and many people in the cultural sector made the battle to stop free trade the fight of their lives.
Free trade, which conventionally meant nothing more than reciprocal tariff elimination, was a stunning misnomer for the treaty Mulroney was negotiating with the Reagan administration. Under the investor-state provisions of the agreement, for instance, Canada would be required to accord “national treatment” to American investors and to US firms located here. This measure would severely curtail Canada’s ability to foster winners in the public and private sectors, and to develop Canadian expertise, performance, and economic output for both national and international markets. In an equally significant giveaway, Canada would relinquish basic sovereignty over its oil and natural gas. In the event of a global petroleum shortage, Canada would be required to continue supplying the US with its pre-shortage share of petroleum, even if this meant that in some regions Canadians would go short.
While it promised better ways of settling disputes, the agreement would not preclude the more powerful US from hitting Canadian producers with destructive countervailing duties if, on a whim, it decided Canada wasn’t trading “freely” enough. The treaty would tie the hands of the Canadian government, drastically limiting its ability to implement policies regarded as inimical to the US, transnational business, and Big Oil in Canada. It was an ideological agreement that would fundamentally alter Canada’s constitutional order by negating social-democratic approaches to the economy. And the ndp knew it.
y the time the Tories called the election in 1988, Liberal leader John Turner had pledged that, if elected, his government would tear up the free trade deal. But on the day the writs were issued, Broadbent barely mentioned free trade in his campaign kick-off statement.
In the early days of the contest, the Conservatives topped the polls. In a televised leaders’ debate, however, Turner scored a powerful hit by warning Canadians of the consequences of Mulroney’s trade deal. “With one signature of a pen,” Turner thundered at Mulroney, “you’ve thrown us into the north-south influence of the United States and will reduce us, I am sure, to a colony of the United States.” The impact was immediate. The Liberals, having seized an issue that was at least as dear to the hearts of left-wing progressives, took the lead in the polls.
It was a moment of truth for business, labour, social movements, and for the ndp. Rather than joining the Liberals and other nationalists in a full frontal assault against free trade, the ndp reprised its 1984 election strategy, turned its guns on Turner (who was not even in office), and declared that there was no real difference between Grits and Tories. Those running the ndp campaign decided that what mattered most was the party’s seat total and its vote share relative to the Liberals’, not the fight for economic sovereignty.
Amazingly, the strategy worked. On election day, Ed Broadbent was rewarded with forty-three seats, the most ever for the federal ndp. But virtually forgotten in the ndp enthusiasm was the fact that a renewed push by their big-business allies had won the Conservatives a majority government. With 43 percent of the vote (compared with 52 percent for the parties that opposed free trade), Mulroney salvaged his free trade agreement, which took effect on January 1, 1989. To this day, we are witnessing the legacy of this deal in the softwood lumber dispute and other disagreements that bring into question Canada’s right to subsidize Crown and private corporations, and to use other instruments of state economic intervention.
Short months after the 1988 election, Bob White, who was then president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, expressed the labour movement’s fury with Broadbent’s electoral strategy. “What was and remains an issue, was the style and orientation of the ndp campaign,” he wrote in a report to the ndp’s federal council. “Is our party becoming a pale imitation of the other parties Can we still count on it to stand up for us”
With free trade, ndp policies dealing with questions of economic strategy effectively disappeared. (Some are still on party policy books, but they are rarely discussed at election time.) Before 1988, under pressure from economic nationalists, the ndp advocated the use of public ownership as a means for Canada to gain control of its resource industries, particularly oil and gas; afterward, it no longer made much of an issue about the essential structure of the economy. Instead, the party became the defender of social programs, medicare in particular. Philosophically, the differences between the ndp and the Liberals blurred to the point that Mackenzie King’s fammous quip that Canada’s social democrats were simply “Liberals in a hurry” had become a reality.
he ndp was unable to translate its vastly improved parliamentary status from 1988 into anything grander. Beginning with the election of 1993, in which the ndp won only nine seats and lost official party status, the result was a decade in the electoral wilderness, a fact the party would do well to remember today.
A protracted recession, the sense that the Conservatives had become arrogant and proto-American, and Mulroney’s courting of Quebec nationalists led to the Tories’ collapse under new leader Kim Campbell in 1993. Once returned to office, the Liberals abandoned their opposition to free trade, but Canadians largely bought the idea that they would lessen the impact of the deal through strong social programs. This despite drastic social-program spending cuts, which an enfeebled ndp could do little about. On the constitutional front, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, a Trudeau Liberal, would deal with Quebec. Without any traction in la belle province, the federal ndp largely stood outside the Quebec sovereignty battles of the early 1990s. In short, the ndp, having forsaken an ardent defence of economic nationalism to become the defender of Canada’s social safety net and not being as intimately involved in the historic French-English divide, had less and less to talk about.
The ndp’s lean years during the Chrétien era featured the growth of a markedly different form of Prairie populism than the one that had spawned the ndp’s ancestor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (ccf), in 1932. Seizing on a deep-seated sense of western alienation, the Reform Party threatened both the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal nexus and federalism itself, uniting the centre-left behind the Liberals.
But the decade also featured a phenomenon that might have favoured the ndp had the party been prepared for it. The anti-globalization movement, demanding “fair trade not free trade,” stole headlines. Many of its young supporters, potential ndp backers who were joining civil-society groups, didn’t see enough in ndp policies to support Canada’s only mainstream progressive political party. On top of this, mirroring a tension within the ndp between its Prairie roots and its urban potential, the gap between the values of rural and urban Canada was widening. Young urbanites questioned whether the ndp understood the issues related to contract employment, or that an entire generation, the baby boomers, was preventing young people from gaining access to the halls of power.
Adjustments were clearly necessary, but during this divisive decade ndp strategists remained preoccupied with having “their” issues (child care, the environment, etc.) stolen at election time and then ignored by the ruling Liberals. To this, the body politic responded with a collective shrug—content, it seemed, with having a party of principle that would never be a party of power.
ith the election of Jack Layton as leader in 2003, ndp hopes for the future were rekindled. Here was a talented, energetic, media-savvy politician who understood cities and the environment, and who could go to university campuses and actually draw crowds. In his 2004 book, Speaking Out, Layton provided Canadians with a coherent social-democratic vision, full of workable ideas that promised to restore the ndp’s capacity to debate economic issues and to challenge the priorities of capitalism, if not capitalism itself. What was more, Layton’s rhetoric suggested a keen appreciation that the left was about more than electoral politics. He saw that process politics and reaching out to civil-society groups were critical.
Strangely, in the 2004 election, and much more overtly in 2006, the ndp leader exhibited a penchant for short-term fixes over long-term party-building. He became a servant to the proposition that what was good for working people and for the left was more seats for the ndp—no more, no less. Playing right into Conservative hands, in the 2006 election Layton helped frame the central issue as Liberal scandals. The Canadian Election Study, published just after the election, suggests this issue was responsible for the Conservative victory. It showed that outside Quebec, the proportion of people rating Liberal scandals as salient jumped from 19.7 percent at the conclusion of the 2004 campaign to 30.4 percent at the end of January’s election. (In Quebec, the sponsorship program’s backyard, the centrality of government corruption was never in doubt.) The proportion of people rating Harper positively actually declined slightly, from 48.8 percent to 46.7 percent, and the share seeing him as “just too extreme” barely budged, down from 49.1 percent to 48.3 percent. But this did not matter. While the ndp’s prospects improved, its strategy clearly helped install the Conservative minority government.
Analysts agree that the major turning point in the campaign came in late December with the rcmp’s letter to ndp MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis informing her that a criminal probe was being launched about possible leaks from Ralph Goodale’s finance department on new income-trust rules. Wasylycia-Leis had written to the rcmp to request an investigation and when the Mounties, in a questionable move during an election campaign, wrote her back, she released the letter to the media. The Liberals never recovered.
In the last week of the campaign, Layton advocated strategic voting, urging traditional Liberals to lend the ndp their vote while the Liberals went into the “repair shop” for refitting. To cap it off, in what was billed as his last statement as an MP, Ed Broadbent declared that power “should be taken away” from the Liberals, that the party “no longer [had] the moral authority to deserve people’s votes.” He said not a word about what a Harper government would mean for the country.
What was the ndp leadership playing at Did it actually prefer a Conservative victory Unlikely as it may seem, there are reasons for thinking so. Since the founding of the ccf, social democrats have dreamt that one day their party would replace the Liberals as one of the nation’s two major political vehicles. Inspired by Britain’s Labour Party, which had relegated that country’s once-mighty Liberal Party to middling status following World War I, ccfers saw this as the natural course of Canadian political development. For a few years following the founding of the New Democratic Party in 1961, with Tommy Douglas as its first leader, the dream returned, only to fade as a result of relatively weak election results in 1962, 1963, and 1965. The dream was extinguished when Pierre Trudeau swept to power in 1968.
In the industrialized world, Canada is that rare case where a centrist party has been dominant for many decades, borrowing ideas from the left and the right. Rarely innovative, always adaptive, the federal Liberals have been the bane of their opponents, detested by ndp and Conservative insiders alike for their lack of principle. Under Layton, ndp strategists have resumed the search for the Holy Grail: the realignment of Canadian politics around the centre-left pillar of the ndp through the marginalization of the Liberals. If history and international experience are indicators, for this dream to become reality the ndp will have to move even further to the centre and to abandon its half-remembered social-democratic aspirations.
good measure of just how far the ndp has journeyed from the left to the centre as a result of free trade is government treatment of the oil industry. When it held the balance of power from 1972 to 1974, the party, led by David Lewis, pushed for the creation of a national oil company. Having won back its majority, Trudeau’s Liberal government completed the launch of Petro-Canada as a publicly owned petroleum company in 1975. Though no longer under direct ndp pressure, the Liberals aggressively built PetroCan, which acquired the assets of foreign-owned oil companies in Canada in the process. Within a few years, PetroCan grew into a vertically integrated company that operated in all aspects of the oil business, from exploration to production to retailing. PetroCan’s purpose was clear: to establish a public window on an industry that regularly restated estimates of Canadian oil and natural gas reserves to suit its purposes.
Around the same time, Ottawa froze the price of domestic oil well below the world level while exporting to the US at the world price. The policy sheltered Canadian consumers from the full impact of the quadrupling of world oil prices between the fall of 1973 and the summer of 1974. Ottawa collected the difference between the domestic and international market prices as an export tax. That these Liberal moves would be considered terribly radical today—and by oil companies, horrifying—shows just how tame Canadian economic policy has become since the free-trade election. Layton’s ndp wouldn’t dare advocate such policies, and not just because a two-price system would violate the rules of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the successor to Mulroney’s first free trade deal. It would represent too much interference with the operations of the market. Too radical for today’s ndp but all in a term’s work for the Trudeau Liberals.
And yet such policies, modified to meet environmental goals and to pay proper royalties to Alberta and other petroleum-producing provinces, make eminent sense in our age of spiralling petroleum prices and record high profits for the oil companies. High energy prices have forced poorer Canadians in the Atlantic provinces and elsewhere to have to choose between food and home heating. One of the reasons so many people are jaundiced about reports of how well our economy is performing is the bite energy prices take out of their incomes. Over the past two decades, the real incomes of wage and salary earners have barely kept up with inflation, while the incomes and, more impressively, the accumulated wealth of corporate executives have soared.
(The members of the Calgary Petroleum Club are laughing all the way to the bank. And now the political party that was built in their backyard, the party whose policies they adore, is in power. Is it possible that the reason that Stephen Harper won’t release the names and contributions of donors to his 2002 run for the Canadian Alliance leadership is that so many Big Oil names are on the list Certainly, Layton didn’t make an issue of Harper’s connections to Big Oil during the campaign.)
What would have happened if the ndp had proposed a return to the two-price system for Canadian oil during the last election The revenues from the export tax could be dedicated to lowering the bill for oil imported for large parts of eastern Canada. Oil-patch profits would take a hit, but by no means a crippling one. Some would argue that the scheme would promote wasteful energy consumption. But until this country is prepared to do something about suvs in posh neighbourhoods, the idea that less-than-well-to-do workers, farmers, and small businesses should bear the burden of higher energy prices is preposterous. Environmentalism for ordinary Canadians and unprecedented consumption for the few simply isn’t a defensible path to a sustainable economy.
hat prevents the ndp from putting these questions on the political agenda Tommy Douglas or David Lewis wouldn’t have hesitated to do so. Nor for that matter would Pierre Trudeau. The political appeal of the energy issue is abundantly clear. Bernard Lord’s Conservative government in New Brunswick was very nearly overturned in the provincial election of 2003 on the issue of skyrocketing auto insurance rates. Energy prices have similarly enormous populist potential. Furthermore, beyond prices, the issue of who controls Canadian resources is once again crucial. The US government is looking at the Alberta oil sands as a huge source of petroleum that could lessen American dependence on supplies from the Middle East. China and India are also eyeing Canadian petroleum and other resources. The question that has dogged Canada throughout its history—the control of Canadian resources by outsiders—is on the table, but so far the ndp hasn’t touched it.
A proposal to regulate energy prices could expand the ndp’s base among wage- and salary-earning Canadians—the “working families” it claims to represent. But the ndp does not want to appear to advocate intervening in the economy, its current goal being simply to render capitalism a little more humane. That’s not a disgraceful philosophical stance. It’s just not in keeping with the radicalism of the party that labour activist J.S. Woodsworth founded and firebrand preacher Tommy Douglas built. The ndp is fighting the Liberals today over which of the two parties best represents the liberalism of an urbanized, multicultural Canada, and the reason ndp strategists are so thin-skinned about the Liberals is that they are after the same turf. What divides today’s ndp from the Liberals is the narcissism of small differences; what unites them is political pragmatism. Even the cultures of the two parties have merged. As with the Liberals, there is now a definite career path in the ndp, and the party today is very much in the hands of professionals.
hough some ndp insiders are already speculating about the party becoming the major alternative to the Conservatives, the broader progressive community has a different outlook and quite different aspirations. For one thing, there is the blunt fact of political tactics in a system with a first-past-the-post voting system: an all-out fight between the ndp and the Liberals for control of the same voters is an incalculable gift to the Conservatives. To improve his chances in the next election, Harper must make it appear that those who voted ndp did not waste their ballots. We can expect, therefore, the Conservatives to seek an alliance with the ndp on two issues on which they essentially sang from the same song sheet during the election campaign: government ethics and crime.
Knowing that a unified centre-left vote means the end of the Conservative government, Harper has the ndp right where he wants them on these two issues. Never mind that the new prime minister displayed a contempt for democratic due process by appointing Liberal turncoat David Emerson and freshly minted senator Michael Fortier to Cabinet; the ndp is unlikely to win electoral support on ethics because it has never formed the government federally and thus has no record of moral probity while in office upon which to base its outrage. The Conservatives’ credibility on this issue stems from Westerners’ perception that the crooks in Ottawa are running away with their tax dollars without providing political representation in return.
On crime, Layton cravenly tried to capitalize on urban anxiety, attempting to compete with the law-and-order Conservatives by proposing four-year minimum sentences for certain gun-related offences. Urban advocacy is one thing, but US-based evidence suggests that such punitive policies simply don’t work. Regardless, Harper can now conscript the ndp’s positions in support of his own proposed legislative solutions. On these fronts—government ethics and crime—the party of progressive principle has become an accessory to the Conservative agenda.
Child-care advocates are, in turn, furious at the ndp for its electoral tactics. Immediately after Harper was sworn into office, and after Layton announced that he could work with the Conservative government, the new prime minister made good on his promise to scrap the Liberals’ national child-care program. Harper will cancel the agreements with the provinces after the minimum one-year notice period, meaning they will lapse on March 31, 2007. The deals the Liberals had negotiated would have provided an average of $1 billion annually for five years to create spaces, hire staff, and make existing provincial child-care programs more affordable and accessible to all families.
“As a result of the early election call,” Martha Friendly, the coordinator of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit at the University of Toronto, told me, the implementation of the child-care agenda was “considerably less advanced than it could have been several months further down the road.” Friendly has worked for three decades in pursuit of a universal, not-for-profit, early child-care program of the kind that exists in western Europe. Though the Liberal initiative did not deliver everything she and her allies had been fighting for, it was a significant step in that direction. Beyond the initial five-year commitment, the Liberal election platform promised funding for an additional five years at the same level or more, and, for the first time, capital funds for brick-and-mortar investments. While child-care advocates have fight left in them, Friendly says the Conservative victory has put the quest for a universal not-for-profit system on hold.
tephen Harper ran a near-flawless campaign and masterfully disguised many of his core beliefs, but his prescriptions for child care—$100 a month for each child under six—speak to an anti-big-government bias and an individualist ethic. His libertarian instincts reject imposing social programs of any kind and, in an already decentralized Canada, the Conservatives found that the way to get to Ottawa was to placate the provinces.
The new prime minister’s values will reverberate in other areas as well. On the sensitive issue of refugees the Harper government does not need new legislation to clamp down. The job of policing the border is in the hands of Stockwell Day, Harper’s minister of public safety. In the weeks following 9/11, Day, then the leader of the Canadian Alliance, insisted that there was a Canadian connection to the terror attacks. In the House of Commons, he alleged that there were “thousands of these claimants roaming around Canada who should have been detained and some possibly deported. We know that there have been terrorists living among us. We know that they get here illegally through our refugee system.”
The agreement on social programs for aboriginals, negotiated just prior to the election call, is likely to be watered down by Harper. Again, no legislation would be required, just as none would be necessary to gut the cultural sector. The ideological right understands the importance of culture, and believes that the arts and non-governmental or-ganizations are breeding grounds for left-liberal thought. While the Harper government may not privatize cbc television, it could well try to slash the network’s budget and bleed ngos of federal funds.
Focus on the Family, a US-based organization dedicated to “family values,” recently opened a think tank in Ottawa. Insisting that its job is merely to provide information, the group makes no secret of its opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. From inside and outside the party, Harper will be pressured to reopen these debates.
Long out of power, the Conservatives are making people anxious on other fronts as well. The Harper government will have difficulty passing anti-labour legislation, and is shrewd enough to know that an upset civil service can be awfully troublesome to a minority government, but a significant downsizing in the number of federal employees can be anticipated. Having welcomed provincial premiers as federal government bedfellows, Harper will likely take his cue on the all-important new deal for cities from them, not from the more demanding mayors of large municipalities. And if Harper as prime minister becomes little more than a “head waiter to the provinces,” as Trudeau dismissively characterized Joe Clark, this will no doubt reshape policies from Kyoto to health care privatization, the issue upon which Jack Layton triggered the 2006 election.
n the aftermath of the Conservative election victory, the left needs to revisit a question dating back to the founding of the ccf: the relationship between the party and progressive movements. From the beginning, tension has existed between those devoted to movement politics (trade unionists, farmers, and today, civil society groups) and those principally concerned with electoral politics; between those committed to building people’s institutions and transforming the political culture, and those who insist that winning votes, seats, and eventually power (at the provincial and federal levels) is all-important. When the ccf first won in Saskatchewan under Tommy Douglas in 1944, this tension was immediately evident. Many, imbued with a strong western Canadian belief in direct democracy, thought that the Douglas government should adhere exclusively to policies set at party conventions. But Douglas maintained that the government was responsible to all of Saskatchewan and that his cabinet was responsible to the provincial legislature. His view prevailed, and has been followed by social-democratic governments in BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and the Yukon. The premier and Cabinet would rule, taking into consideration the will of the party convention as one voice among many in its formulation of policy.
With Harper in office, Maude Barlow thinks that “dialogue and healing need to take place” among progressives. For her, the road ahead should spring from an alliance of forces from inside and outside of Parliament, including New Democrats, some Liberals, and some members of the Bloc. “If Stephen Harper wins a majority in the next election,” she says, “we will lose decades in the social struggles we are involved in.”
Strategic co-operation is one thing. But Canada needs a progressive party willing to do battle in both the social and economic policy arenas. Today’s ndp is heir to a seven-decade social-democratic tradition; forsaking this legacy would kill an important part of what makes Canada distinctive. The ndp’s survival is threatened most by its move to the centre, which has led many to conclude that the country does not need two liberal parties. A critical outlook on capitalism and the need to champion the interests of the non-affluent majority were the reasons the party was founded. Those reasons remain compelling today. The ndp should fight to expand its influence—but this does not mean that its leaders should give in to the cynical politics of short-term electoral advantage, as they did in the recent federal election.