Opinion

Canada's Sudden Democracy Movement

Can the NDP and the traditional left catch up with this spontaneous uprising?

By Murray Dobbin 25 Jan 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Murray Dobbin's "State of the Nation" column now appears every other Monday in The Tyee and Rabble, and he also publishes articles on his blog.

Stephen Harper has reaped a whirlwind of protest for his shutting down of Parliament. The brilliant strategist is, of course, also a malignant anti-democrat and his contempt for democracy, Canadians, and anyone who has the temerity to disagree with him has again tripped up his clever manipulation of the system. Perhaps this cynical prorogation was the straw that broke the camel's back. After four years of countless examples of running roughshod over democratic traditions and principles, Canadians, who are slow to anger, have had enough.

The result is the most encouraging political development in twenty years, since the broad movement against free trade in 1987-88. That movement successfully tapped into Canadian core values, brought together social justice organizations, labour and other civil society groups and won the hearts and minds of Canadians on the issue (only to be defeated by the first-past-the-post electoral system in the '88 election).

But that time the opposition was initiated, organized and funded by labour, the churches and social justice organizations. This time it has been purely spontaneous -- begun by a Facebook member who simply wanted to express his anger (see today's Tyee interview with Chris White). Today, while there are still lots of organizations, there are no genuine movements. After years of slow decline all of the movements which once commanded attention (as opposed to demanding it) have faded into obscurity -- especially for the general population these movements used to influence.

Indeed it could be argued that the decline of these movements is what permitted the coming to power of Stephen Harper.

A political vacuum on the left

Social and labour movements historically have played the role of helping create the political culture -- the playing field -- of formal party politics. Political parties do not develop policies and strategies in a vacuum. They assess the conditions, the parameters of what people will tolerate, the values that people hold, and develop their policies and strategies accordingly. From a progressive perspective the best outcomes prevail when both sides of this formula are working at their peak; when movements are strong and one or more political parties are smart enough, and share the same values, to take advantage of the political space that movements create.

It is no coincidence that the most productive period for good social policy, the 1960s and early 1970s, paralleled the time when movements -- student, anti-poverty, anti-war, labour, women and aboriginal -- were at their strongest.

Today they are at their weakest. The labour movement -- with its considerable capacity for analysis, research and financial resources -- is virtually AWOL in the struggle against Stephen Harper and his right-wing policies. Civil society organizations for the most part are demoralized and confused about what to do next.

The environmental movement is hampered by its failure to understand the exercise of political power, and is stymied by the Harper government's total rejection of their agenda and its refusal to even engage in the debate. The women's movement -- which moved issues far broader than just women's equality when it was a force -- has been dead for a decade. The once-radical aboriginal movement is now little more than a collection of quasi-governmental bureaucracies whose interests are rooted in the status-quo. Despite the tragedy of the Afghan war and widespread Canadian opposition to it, the peace movement is almost invisible. Several efforts have been made in the past ten years to re-constitute the Action Canada Network, the powerful anti-free trade coalition, but to no avail.

As a result, the NDP, traditionally the party that was able and willing to move into the space created by social and labour movements, has become hyper-cautious, fearful of proposing anything outside a narrow range of small 'l' liberal policies and sometimes -- as with the tough-on-crime issue -- moving far to the right.

One example of this caution is the NDP's refusal to even talk about tax increases on the wealthy and corporations because it knows it would get hammered in the media. It will not risk tax-talk unless there is space created for it by a vigorous civil society movement for taxing wealth. But even as we move towards Harper's first "restraint" (read program-slashing) budget there is a deafening silence from the labour movement.

A new democracy movement born?

And so, the left -- extra-parliamentary and parliamentary -- is put in the position of leading from behind. A close examination of Canadians' stated values demonstrates that they are far ahead of the organizations that have historically provided them with leadership. That is one of the most amazing aspects of this democracy movement. It has bypassed the moribund progressive organizations and taken the fight straight to the government, tapping directly into Canadian values and anger. This is an unmediated, spontaneous, grassroots movement -- a welling up of outrage at an arrogant, quasi-dictatorship. It's as if, tired of waiting for the traditional organizations to speak for them, Canadians who care deeply for their country are taking matters into their own hands.

But what happens now? After Saturday's incredibly successful demonstrations -- 60 of them, with great turn outs, including over 3,500 in Ottawa -- will the movement continue until democracy is restored and Stephen Harper and his wrecking crew are sent packing? The movement has the potential to re-energize progressive movements of all kinds, across the country. Let's hope that it grows and matures, because if it does not there is every likelihood that Stephen Harper will continue dismantling the country; not just its institutions, but the social programs and activist government that Canadians have built and still support.

A chance to reenergize labour

And what of the labour movement which used to help initiate and lead such movements? Here is their chance to assist this one by providing it, with no strings attached, the resources it needs to continuing growing and developing into a mature, permanent movement. No existing organization or combination of organizations has, at the moment, the moral authority to provide the needed leadership. But they can provide solidarity and material support. And then they might find their way again and add their voices, and those of their members, to the call for democracy.

A genuine movement with broadly popular goals of democratic reforms -- including new legislation putting restrictions on the use of prorogation, a proportional representation electoral system, and increased checks and balances on the currently unfettered executive power -- could form the basis of a rewriting of the Canadian political system.

Until today the prospects for such reforms were poor indeed. But if the opposition parties are astute enough to take advantage of this outpouring of democratic sentiment, they will put such reforms, especially proportional representation, on the front burner. The first party to make that reform, and others, a key part of their next election platform could reap the benefits of the first spontaneous mass movement Canada has seen in decades.  [Tyee]

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