Canada's self-styled "progressive" parties face a triple problem this fall: beating the Harper Conservatives, restoring the status quo ante 2006, and then progressing beyond it.
This is awkward for progressives. Ditching a whole decade of Canadian history is literally regressive, and the Conservatives are past masters at regression. They ditched not just a decade but all Canadian history back to circa 1800 -- before the crazy idea of "responsible government" took hold, when ministers actually resigned when they screwed up.
It's even more awkward because the Americans went through a similar process in 2008 after eight years of George W. Bush, the surveillance state, wars of choice and Islamophobia. Barack Obama's hope and change didn't shut down Guantanamo, reduce the snooping, or make America a happier country.
The NDP and Liberals have paid grudging tribute to Stephen Harper's political genius by their silence on basic issues, like taxes. They have quietly endorsed the Conservative argument that Canadians are entitled to their entitlements and shouldn't have to pay taxes for anything -- including protecting their own climate, counting their murdered and missing Aboriginal women, or caring for their heroes, many of whom have returned home crippled from the latest war in Afghanistan or Middle East.
That silence implies that we ourselves will return crippled from a decade of Harper's ideology, locked into the Canada he built.
A disastrous decade
Well, let's think about a Canadian Restoration, where the majority finally regains control not just of Parliament, but also of the institutions that make this country a democracy. A new government traditionally says the old one left the country destitute. In this case, it's likely true, both institutionally and economically. Whatever the brand of the government, it would need to roll back a decade of disastrous legislation while also promoting laws to make up for lost time.
First, some key issues for the rollback:
Parliament supreme again. All major government announcements will be made in the House, not in some politically convenient venue. Shrink the Prime Minister's Office to a few speechwriters, researchers and media relations' people. Prime ministers will serve at the pleasure of their caucus, not vice versa. All MPs' votes will be free votes. Ministers will quit when they screw up. Parliament will make major appointments such as Supreme Court justices, following hearings with the PM's shortlisted nominees. Sending Canadian Forces into combat will require a majority vote backing an old-fashioned formal declaration of war.
An apolitical, evidence-based civil service. Failure to speak truth to power (or to blow the whistle) will be a firing offence. Bureaucrats' advice will be based on exhaustive, fact-based research that governments and interest groups will have to match to refute. The long-form census will be restored, and government scientists will be encouraged to talk about and publish their tax-funded findings.
Extra Funding for Elections Canada. Ensure no repetition of robocalls and other forms of election theft. Elections Canada will support nonpartisan research into more equitable voting procedures than first past the post, and offer Parliament some choices for the next election.
Restore the Navigable Waters Act to protect the 99 per cent of our lakes and rivers put at risk by the 2012 omnibus bill. In the process, put all fish farms on land and leave the sea to the wild salmon. If petroleum producers can't guarantee absolutely leak-proof pipelines, they should find another line of work or plan to spend their old age talking to their families on a phone through a thick pane of glass.
Withdraw Bill C-51. Replace it with new laws redefining the roles of police and intelligence agencies and installing direct parliamentary oversight.
Cancel the so-called "Balanced Budget" Law. Promised but not yet introduced, Finance Minister Joe Oliver's new bill would tie future governments' hands in economic crises or disasters.
Making up for lost time
And for catching-up legislation:
Strong support for renewable energy sources, especially solar and wind. Bring in research funding, home and business subsidies for going off fossil fuels. Bring in the long-overdue carbon tax; it'll create more jobs than it kills.
A new 10-year medicare deal with the provinces. It should include pharmacare and a dental care plan.
Tuition-free post-secondary education. Canada has promised it since 1976; time to keep our promise.
Introduce a Citizens' Duties Act, to remind Canadians they are the proprietors of a democracy that can't work without their involvement. It will include mandatory voting in some form of proportional-vote elections, as well as in plebiscites and referendums, and perhaps a year of paid social service after high school and before post-secondary or work.
Simplify and enhance the immigration process. If we're going to headhunt, let's put foreign professionals in professional jobs, not taxi cabs. And let them bring in their parents to look after the kids. Give every immigrant intensive preparation for a multicultural civil democracy, including English and cultural training for everyone.
Take concrete steps to reduce income inequality and poverty. All Canadians have created the conditions for a few Canadians to become filthy rich, so those few deserve no free lunch. Poverty stunts babies' brains from birth, so the one per cent will prosper more if they pay to ensure smart workers.
But will they campaign for it?
The NDP's Policy Book tends to support many of these ideas; so, in general, do the Greens. The Liberals appear to endorse them as well, though they're soft on Bill C-51. The question is whether they will actually campaign for them, rather than simply presenting themselves as Not Harper.
Campaigning explicitly for a rollback plus real progress implies finding a lot of money in a hurry. That implies higher taxes from voters whose incomes have stagnated for over thirty years; they're reluctant to pay a penny more.
This is the genius of the right-wing strategy: tax cuts reduce government revenues and therefore reduce social services. Millions go into debt to maintain the standard of living they would have enjoyed if their real incomes had improved since the 1980s. So they have to service their personal debts rather than pay taxes.
Explaining this is tough enough in the few months of an election year, when the right wing has patiently propagandized against taxation for decades. Politicians on campaigns tend to be risk-averse, fearing to speak boldly and bluntly. After all, even if such talk helped get them elected, they'd then have to deliver on their promises -- which would mean years of battles in both Parliament and the courts, and little certainty of winning the next election.
Meet the new Harper, same as the old Harper
It would be much easier to attack Stephen Harper, get elected, and then operate on Harper's terms within the gutted wreck he has made of Parliament. The attractions of a powerful Prime Minister's Office and a well-whipped caucus would be seductive to a shaky new PM.
Whether the NDP formed its first federal government or the Liberals regained power after a decade in the wilderness, neither party would feel secure enough to give up power -- least of all to a Parliament still well-stocked with vengeful Conservatives.
After all, Harper himself has been pathologically insecure since 2006, which may explain some of his control-freak style of governance. For all his supposed political brilliance, he has never won anything like a majority of the popular vote -- he's just gamed the system he was given, winning a majority out of a minority of votes.
A new government, whether New Democrat, Liberal, Green or coalition, would have to game it too. Such a government would find itself besieged by powerful enemies who think their own high incomes reflect both wisdom and virtue, and who never saw a vaguely left government that couldn't be overthrown -- or bought.
A new government would likely have to adopt Harper's own tactics after he won the 2006 election, framing itself as "centrist" (that is, pretty far right wing) and unlikely to go crazy with two or three other parties waiting to pounce. Then, like Harper, it would have to repeal a law here, add a law there, twist an arm or break a leg when necessary, and finally go to the voters in 2019 with a country beginning to behave like a rather haggard version of Canada 1999.
Of course that's betting on a long shot -- but look where such betting got Stephen Harper. A brave prime minister with a smart plan for restoration and progress could say, "When I get through with this country, it'll look and feel a lot like it used to."