The Worst-Case Scenario for a Mulcair Government

Should voters launch NDP to victory on Oct. 19, some not-so-fun realities await.

By Crawford Kilian 27 Aug 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

The "narrative" (as pundits like to call events) is looking good for the New Democrats. The Conservatives' re-election campaign is shuddering like a washing machine stuck on spin cycle with a badly unbalanced load of dirty laundry. The Liberals are struggling just to stay competitive.

Meanwhile the NDP's poll numbers steadily improve, and Tom Mulcair's shaggy grin gets wider every day. He may not be in majority-government territory, but a minority seems increasingly likely, with Justin Trudeau's Liberals obliged to support it.

A narrative is a story, and the NDP's is the classic rags-to-riches plot. The media like it -- not because they like the New Democrats, but because they love a good story. And they'll be equally delighted to report on whatever struggles or misfortunes an NDP government might face. Nothing personal; it's just business.

So let's assume that as the New Democrats nurse their celebration hangovers on Oct. 20, the narrative turns against them. What would a new NDP government, minority or majority, have to face over the next few months?

Budget disaster. It's routine for incoming governments to discover that the previous crew cooked the books, fudged the numbers, and locked the newcomers into impossible deals. This is sometimes even true, and in any case gives the new government a pretext for unpopular spending cuts and tax increases -- not to mention broken campaign promises. Then it must hope for voter amnesia to set in before the next election.

Suppose the Harper government has really messed up, leaving nothing but IOUs in the federal bank account. Mulcair could damn and blast the Tories all he likes, but he'll still have to run a deficit just to keep the government functioning. The deficit will only get worse if he tries to implement affordable child care and start acting on climate change. If he runs a deficit, the media attacks will be remorseless. If he doesn't, his base (and back bench) will revolt.

New revelations about Harper's misdeeds. We can expect a wave of now-it-can-be-told stories from civil servants, election officials, disgruntled Harper appointees, senior military officers, and others -- all reporting the suppressed scandals of a lost decade and demanding justice.

This is a serious problem for any new administration, as Barack Obama learned when anti-Bush sentiment swept him into power in 2008. Hope and change weren't enough to close Guantanamo, jail CIA torturers, or put the Bush administration on trial for war crimes.

So doing justice could trigger a dangerous backlash from hundreds of thousands of angry Conservatives while intensifying the public view that all politicians are crooks. Failing to do justice, however, would make cynics out of even the most idealistic progressives.

A global economic collapse. A recession is great for an opposition party, and Mulcair has exploited our domestic woes to good effect. But presiding over a recession is another thing, especially if the government inherits no rainy-day money. If so, the NDP needs to have a damn good emergency plan in place by October.

The plan better include our foreign trade. With stock markets falling around the world, and the price of oil recently under $40 a barrel, we may be looking at a re-run of the 2008 crash. An economic implosion in China would cost us a major customer. Forget about selling oil and natural gas to anyone; we'll just have to hope that a 50-cent loonie attracts American tourists.

Falling revenues will also slow the pace of rebuilding our institutions, leaving our ministries understaffed, our armed forces ill-equipped, and the Senate unreformed.

The next American president. The election of Donald Trump (or almost any other Republican candidate) would send shivers around the world and especially through Canada. By then Mulcair would have been PM for over a year; having spent that year patching up relations with Obama, he'd have to start all over again with a new president bitterly opposed to anything resembling social democracy.

Facing a crash and prolonged recession, a Republican president would also likely go very protectionist, making it even tougher for Mulcair to export his way back to prosperity. And a Democratic president wouldn't be much better, unless it's Bernie Sanders.

Terrorist attacks/ISIS successes. An idiot or two with a rifle or pressure-cooker bomb could put Canada's first NDP government under intense pressure to do something, however pointless and unconstitutional, to prove its courage against evildoers. But doing so would cost Mulcair the support and respect of much of his base.

Similarly, an expansion of ISIS and other radical Islamist groups would put pressure on Mulcair to provide still more feckless air support in Iraq and Syria, and to admit more refugees. They will be unwelcome in many hard-pressed Canadian neighbourhoods and provide the Conservatives with a pretext to go as far right as their American cousins.

Media attacks. Good news is proverbially no news in North American media, but bad news provides entertaining plot points for the narrative. So even if Mulcair keeps a low profile, he can expect frequent sniping.

And if he really does face a worst-case scenario, the attacks will only intensify: he's too weak, too strong, too modest, too arrogant, too doctrinaire, too opportunist. If his MPs behave, they've been whipped into submission; if they ever publicly disagree with him, or stage a bozo eruption, he can't control his caucus.

This worst-case scenario faces any G7 government in the 21st century, and some also face civil protests, ethnic conflicts, neofascist movements, and disease outbreaks. So how should a Mulcair government, cautiously feeling its way, respond to this prospect?

The first rule of crisis management

I suggest he simply follow the first rule of crisis management: tell the truth, tell it well, and tell it often. No ducking questions, no evading the media, no "message control" -- just the truth.

This is not a story, he might say, not a narrative. This is the real world, which has no happy endings, so we need to get real. We're a small country occupying a large piece of the planet's surface, and we haven't treated it well. Canadians have to get out of this mess together, or we won't get out of it at all.

If poor people can't give their kids a chance for a decent life, rich people can't either -- they'll all die together from obvious, predictable, and preventable causes.

We can save Canada only by saving the rest of the world, Mulcair could say. We face threats to our families, our communities, our nation and our planet that make terrorists look like schoolyard bullies. We're not going to bomb our way to safety, but we just might get there by respecting facts and the other seven billion people on the planet.

That kind of blunt talk would gobsmack the media, and doubtless anger many voters. But far more voters would be happy to be treated like adults who can handle bad news.

With their support, a new Mulcair government might actually overcome even the worst-case scenario.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Election 2015

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