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Not So Bad, Eh?

Harper may be PM, but the winner is left-wing Canada.

Murray Dobbin 25 Jan

Murray Dobbin is an author, commentator and journalist. He is the author of five books and is a former columnist with Financial Post and Winnipeg Free Press. He is a board member of Canadians for Tax Fairness and on the advisory council of the Rideau Institute. He lives in Powell River, BC.

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Something must be right. It's Tuesday morning, post-election, and sun is shining in Vancouver for only the second time in about six weeks. It sort of fits with my conclusion as I watched the results of the election come in. Canada is a left-wing country.

Before you assume that Harperdread has damaged my ability to reason, think about how this election unfolded. Stephen Harper only won, and barely won, because he pretended to be well farther to the left than he actually is. He had to. Otherwise, he would have been relegated to the dustbin of political history and he knew it. To be sure, we have to wonder about the gullibility of a lot of Canadians or be concerned about their historical amnesia. But Canadians' abiding attachment to collective solutions forced the most ideologically rigid federal leader in 60 years to moderate his stand. (He also managed, of course, to openly attach a lot of his right-wing policies to the more comforting image, but more on this later.)

The Liberals, of course, did what they always do when they are in trouble. They, too, ran from the left -- with the greatest political hypocrite in 100 years of Canadian politics at the helm talking ad nauseam about building the country he spent nine years as finance minister trying to dismantle. Why? Because Canadians demand it. Run explicitly from the right in Canada and you will be looking for another job.

And Gilles Duceppe, who initially felt all he had to do was show up and occasionally decry Liberal corruption, suddenly had to don his social democratic clothing (he is a former Marxist) and attack Harper for threats against Kyoto, child care and the other right-wing policies Harper still clung too. And Layton and the NDP, of course, are the left, even though many would have liked them to be more left than they were.

Purging Martin

Having said all that, of course, we still have Stephen Harper as prime minister, an outcome deeply offensive to Canadian values and traditions no matter what the underlying causes and silver linings. But I am inclined to think the price might be worth it because this country desperately needed to purge itself of Paul Martin, one of the most dishonest and duplicitous prime ministers the country has ever had. Had this man ever achieved a majority, it would have been hard to find major, fundamental differences between him and Stephen Harper, except on human rights issues.

Both are totally in the service of big business, both are committed to a radically decentralized Canada. Both are unabashedly pro-US. Martin was already implementing, by stealth, the traitorous deep integration initiative dreamed up by Tom d'Aquino and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and Harper would have pursued the same plan given the chance -- he would just have done it faster.

Both men were equally committed to accepting the US lead on foreign policy from the Iraq war, to missile defence to open disdain for multilateral organizations like the United Nations. Martin would never have even considered signing Kyoto were it not politically expedient to do so, as witnessed by his outright refusal to implement the historic agreement. And on tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, Martin as finance minister actually went far beyond anything Preston Manning, the Alliance Party or even Stephen Harper had called for.

The key difference between these two men is not to be found in actual outcomes but only in their political personas. Harper is openly contemptuous of Canada and its tradition of community and caring. But Martin, his waxing on about Canada's greatness aside, would sell the country out in a nano-second and lose no sleep over doing so. Outcomes are what matter, not personalities.

No mandate

So what happens next? Even here, things are not nearly as bad as the sound of "Prime Minister Stephen Harper" in your ears might suggest. The new prime minister has the support of less than 36 percent of the population. This is not a mandate to do anything but tread political water. Harper will get only two of his major campaign planks easily passed in the house. One, the GST cut, will go through because it is a budget item and to defeat it would mean another election -- it just won't happen.

Ironically, the other major piece of the Conservative campaign that will easily pass is one that Harper actually has no real stomach for, his so-called Federal Accountability Act. This is richly ironic for a politician who spent most of his career defending corporate money in elections. Now he has to follow through on the centrepiece of his campaign.

As for his other right-wing promises, they are essentially still-born in a parliament where he is surrounded by parties either on the left, or pretending to be. His pledge to get out of Kyoto? Dead in the water. To reverse the Liberals' start on creating a national child care infrastructure? Ditto. Revisiting missile defence? Forget it. Reopening the historic Kelowna accord with First Nations? Not unless they have a keen desire for being pilloried by every First Nations' organization and every premier in the country. All of these promises are history because he has no mandate, nor the numbers, to pursue them. Will he mess with the long term agreement on Medicare? Maybe. But it would be a risky venture.

Antsy extremists

And what does this mean for the people to whom he made the promises? The extremists in the party in BC -- where racism towards First Nations, visceral hostility to abortion, opposition to the whole notion of child care, and a pro-war mentality are alive and well -- will be extremely unhappy when they realize their favourite policies are going nowhere. These are not people who appreciate the nuances of politics, the need for compromise or the fact that Harper received the support of barely more than a third of Canadians. For them it is simple: he's the prime minister, he should do what we want. Now that the election is over the howling of the populist right could begin in earnest, and not just from supporters. Harper managed to keep his old Reform MPs quiet for 55 days. To keep them, especially the right-wing Christians and anti-abortionists, quiet until the next election would take divine intervention.

Harper can still do a lot of damage and it remains to be seen how he will carve out a political image suitable to his task of winning a majority 18 to 24 months from now. Keeping his restless flock happy while increasing the comfort level of the vast middle of the Canadian electorate would be a huge task for the most skilled political opportunist. But Harper is new to this role. He has brought in some experienced Tories from the Mulroney era to help in the transition, but he still has Tom Flanagan, chief nut bar of the right-wing Calgary School, as his closest confidant.

As for the Liberals, Paul Martin will go down in history -- along with his personal pack of political thugs who won him the leadership and directed his government -- as the man who very nearly destroyed the "natural governing" party. The only thing that saved the Liberals was Stephen Harper's secret agenda and Canadians' traditional attachment to the political middle.

The Liberals are now faced with the dilemma of getting back supporters who have gone to the NDP and that means they cannot choose an obviously right-wing leader. Forget John Manley. And Michael Ignatieff, the pro-war and pro-torture candidate? So the next leader has to be able to pass as being from the left of the party. It remains to be seen if they think they can repackage Canada's ambassador to the US Frank McKenna as a "social Liberal." A devotee of deep integration and smaller government, McKenna doesn't look like a defender of Medicare from here.

Careful with those Grits

In the meantime, the Liberals have to play it very carefully in the House of Commons. First, they are in total disarray, still suffering from the wrenching divisions between the Chretien and Martin wings of the party and preoccupied with choosing a new leader. They will be a weak official opposition for many months. To regain their left-wing vote from the NDP, they cannot be seen to be supporting too much of the Harper agenda.. They will have to play the same role they did leading up to their 1993 election victory: dominated by the social democratic Red Book of election promises. In the previous parliament, Paul Martin was both opposition housing critic and environment critic and sounded almost revolutionary. You can't do that and support the Harper Conservatives.

Gilles Duceppe will have to keep his social democratic persona for the foreseeable future to ensure that the Conservatives' foothold in Quebec does not turn into something more serious. He will attack Harper from the left, except where he sees an opportunity for increasing the trend to decentralization. But he will have to be careful in any support he offers Harper for fear of giving the Conservatives more credibility. Harper also has to be extremely careful about how far he goes to accommodating "the separatists" for fear of enraging his populist base in Alberta and BC. Room for cooperation between these two parties is very limited.

The Green Party played absolutely no role in the election except when its leader Jim Harris threatened to sue two dissidents for giving an interview to the media about an Elections Canada investigation into party financial irregularities. The party's campaign was an inept performance (support went from 4.3 percent to 4.5 percent) and it seems to have squandered the nearly $1.7 million it received under new election financing rules. Look for the knives coming out for Harris in the leadership convention later this year. If Harper manages to get rid of the taxpayer subsidy through which parties get $1.75 per vote, per year, as he promised, it could eliminate the Green Party entirely.

NDP opportunities

The NDP and Jack Layton have some interesting opportunities before them. They are poised to be the unofficial opposition in English Canada as the Liberals struggle to rebuild and pick a new leader. With 29 seats, they are visibly and substantively more powerful and should command more attention from the left-averse media. They will need to look productive, which means trying to find something on which to cooperate with Harper. The possibility exists of extending the political reforms Harper has proposed by pressing the issue of proportional representation with more energy than they have so far. Two minority governments in a row should put this issue front and centre, especially for the NDP who would have garnered 54 seats in a mixed-member proportional system.

They can initially take the lead on a whole host of progressive policy issues in the commons but will eventually face the dilemma of competing with the much larger Liberal caucus and a new, untainted leader for the centre-left vote in the country. In the lead up to the Liberals' leadership convention - which will be likely be held in the late fall - the NDP will try to dominate the progressive agenda, by exposing the Conservatives' agenda, out-manoeuvring the Liberals and consolidating Layton's image as the politician "ordinary" Canadians can trust. Look for a return to the attack on for-profit health care, an issue the Liberals can't co-opt.

In the end, we have a Conservative government, not because Canadians want radical change, but because they could no longer stomach Paul Martin's decaying Liberals. They supported the Conservatives only to the extent necessary to rid themselves of Martin -- and no further. That is the message voters sent on election day. Canadians, as confirmed in every in-depth values survey done in the past five years, are in their large majority, progressive and tolerant, support activist government, are appalled by the level of poverty in this country and repelled by what is going on south of the border. Any party that ignores this fundamental fact of Canadian political culture will ultimately fail.

So, all in all it's not so bad, eh?

Murray Dobbin writes his 'State of the Nation' column twice a month for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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