The Tyee debate about who to vote for in the next election is missing an important piece of the puzzle: the nature of political power.
Far too often the analysis of elections and politics in general focuses almost exclusively on who "wins' formal power -- that is, the biggest number of seats and the right to form a government. This kind of limited assessment leads to putting all the analytical eggs in one basket by asking which leader is (in the case of those who want to defeat Stephen Harper) the best -- the most progressive, the most trustworthy, the most charismatic, the most visionary.
But it is always much more complicated than that because the actual exercise of power is extremely complex, involving a usually entrenched bureaucracy that can facilitate or hobble any particular initiative and divisions within the governing party.
It also involves the key constituencies of power that each party has historically relied upon.
Lastly, it involves the major media players -- as important in the exercise of power, and the restraints on it, as either politicians or bureaucrats.
Shoot for a Liberal minority
What does this mean for advocates for social justice and for environmentalists in the next election?
It means, realistically, doing everything they can to elect a minority Liberal government, with the NDP holding a real balance of power -- in effect, an informal coalition.
Unfortunately, at this point, very close to the election in question, it seems unlikely that voters will implement such a strategic approach or even be given the opportunity.
There are two related reasons for this. First, Stephane Dion looks pretty good to a lot of people and they will vote Liberal, imagining a majority government that actually reflects Dion's stated commitment to social justice and to environmental sustainability.
The second reason is that -- unless it does an about face -- the NDP seems locked into a strategy of targeting Dion as much as Harper. Twice before when the NDP has done this, Canada got very Conservative governments: that of Brian Mulroney and last January when we got Stephen Harper.
New leader, new landscape
The Liberals, especially when out of power, always run from the left and then govern from the right. Paul Martin co-authored the infamous Liberal Red Book for the 1993 election. It was one of the most progressive political documents ever written for a Canadian election and was used extensively throughout the campaign. It also turned out to be a book of outright lies. Martin and Chrétien had no intention of ever implementing it.
But the political landscape is different this time in important respects.
First, Dion is genuinely to the left of recent Liberal leaders and he has no ties to Bay Street. Both Chrétien and Martin were deeply embedded in that world and were dedicated servants of Tom d'Aquino, the head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives -- the CEOs of the 150 largest corporations in Canada.
Also, in a kind of death-bed repentance, Chrétien passed legislation that banned corporate and union donations to political parties, removing a powerful weapon from the hands of corporate Canada. That doesn't mean it can't still issue threats. (Trudeau's last attempt at progressive tax reform in the early 1980s brought the threat of a capital strike and cranes were actually removed from construction sites in Toronto.) And the corporate media will be used to maximum and ruthless effect to keep Dion in line and to remind him that the Liberals are the "natural governing party" because they have served the interests of big business.
In addition to the power of business, any governing party intent on returning to activist government will have to face a federal bureaucracy thoroughly infected by neo-liberalism. Many of the most senior and powerful bureaucrats are dedicated to dismantling the modern state and creating a free-fire zone for international capital. Dion will be faced with intransigence if not outright sabotage in many areas of the federal civil service.
Lastly, Dion will have to deal with a caucus that consists of some very conservative MPs, especially from Ontario. They will be a serious curb on any progressive intentions, as evidenced by how few MPs and cabinet ministers supported him for the leadership. Party members may have wanted genuine renewal; the caucus did not.
Caution, election ahead
Canadians will have to be exceptionally alert when approaching the next election. There is such a strong desire to rid the country of the arrogant and condescending Stephen Harper that people may not think past this short-term goal. Opponents of the last Conservative government demonized Brian Mulroney and paved the way for Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. They were arguably much worse in terms of the damage they did to Canadian democracy and society.
Barring some extraordinary series of political mistakes by Dion, the most likely scenario in a spring election is a Liberal victory, most likely a minority.
Harper is a true ideologue and is not for turning. His grim-reaper persona has changed somewhat, but his policies will not -- on the environment, Afghanistan, women's rights, or tax cuts for corporations.
While Dion is hardly charismatic, his awkwardness actually gives him the appeal of the non-politician. In a half-hour interview with Peter Mansbridge recently, Dion came across as totally unrehearsed and honest. Dion is a passionate believer in the positive, activist role of government. He ran a leadership campaign based on three pillars: a strong (government guided) economy, sustainable development and social justice.
What we need to keep foremost in our calculations leading into the election is that the only way those three pillars have any chance of ever seeing the light of day is if Dion leads a minority government. If Dion wins a majority, the full weight of the corporate media, Bay Street, the right wing bureaucracy and the conservatives in his caucus will grind down whatever is good in Stephane Dion. The key to ridding the country not only of Stephen Harper but of radical neo-liberalism is to give the NDP the balance of power. In that scenario, Dion will be able to argue, as even Bay Street's Paul Martin did, that in order to stay in power (the only thing the party establishment cares about), he must accommodate the NDP.
Deal with Greens
But here's the problem. This scenario requires a sea change in the NDP's strategy for the next election.
The party's delusional notion that the Liberals are going to voluntarily disappear can now, thankfully, be put to rest. The NDP needs to engage the public by campaigning on keeping the Liberals honest. They will give Dion the support -- critical, to be sure -- he needs to fight off the reactionary forces that will naturally align against him.
The NDP can, with this strategy, deal directly with the "wasted vote" phenomenon that has plagued them for decades by appealing to voters as a party that will in fact hold real power -- the power to force the Liberals to keep their promises.
But to win enough seats to hold the balance of power, the party has to seriously examine its strategy vis-à-vis the Green Party. Right now, it has no strategy, and by default is poised to aggressively compete with the Greens for environmental votes. It could propose a deal that would see Greens withdraw from winnable NDP seats in return for bowing out of May's Nova Scotia riding and pledging to make proportional representation a key plank in its platform. That would avoid the 2004 scenario where Green support defeated seven NDP candidates and elected Conservatives instead. There might be no deal to be made, but it needs to be tried.
Layton needs new approach
It's in Jack Layton's hands. The NDP can choose to end its preoccupation with clever tactical manoeuvres and put forward the progressive vision that its policies, taken as a whole, actually represent.
And they can still challenge Dion from the left on a whole range of issues, including NAFTA and the Liberals' deep integration agenda, energy sovereignty, creating a high-wage economy, addressing the incredibly stressful lives of working people, radical poverty reduction, women's equality and re-funding of post-secondary education.
Running on a clear vision for the country and openly seeking a share of governing power -- to keep Dion honest and extract more from the Liberals -- might not only save the country from further destruction, it could save the NDP.
If the party continues to attack Dion, it is they who could disappear, not the Liberals.