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Left Coalition Badly Needed

Harper's agenda must be stopped by Liberals, NDP and Bloc.

Murray Dobbin 22 Oct

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee.

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Cartoon by Ingrid Rice.

Was the federal election just a bad dream? After five weeks of fear and loathing, disappointment and disbelief, Canadians woke up to election results that were hardly different than when the election started. Most of the commentary since has been about numbers and pro-Harper media spin. The man who is claiming a new "enhanced" mandate actually received 168,737 fewer votes than last time but garnered an additional 19 seats. The turnout, at 59 per cent, was the lowest in our history, which means that the Harper Conservatives will govern the country with the support of fewer than 23 per cent of the eligible voters. Democracy in Canada has seldom seemed so corrupted or so unrepresentative.

For many of the 62 per cent who voted against Harper and his unhidden agenda, there has been an outpouring of demands for a coalition government of the Liberals, NDP and Bloc to form a minority government as soon as they can conceivably bring down the Harper government.

The movement for proportional representation suddenly has thousands of new recruits and supporters as Fair Vote Canada's website is being flooded with visitors and its petition has been sent out through hundreds of individual e-mail lists.

Those of us on the left can be enraged by Harper's win, but we should not be surprised. The political right has been working for this result for some 20 years with a campaign deliberately aimed at lowering Canadians' expectations of what is possible from government, and hence elections. The campaign to give democracy a cold shower actually started with the 1975 publication of a book called The Crisis of Democracy. Put out by the Trilateral Commission, the most powerful elite group in the world at the time, it concluded that there was an "excess of democracy." The authors lamented that the public now questioned "the legitimacy of hierarchy, coercion, discipline, secrecy, and deception -- all of which are in some measure inescapable attributes of the process of government." A governable democracy, the American co-author Samuel P. Huntington wrote, requires a large degree of "apathy and non-involvement." That they now have it is no accident.

Deficit terrorism, surplus suppression

For the succeeding 30 years, corporate think tanks, media outlets and foundations got down to work to rid the world of its excess of democracy. In Canada, beginning with the national debate on the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the neo-liberal movement waged an extremely effective campaign along the lines of "there is no alternative" -- known by its acronym TINA. In the late '80s through the early 1990s the focus was the deficit and it was relentless: thousands of articles, TV programs, editorials, academic studies and political campaigns warned about hitting the "debt wall."

But always connected with the deficit terror campaign was the solution: cutting government spending -- specifically, social spending. The result? In 1995, when Paul Martin slashed federal social spending by 40 per cent, Canadians barely complained. Other aspects of the campaign denigrated government and those who provided its front line services. Preston Manning characterized government as having its "hands in taxpayers' pockets."

Just two years after Martin's cuts, Ottawa began racking up increasing, multi-billion dollar surpluses -- surpluses which threatened to once again increases people's expectations. They were quickly dispensed with, first by paying down the debt and second by the biggest corporate and high income tax cuts in Canadian history. Harper, of course, continued with the project.

Where Layton and May stumbled

But given Canadians' resilient attachment to progressive values, this world of lowered expectations could be challenged by genuine visionary political leadership. Nothing can be expected from the Bay Street Liberals whose shameless "running from the left" strategy should fool no one. There is a temptation to feel sorry for Dion given the ruthless personal attacks on him by Harper and Co. But this was the man who supported every piece of legislation that Stephen Harper could muster in his two and a half years as PM. Only as part of a minority government can we expect anything but corporate kow-towing from this politically compromised machine.

And the NDP, which actually has a collection of progressive policies, has yet to take on the challenge of raising expectations. Canadians are looking for someone who gives them hope for the future. The NDP gives them clever tactics, catch phrases and a virtual prime minister. Looking at the NDP campaign, as smooth and smart as it was, the whole was far less than the sum of its parts. The party seems incapable of getting beyond the momentary imperative of strategy and tactics to offer a vision that Canadians so desperately seek. We want leaders but we still get managers.

Looking south, it is ironic that Barack Obama, whose policies are almost universally mainstream Democratic Party (that is, mostly reactionary) is running a campaign based on values and hope. But in Canada, his ostensible counterpart, Jack Layton, a man whose policies really are progressive, failed to provide hope or vision because, we have to assume, he and his party thought Canadians weren't ready to respond to such a bold campaign. They were wrong.

As for Elizabeth May, she actually sounded like a leader, not boxed in by the careful scripting and focus-group-think that the other leaders demonstrated. But she, too, had a major flaw. May has always known that in a first-past-the-post system a small party divides the electorate. She could easily have won the party's leadership based on this understanding and made it clear from the beginning that she would not run candidates in competitive ridings where the Conservatives could be defeated. That is, until the country got proportional representation. Instead, she went for the money -- the $1.95 per vote trumped her principles. But then she tried to have her pie and eat it, too. Three times promoting strategic voting and then unconvincingly denying she had, she failed to exhibit the one essential trait of any successful political leader: good judgement.

What to expect of Harper now

For a smart politician, Stephen Harper has twice thrown away majority victories with moves that are breathtaking in their stupidity. His comments on culture (much worse than the actual cuts) and his pledge to send 14-year-olds to prison for life are headed for the political history books. For a party with an absolute lock on its core supporters, both these policy initiatives were inexplicable. They not only lost him the majority he desperately wanted, but may have set him and his party back permanently in Quebec. After all, he has given the province everything they asked for already, in a cynical strategy to get seats. What will he do for an encore?

There is no hidden Harper agenda. It is there for all to see. A rigid ideologue who detests government, he will continue to corrupt Canadian democracy and political culture with negative advertising, aggressive partisanship, out-right lies and cynical policy initiatives aimed at capturing carefully calculated segments of the population.

At the same time, Harper will resume the implementation of his plan to diminish the nation through more tax cuts, a gradual end to federal spending powers, and the devolution of more power to the provinces. Harper's true vision of the federal government's role is restricted to funding the military, the RCMP, CSIS and the Bank of Canada. Medicare, post-secondary education, climate change, poverty reduction, cultural and social development, indeed all collective solutions to the problems facing Canada would be left up to a balkanized state with 10 disparate parts pulling in 10 directions.

And on a parallel track with the Security and Prosperity Partnership, Harper will facilitate the integration of a fatally weakened Canadian nation into the U.S., just as that failed state enters the final stages of its decline.

Stephen Harper must be forced from office at the earliest opportunity, to be replaced by a new minority government representing the vast majority of Canadians. The Liberals, NDP and the Bloc must start planning for it now.

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