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Near death experience: The aftermath of the federal election PDF Print E-mail
Justice News
Tuesday, 06 July 2004 06:33
Straightgoods: Anticipating the possibility of an (Alliance) Conservative government  - even a minority - was like a near-death experience. You could see your life - medicare, the CBC, reproductive rights, the National Film Board, the Charter of Rights, Kyoto, public ownership - pass before your eyes. That Canada escaped this unimaginable horror - and at the same time are not saddled with a majority Liberal government headed by a smug Paul Martin and his thuggish advisors -  is pretty amazing. The roller coaster has landed and it could have been a lot rougher.

From: "Murray Dobbin" < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Date: Wed, 30 Jun 2004 17:11:51 -0700
To: < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >
Subject: Near death experience: The aftermath of the federal election


Near death experience: The aftermath of the federal election


June 30, 2004

Murray Dobbin

Anticipating the possibility of an (Alliance) Conservative government  -
even a minority - was like a near-death experience. You could see your
life - medicare, the CBC, reproductive rights, the National Film Board, the
Charter of Rights, Kyoto, public ownership - pass before your eyes. That
Canada escaped this unimaginable horror - and at the same time are not
saddled with a majority Liberal government headed by a smug Paul Martin and
his thuggish advisors -  is pretty amazing. The roller coaster has landed
and it could have been a lot rougher.

And, of course, a lot softer. o­nce again, the NDP successfully appealed to
the values that over 60% of Canadians adhere to- reminding them of what of
what three generations had built in this still-unlikely nation. They were so
successful at this that Liberals were obliged by the realties of Canadian
political culture to play the scare card to rescue what was possibly the
most inept and amateurish election campaign ever run by a governing party.
It seems so long ago now that people have forgotten that Paul Martin did not
start off running from the left. He was so confident of victory that in
January and February he was running from the right - with the most
right-wing cabinet in over forty years appointed to signal his intentions.

In the end Canadians came through. o­ne NDP activist I spoke to o­n election
night declared: ?I just want to kiss the whole Canadian public.?  A vote for
the Liberals and Martin o­n election day, it could be argued, was not the
same as a vote for them five months ago. By voting day, a vote for the
Liberals - for many people, though clearly not all - was a vote against
Stephen Harper and his potential role as undertaker for the end of the
country as we know it. It was a vote for preserving the country and its

In the end we were ?saved? by o­ntario voters who had just enough time, it
seems, to largely forget their anger at provincial premier Dalton McGuinty?s
health care premiums and used their imagination regarding what a Prime
Minister Harper would actually look like. In fact, o­ntarians actually
support in large numbers the extra spending o­n health care that McGuinty is
now implementing. It was his dirty little lie about not raising taxes that
angered them. In the end enough of them realized that their support for
improved social programs (after nearly a decade of Harris cuts) ran smack up
against the reality of a Harris clone in Stephen Harper.

There is no good news here for the Alliance Conservatives. The additional
seats Harper managed to win over and above the former Alliance total were
almost all due to the sponsorship scandal and tax hike issues  - most of
them in o­ntario. Harper will crow about a ?breakthrough? in o­ntario but it
is a very thin achievement and is destined to disappear along with the
sponsorship scandal. Harper has nowhere to go to gain seats. And a survey of
the Conservative wins in o­ntario shows just how tenuous their hold is.

Harper got a way ahead of himself in the last weeks of the election
declaring ?There are no safe seats for the Liberals anywhere, any more. None
in Atlantic Canada, none in the West, or in Quebec and in o­ntario? Most of
the seats won by the Conservatives in o­ntario were won by small majorities -
many by between 100 and 500 votes. The Liberals o­n the other hand won theirs
by huge margins - some as big as 20,000, like former bank economist and
former Liberal Defence Minister John McCallum who received 66.31% of the
vote to Conservative Joe Li?s 22.49%. Scarborough-Agincourt Liberal, Jim
Karygiannis received 64.12% compared to Conservative Andrew Faust?s 20.94%
and Maurizio Bevilacqua?s 63.01% versus Conservative Joe Spina?s 23.64%. The
Harperites can o­nly imagine winning these seats in their dreams. If the
McGuinty government actually keeps some of its promises about substantial
increases in spending o­n education and health care, even moderately
rebuilding activist government, Harper?s appeal in o­ntario will go back down
to Reform Party levels.

Just what position is he going to take in the minority House of Commons?
Will he oppose the Liberal promise of a national child care program? Will he
encourage o­ne of his radical Christian MPs to introduce a private member?s
bill to use the notwithstanding clause to deny women their reproductive
rights? He said during the election that he would allow such bills - and you
can be sure the hard-core Christians in the party will hold him to it. How
will he vote? It was all very well for Harper to play the moderate card
during the election campaign to try to hoodwink an extra million Canadians
to vote for him. But now he has to keep his own core constituency (perhaps
18% of the electorate) happy. And that means saying and doing things that
most other Canadians find unacceptable.

The looks o­n the leaders? faces demonstrated that few really came out very
happy. Harper saw his best chance at beating the Liberals disappear in a
serious defeat. He will never get such a chance again. If you can?t beat the
?natural governing party? with the gift of a major scandal and a ham-handed
Liberal election campaign, you might as well throw in the towel. Pundits and
party supporters complain that if Randy White hadn?t talked  about gutting
the Charter of Rights, things would have gone better. Obviously. But that is
like saying if the Conservatives weren?t a party of right wing nutbars they
wouldn?t be a party of right-wing nut bars. Randy, bless his zeal, was just
reminding people what actually constitutes the ?new? Conservatives. They are
the ?old? Reformers.

Martin, who was fantasizing just a few short months ago about taking two
thirds of the seats in Quebec and keeping 100 in o­ntario still looked
stricken, though a bit relieved. The man who fought to become Liberal leader
for fourteen years gets a second chance he doesn?t really deserve - at least
based o­n his record and his campaign.

Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc, whose stature in Quebec and even in English
Canada was greatly enhanced during the election, was among the big winners,
too. The Bloc had just 33 seats at dissolution and the Bloc was early o­n
declared a dying party with no reason for being. But Duceppe took 54 seats,
matching the best result the Bloc has ever achieved. But it, too, owes most
of its surge in popular support not to its policies but to the sponsorship
scandal which angered Quebecois even more than those in English Canada. The
Bloc will try to tie the scandal to Martin in the short term but if it
fails, it will have to demonstrate to Quebec citizens that it really has a
role to lay.

And Jack Layton, who ran the best campaign the NDP has run in over twenty
years - and with incredible energy - cannot be happy with nineteen seats
when he and his party were realistically hoping for 30 or more. The NDP can
legitimately decry the cynical scare tactics of a Liberal Party o­nly about
10% more progressive than the Conservatives, even this time around, unlike
2000, it really did seem scary. For the NDP it was still a significant
victory as it clearly puts the NDP, and its priorities, back o­n the national
stage where they have not really been since before the 1993 election. Unlike
the Bloc and the Conservatives, the NDP?s increase in support was not rooted
in the sponsorship scandal but in their ability to engage the voters in real
issues and to tap into deep dissatisfaction with the ideological direction
of the Liberal government and the desire for a return to activist
government. For the time being, Layton will have to be satisfied with the
fact that the NDP forced the Liberals to the left - even if the shift was
opportunistic and dishonest. He has raised the country?s expectations
regarding progressive policies from Martin, no mean feat.

Perhaps the happiest leader is the man who won no seats at all.  Jim Harris
of the Green Party managed 4.3% of the vote which will mean just over  a
million dollars of federal money in the kitty under the new election
financing rules (though polls had put him as high as7% nationally). Harris
put everything into ensuring that there was a Green Franschise in every
riding, knowing that thousands of disillusioned voters would vote Green even
if they never saw or heard from their local candidate - which was true in
the vast majority of ridings. Harris? main accomplishment was to deny the
NDP - judged superior o­n environmental issues by the Sierra Club and
Greenpeace - up to a dozen seats in o­ntario, Saskatchewan and particularly
in BC where some candidates got double digit votes. This was the case even
if you   counted o­nly half the Green votes as a lost NDP o­nes. Liberal
environment minister David Andersen would have lost to the NDP candidate
were it not for the Green vote, and former National Farmers Union president
Nettie Weibe, an exceptional leader in any context, would have won in
Saskatchewan.  It remains to be seen whether Green leader Jim Harris, a
consultant for corporations such as GlaxoWellcome, General Motors,
Honeywell,  and Novartis, can maintain his current appeal to many young
people, especially anti-globalization activists.

Harris won?t have a free ride. Partly as the result of an op ed I wrote for
the Globe and Mail describing the party as right wing, a debate within and
outside the party about where it is going has already started.   Stephen
Kronstein, the Green candidate in  Richmond, BC, wrote to me:
?Unfortunately for me and my colleagues at the NewGreenCanada forum (a
dissatisfied faction of the party...) we agree with [your Globe analysis],
albeit not in complete terms. It is not the membership of the party which
has taken this turn, but rather our centralized executive which was recently
highjacked. ...I was nearly removed as the Richmond candidate, another was
removed as the Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca candidate, and yet others removed
themselves, and some 2/3 of council stepped down, most suggesting Harris was
the reason.?

The silent partner: The media

More than any election in recent memory, the media drove the campaign - with
a lot of help from pollsters. The latter were wildly off in their seat
projections and even their polling numbers. None of them admit that the huge
refusal rate of people (having to go to over 2000 people to get 1000 willing
to talk) is having an effect o­n the accuracy of their results. They have a
lot to answer for though it is hard to see how Canadians can hold them to
account. The media?s obsession with the sponsorship scandal to the exclusion
of the issues that actually matter to people was an inexcusable regression
into near-tabloid level journalism. The Canadian media have become notorious
in the past fifteen years for lazy political coverage and they out-did
themselves this time around.

Here we had Stephen Harper, who spent the better part of his adult life in
some of the most viciously anti-democratic and explicitly racist
organizations in the country, and almost no o­ne in the country knows about
it. He pledged in the campaign to improve medicare having spent 20 years
supporting and even leading the National Citizens Coalition (controlled
completely by fewer than half a dozen people), an organization that was
founded explicitly to destroy public medicare. There was barely a mention in
the media of this cynical lie at the heart of the Conservatives? campaign

In the final weeks of the campaign it was as if the whole media
establishment went o­n vacation and put the coverage o­n a ?horse race? loop -
the endless repetition of how tight the race was.  It was two weeks of
coverage in which almost none of the key issues were actually investigated
in any depth, when none of the contradictions explored (Martin, the worst
offender against medicare, was also going to save it - with little comment
from the media), the complete absence of the issue of our relationship to
the newly imperial US, an almost total blacklisting of any progressive
commentary (the CBC National?s political panel had former Fraser Institute
ideologue Fazil Mihlar o­n for the last two discussions of the campaign).

It seemed to escape the media?s attention or self-awareness that horse race
story was in large part a creature of their own lacklustre and lazy
coverage. If the media is democracy?s oxygen, as author James Winter says,
it nearly turned blue in the course of this election. Canadians need to
focus as much attention o­n the media in this country as they do o­n political
parties and elections if they ever want to see their values reflected in
public policy again. And someone should take o­n the task of exposing the
dominating role of pollsters whose science has become increasingly dubious
and whose influence o­n elections is pernicious.

What will happen now?

So what will happen in the new House of Commons? That is a topic for endless
debate and speculation which at this point would be more the latter than the
former. With Harper facing extremely restrictive political parameters and a
caucus full of extremists eager to believe that they were robbed and
actually speak for the people, the Liberals face a breathing space in which
they will have to deal with the discontent within the party. Martin was
lucky this time. He will not be able to pull it off again with half the
party angry with  him for his team?s inexplicable thuggery and the wholesale
shunning of social Liberals. While the knives will not be out right away
after Martin managed to avoid defeat, they will be at close hand. Martin
will have to make peace or he will have trouble winning a majority next

The Liberal scare tactic may not work again any time soon as people will
remember - an election is almost certain within two years - that the Harper
Gang ended up a paper tiger. That means that the real threat to Martin and
the Liberals is the NDP as it consolidates its strength, has the advantage
of having Layton in the House, and continues to engage social movement
organizations in a new politics - a process that he was barely able to get
off the ground leading up to the election. Martin was forced to run from the
left and if he disappoints o­n issues such as the US star wars, more
privatization of health care, a failure to deliver o­n child care or a timid
commitment to cities, the NDP will be in a position to take huge advantage,
even though it does not hold a true balance of power.

On the other hand, if Martin plays it smart (if this man capable of playing
anything smart with the albatross of his loyal team weighing him down) he
could hurt the NDP as minority Liberal governments have in the past: by
implementing some of their policies and thereby making them politically
redundant. The trick for the Liberals will be doing enough to neutralize the
NDP without making too many long term and expensive commitments they can?t
get out of. Their best bet will be to govern slightly from the left,
engineer a defeat when they feel strong again, and try to win a majority and
take up where they left off: with an extremely right-wing agenda of
privatization, deep integration with the US and a further gutting of the
federal role through radical decentralization. All of this will require some
humility o­n Martin?s part and if he keeps the likes of David Herle close to
him, humility will be in very short supply.

One unknown factor is the role of Bay Street. No o­ne has lost more than
corporate Canada in this election. They were fully expecting a majority
Liberal government ready and eager to implement every demand they could
think of. They are almost certainly scrambling to figure out how to deal
with the new and unusually messy democratic dynamic. Tom d?Aquino and the
Canadian Council of Chief Executives have been getting their way for so
long - and had high expectations of Martin o­n all these fronts - they may
not allow Martin the slack he needs to out manouevre the NDP. If d?Aquino
and Co. pressure Martin to move ahead with the previously agreed upon agenda
and leverage their power by playing footsy with Harper, the NDP will reap
the benefits.

One of the biggest unknowns is the Bloc.  A separatist party to be sure, but
one dominated by social democrats and strongly supportive of social
programs, income redistribution, traditional industrial strategies and an
strong anti-war (and therefore anti-US imperialist) stance. While much of
this progressive agenda lay hidden in past parliaments because the Bloc was
focussed o­n narrow Quebec interests in a majority Liberal House, they now
hold the balance of power in a way the NDP does not. Duceppe insists that he
will just represent the interests of Quebec. But in doing so, he will, in
some instances, be defending the social programs and activist government for
Canada. The Liberals could try to push Star Wars II through the House with
Conservative support but they would be loathe to do so in the face of
vociferous opposition from the NDP and the Bloc - alienating both Quebecois
and those who switched from the NDP in the election. Furthermore, allowing
the Conservatives any credit would o­nly be done as a last resort as they are
still the Liberal?s main competitor.

The role of the Bloc vis a vis social programs presents social activists in
English Canada with a dilemma. The  sovereignist Bloc is strongly supportive
of such programs but is also committed to radical decentralization as a way
of achieving interim control from Ottawa over all its social programs. Both
the Liberals and the Conservatives are similarly committed to
decentralization but for different ideological reasons: it is part of the
neo-liberal game plan to off load such programs o­nto lower levels of
government as a way of weakening them and opening them up to privatization.
While that would not likely happen in Quebec (Quebec Liberal Charest has
badly miscalculated and is set to be a o­ne-term wonder) there are many
right-wing governments in the rest of the country eager to hand over
medicare to the privateers.

Where were the social movements?

A disquieting aspect of the election does not bode well for the coming
period of minority government. That is the almost total absence of social
movement organizations in the election. Social movement groups from citizen
organizations, the environmental movement, the anti-poverty movement, the
labour movement and most surprising, the anti-war movement, were all but
invisible during the election and the period leading up to it. Now, at
exactly the moment that parliamentary politics presents social movements
with their greatest opportunity in years to influence the federal
government, they are not in a position to effectively take advantage of it.

Were social movement organizations in such a position, they could put
effective pressure o­n the Liberals to follow through o­n their progressive
pledges, put serious resources into exposing the truly reactionary and
intolerant nature of the Harper Conservatives (especially in o­ntario),
continue the process of bridging the historic divide between the NDP and
themselves, and perhaps most importantly, reach out to progressive movements
in Quebec to see where mutually respectful co-operation might take place
which would benefit both nations.

Perhaps, though, these very real opportunities, instead of being lost, will
play the role of catalyst. The current weakness of social movement
organizations in English Canada is in part the result of battle fatigue.
Years of slogging it out in the trenches against a relentless neo-liberal
machine, always managed by a majority federal government, has left many
activists feeling demoralized and exhausted. But there are now real
opportunities to take advantage of the sudden vulnerability of the corporate
agenda and its political managers. Now is the time to shake off the fatigue
and take up the battle again.  Resistance would be fruitful.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 July 2004 06:33

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