Great Expectations

October 19, 2015

WAITING FOR A MIRACLE—Back in the spring of 2010, Lune and I bumped into federal NDP leader Jack Layton and his wife, NDP MP Olivia Chow, in the gift shop of the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Just before passing away a year later, Jack had high hopes that an “Orange Wave” would produce the country’s first federal NDP government by 2015. Looks like we’ll have to wait longer for that dream to become reality. (Olivia Chow photo)

Somewhere before the one-month point of this seemingly interminable, 78-day federal election campaign, New Democrats awoke to a sobering reality. Few said it openly, but everyone was thinking it: We peaked too early. After several months at the top of the polls as Canada’s government-in-waiting, the NDP saw their numbers tacking unmistakably in the other direction—to the point that, by Thanksgiving weekend, nearly every poll in the country was placing the party in third. As the final countdown to E-day began, a grim sense of the inevitable was setting in, a feeling not unlike the perennial disappointment of Vancouver Canucks fans every spring: The Holy Grail is Just Not for Us.

Given the numbers—which appeared to be trending toward a Liberal majority—along with the predictable stampede of mainstream media endorsements for the Conservatives, there weren’t many NDP supporters openly predicting an Alberta Moment for Tom Mulcair. Such a come-from-behind, hell-freezes-over win would be a stunning reversal; a minor miracle that could only be explained by untrackable voting behaviour at the advance polls, NDP ownership of the undecided vote, every declared supporter actually showing up to vote on October 19, and a sudden collective amnesia about the niqab in Quebec.

Unfortunately for the NDP, the Alberta scenario does not scan in the federal arena. Back in early May, the cowboy province was witnessing the implosion of a divided political right. In the power vacuum that resulted, Rachel Notley’s NDP was the only clear alternative to the spent force of old-style conservatism. Such a polarized dynamic is light years from the cluster-you-know-what that has plagued federal opposition politics since 2006. Imagine being Tom Mulcair and having to share the anti-Harper field with vote-splitting Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Lazarus-like separatist Gilles Duceppe, and “Natural Governing Party” leader Justin Trudeau. Four’s a crowd.

Having said that, I hereby make a last-minute appeal for any undecided voter reading this to mark his or her ballot for the NDP. Rather than trying to gain converts with policy analysis (when everyone has been inundated with party leaflets, partisan ads, robo calls, and punditry overload since August 2), I leave you with three thoughts:

*****

Some people get too bent out of shape about Stephen Harper—and others not nearly enough. Since the writ was dropped, I’ve seen a lot of postings about Harper Derangement Syndrome (HDS), a favourite epithet of media cynics. The basic premise of HDS is that certain folks on the left are “so blindly incensed by the mere fact Stephen Harper is prime minister that they can’t think straight, thus completely undermining whatever credibility their arguments may have had.” There is some truth to this. Calling the prime minister a Nazi not only trivializes the horrors of the Third Reich; it also produces the unintended effect of inspiring sympathy for the target. (The word “fascist,” when not referring to Hitler, Mussolini, or the likes of Augusto Pinochet, is best reserved for movements or organizations that have explicitly racist, neo-Nazi policies.) HDS sufferers typically lack self-awareness about their affliction and have no grasp of optics. Remember “Harperman”? A cringe-making attempt to build solidarity through song, this earnest Pete Seeger-izing of the prime minister by a choir of Boomer hippies (with its litany of rhyming clichés) should probably have remained in the Unitarian basement where it was conceived—not been choreographed like “We Are the World,” taped, posted, and then shared. Similarly, slogans like “Harper hates my family” might be fun to wear on a T-shirt, but puerile ad hominems do not sway opinion.

On the other hand, proponents of HDS theory tend to trivialize a few things themselves. HDS theory ignores the fact that at least 70 per cent of Canadians do not vote Conservative and are going to the polls this time specifically to Give Steve the Heave. HDS theory’s implication that all of Harper’s opponents on the left are Looney Tune nutbars only draws attention away from the facts, which demonstrate the many ways that Harper has failed his office. Hatred and distrust of the prime minister are not in themselves proof of derangement. These emotions come from a real place that should be taken seriously; a place of profound disappointment with what Canada has become after ten years of Harper’s narrow, ideological program.

The record since 2006 reflects a prime minister who has no interest in bringing Canadians together but seems intent on doing everything possible to divide us. Never mind the usual objections to Conservative policies like cutting social programs. The PM’s anti-Muslim/anti-immigrant fear-mongering, his contempt for scientists, his anti-environmentalism, his scrapping of the long form census, his gutting of the CBC, his autocratic leadership style, his muzzling of the media, his disdain for aboriginal rights, his paranoid distrust of political opponents, and a host of other sins that point to the democratic deficit he will most certainly leave behind, suggest that “Harper Derangement Syndrome” theory is aimed too much at the symptoms and not enough at the cause.

*****

The tag line of those Conservative ads targeting Justin Trudeau (“He’s just not ready”) qualifies as fair comment. Obviously a lot of people disagree, because Trudeau is poised to become prime minister by the end of October 19. Yes, he deserves credit for astutely campaigning from the left and without any major pratfalls, much to the surprise of those who underestimated him. And yes, part of me does feel a bit churlish, hoping for the defeat of an attractive young idealist. Justin Trudeau has advanced a few social policies I could live with. His bubbly ebullience, while gratingly superficial, would still be an improvement over the stiffness of Stephen Harper, the former’s “open tent” philosophy a breath of fresh air after the latter’s siege mentality. But another, more significant part of me suspects that Trudeau, a telegenic 43-year-old, is one of those people who is far better at campaigning than he would be at governing.

Those declaring “Trudeaumania II: The Sequel!” should ask themselves: Is this the prime minister I want representing Canada at the G8? (Vladimir Putin on the world stage might be a more challenging opponent than Patrick Brazeau in a boxing ring.) Is this the prime minister I want calling the shots on foreign affairs, trade, and domestic economic policy? Trudeau surrounded himself with good advisors on the campaign trail, which is commendable. But what happens when it’s time to appoint a cabinet and prepare a first budget? His weathervane approach to various issues (not least his support for the odious Bill C-51), and a tendency for melodrama, suggest an over privileged dilettante who has never faced a significant challenge in his professional life. Such a demeanor is one thing in opposition. But from the helm of the second largest country in the world? Then there’s that promise to save the middle class. As a coddled blueblood who spent his first twelve years at 24 Sussex, and has pretty much coasted ever since, Justin Trudeau is not exactly a convincing champion of the middle class.

*****

After 148 years of Liberal or Conservative governments, is a single term of NDP rule still too much to ask? Canada has never been governed by any party not named Liberal or Conservative. The NDP and its predecessor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), have held those governments accountable for decades. Now, after rising from third party status to Official Opposition, they are seeking their first chance to govern. So, should we let them?

Tom Mulcair has made a good case for saying “yes”. The former Quebec provincial cabinet minister, civil servant and law professor will never be as warm and fuzzy as Jack Layton. But since taking over the NDP reins from his dearly departed predecessor, Mulcair has convincingly sold the party brand as one of fairness, good governance and fiscal responsibility. At the same time, he has dispelled internal concerns about a shift to the “mushy middle” by campaigning for a national child care program, promising to repeal Bill C-51, and supporting workers’ rights with a pledge to scrap two anti-union bills. He sounds all the right notes about climate change, aboriginal rights, and Canada’s urgent need to improve its international standing. He has all the right bullets on his resume to suggest job readiness, while exuding a degree of professional competence and gravitas that seems prime ministerial. Should a miracle occur and the NDP win the highest number of seats, he would have a deep enough talent pool to form an able cabinet.

What’s not to like?

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