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Risque Business

These are heady times for federal New Democrats. They increased their seat total by ten and their popular vote by almost 2 percent in the recent election, gains that look even better when compared to the surprising decline of the Bloc Quebecois, the financial woes and leadership vacuum facing the Liberals, and the tenuous minority government of the Conservatives. Judging by the way Jack Layton, Olivia Chow, and the rest of the NDP brass partied at Toronto’s appropriately named Guverment night club on election night it was clear that they believed that they had achieved a breakthrough of historic proportions and a return to the political respectability. They are wrong.

The NDP needs to leverage this success – 29 seats, 2,590,808 votes, and the resulting 4.54 million dollars in government funding – to build a foundation for long-term political success, a so-called “base” of support. Like sycophantic members of a high-school clique these bases will support their party in overwhelming numbers regardless of how it behaves, who leads it, and what it promises to do or not do in the near future.

The Liberals have the Greater Toronto Area, the Conservatives have Alberta, and the Bloc Quebecois has rural Quebec, and in each area candidates of the favoured party routinely win by ten, twenty, or even thirty-thousand votes. The NDP has no such margin of error, and as a result it is likely going to be concerned less with exploiting its influence and more with retaining their existing presence.

The NDP has begun to aggressively – although not yet entirely effectively – target urban ridings that are a natural fit for the party’s cosmopolitan ethic and socially liberal policies. But while they’ll continue to find support in urban centres they can’t count on consistently winning seats in cities as different as Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax. Canada is, for better or worse, a country of regions, and if the NDP is to finally find its own base of support then it must come to terms with this reality.

Like theword “base” suggests, bases of support shield parties from the electoral tides that, on average, sweep across Canada every decade or so. In 1984, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives pushed the Liberals out of power and formed a majority government, yet the Liberals remained strong in Toronto. In 1993, Jean Chretien’s Liberals swept into power and formed their own majority government, but while they won every seat in Ontario, most of the seats in Quebec, and a majority of seats in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and Atlantic Canada the trend didn’t hold in the West. In both cases, the bases held strong.

The NDP, in spite of its recent success, should be worried about the next tide. The next election will see a new Liberal leader and a Conservative government with a record to run on, and after two minority governments Canadians might be looking for more stability. The conditions are ripe, in other words, for a healthy majority government. The NDP only has ten safe seats – victories of more than 10,000 votes. The other 19 seats were won by an average of 3,630 votes, or approximately 6% of the total votes cast. Whether it’s a Conservative strengthening or a Liberal rebound, the NDP is again in danger of becoming political collateral damage unless it can find a base that is distinctly its own.

An opportunity to build such a base is presenting itself to the NDP. Paul Martin’s colossal mishandling of the sponsorship scandal has created a political vacuum in Quebec and it is one that the NDP is suited – hell, practically designed – to fill. Liberal support has, since the sponsorship scandal broke in early 2004, dropped from just under fifty percent of eligible voters to the mid-twenties. The Liberals dropped from 36 seats in the 2001 election under Jean Chretien’s leadership to 21 in 2004 and 13 in 2006.

That the Conservatives won ten seats in Quebec speaks less to a strengthening of Conservative support in the province and more to the fact that federalist Quebeckers are, for the first time since the Mulroney governments in the 1980s, willing to try non-Liberal options. Considering the social conservatism and pro-Americanism that colour Canadian conservatism, it seems unlikely that federalist Quebeckers will park their votes with the Conservatives for long. The New Democrats, with their tradition of progressive social politics, are a natural fit for a socially liberal province like Quebec. As an added bonus, their commitment to class issues resonates in Quebec, a province with perhaps the only ideologically-cohesive working class left in Canada.

It is therefore time, to borrow from the language of Quebec’s history, for the NDP to take a “beau risqué” of its own. It’s time for the NDP – indeed, it may be their only chance – to capture the hearts and minds of federalist Quebeckers and build a base of support that will stand the tests of time and a fickle electorate.

But for the NDP to capitalize on this opportunity and achieve a lasting measure of influence in the political lives of Canadians, Jack Layton needs to go, and he needs to go as soon as possible. This isn’t a reflection of any particular failure on Layton’s part, who has been the best, if not the most controversial, leader of Canada’s coalition of social democrats since Ed Broadbent. Layton deserves the respect of his party for delivering the NDP from the twentieth century and into the twenty-first by cutting the umbilical cord that had previously joined the NDP and organized labour. Under his leadership the New Democratic Party has begun to reinvent itself and shed its dependence on its supposed base, a labour movement whose members long ago abandoned the NDP for the greener pastures – and tax cuts – of the Liberals and the Conservatives. That reality was made plain by Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove’s public endorsement of Paul Martin’s ethically and intellectually bankrupt government.

Unfortunately for Layton, he faces insurmountable limitations as a federalist leader in Quebec. As a Toronto MP who once proudly stated that he would “tear up the Clarity Act”, the legislative holy grail for federalists both in and outside of Quebec, Jack Layton is incapable of leading a politically successful and relevant NDP in Quebec. Even though he was born in Montreal he has yet, in two federal elections, to demonstrate any ability to connect with the people of Quebec.

Politicians are, of course, loathe to leave on their own accord. Most require either the boot of the electorate or their own party to be placed firmly on their behind to leave, and Layton currently faces neither. But that’s why it’s a risk and a worthwhile one at that. Otto Von Bismarck described politics as the art of the possible, and Jack Layton has effectively reached his limitations.

Canadian politics is, for a refreshing change, an arena filled with genuine drama and alternately tantalizing and terrifying possibilities. While the Liberals are busy trying to rediscover their soul, Conservatives are trying to convince Canadians to trade their learner’s permit for an unrestricted license to govern. The Canadian public is, if only for a moment, paying attention. Opportunity, for this country’s political left, is finally knocking. Will anyone have the courage to answer?

Toronto, February 1, 2006 – 1,232 w.

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Max Fawcett

Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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