That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

♪ ♪ It’s now or never ♪ ♪

The tension is incredible. Even from across the big salty pond, I can hear the soundtrack to Canada’s Election-That-Might-Be ringing in my ears like so many high-strung violins.

Lots of things to watch between now and tomorrow morning. Much attention focusses on Jack Layton, though I find it unfair that, simply because he didn’t choose to nail the NDP’s flag to the mast before the budget was even produced, the media now portrays him as ultimately responsible as to whether or not the writ is dropped. Conservative obstinance? Liberal ambition? These haven’t contributed as much to the development of a 2011 election as NDP budget considerations?

Like it or not, the optics have conspired to put the NDP in the hot seat. Whatever the details of the budget, their main consideration has to be: Is now a good time for an election? And if not now, when?

It’s incredibly hard to read. On the one hand, there appears to be a perfect storm of scandal and abuse, whirling the narrative out of Conservative control. Contempt is a big word, and CPC complaints that the Commons committee was stacked with Opposition members only calls further attention to a democratic fact: the Opposition is the majority.

Couple the ethical transgressions and the abuse of power characterisations with a seat-of-the-pants economic plan (how on earth the “fiscal conservative” and “prudent economic manager” labels stick to Harper is head-slapping stuff. Is it simply because he speaks in calm monotones? Is it the glasses?), and one would think the Conservatives are in about the most dangerous electoral territory they’ve been in since coming to power.

On the other hand – the Cons continue to defy gravity, despite everything. None of their ethical or economic disasters have produced a significant quotient of outrage outside Official Ottawa. It leads some pundits to opine that Canadians mustn’t be paying attention to politics if Conservative support can possibly rise under these circumstances. I can’t help but think along Rick Mercer’s lines: it’s not that Canadians aren’t paying attention – it’s that nothing surprises us anymore:

Apparently our opinion of politics and the people who practice the art is now so low that no matter what the behaviour we’re no longer surprised. It’s like going to a family wedding. Why bother getting upset because uncle Jerry has too much to drink and makes a holy show of himself out on the dance floor? It’s uncle Jerry, that’s what he does.

And so, if Harper abuses that cynicism, he does not necessarily do so at his peril. Infuriating as it may be.

Where does that leave decisions on whether to provoke and election, or not to? Clearly, Harper’s comfortable poll position must be a source of infinite frustration for the Opposition parties. But there are three convictions that stand out to me:

1) These circumstances may be as good as they get. Why wait for even more scandals to amass, while running the real risk that the existing scandals will then have time to fade into the abyss of forgotten yesterdays?

2) The cut and thrust of a campaign may well render the whole of the last year’s polling obsolete as parties and their policies get serious attention. Ignatieff may be who he is, and his leadership indices are not enviable, but he’ll draw a sharp contrast with Harper on the campaign trail, as will Layton (and, as an aside, LPC/NDP vote-splitting is not a new thing, and an election later rather than now doesn’t diminish that age-old danger, unless Big Things Happen).

3) Progressive voters (and we’re a big group, eh?) are so eager to get the chance to have a kick at the electoral can that, should one of either the NDP or the Liberals’ decide to deny an election and support the CPC now, you would hear the stampede of support rumbling away to the other federalist Opposition party in an instant. Neither Ignatieff nor Layton want to see that.

Top it off with bittersweet memories of the NDP “rewriting” Paul Martin’s budget five years ago. It was a source of triumphalism at the time, but all for nought when that hung parliament fell, taking that NDP budget with it. What of a repeat? Layton could support this Flaherty budget today (tomorrow), and come to Canadians afterwards, saying he’s made Parliament work, he’s got some good initiatives locked in for everyday families, the NDP have punched above their weight again, etc. All fine. But who’s betting such measures will see actual light of day? Jack would be naive in the extreme, I think, to accept half-measured promises which the PMO will almost certainly forget about from next week.

An election won’t simply feel good: it’s deserved, and it just might work. If not now, when?

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Québec discovering its options

Sure, I actively try to shut my eyes to polls these days. What progressive dude wouldn’t, in a world where the HarperCons continue to defy gravity despite their overflowing ballast of rancid bullcrap?

That’s right, bullcrap.

But there is a spark of amazing news. The NDP currently appearing top of the federalist pops in Québec.

It’s one poll. And we’ve had the NDP topping the Tories in Québec in past polls, only to plummet to the 13% range they are used to there. So, it’s far too early for them to celebrate.

But to be in the position where it’s even conceivable that the New Democrats can place second to the BQ is remarkable. It’s the kind of example that Layton should (and does, to be fair) trumpet whenever he can. It was once unthinkable they’d ever win a single seat in Alberta, or in Québec, but then they did it. Then it was unthinkable they could ever top the Liberals and Cons in Québec to become a premier federalist option, but they’re now at that stage. What unthinkables are left? That they could ever become the Official Opposition, or even take government?

Why not, they should say. New Democrats eat unthinkables for breakfast.

The trick for Dippers in Québec for years now is that they’ve been torn two ways. People who identify principally as social democrats have tended to side with the Bloc, as that makes strategic sense in most ridings. People who identify principally as federalists have tended to side with one of the big two federalist parties, as it makes strategic sense for them. Québec’s federalist social democrats have, ironically, rarely turned to the NDP – Canada’s federalist social democratic party.

But when people like Thomas Mulcair talk like this, it helps their cause enormously:

Mr. Mulcair added that unlike the Bloc, the NDP not only expresses its opposition to the oil industry in the West, but can do something about it with MPs all over the country.

“The Bloc can only talk about the tar sands in Quebec,” Mr. Mulcair said, comparing that party to a hockey team made up entirely of defencemen. “That’s the difference with the NDP, which is a social-democratic, pan-Canadian party, with a strong track record that is attracting more and more people in Quebec.”

Mulcair’s already helped to “normalise” the idea of the NPD* in the province, but he helps more when he draws the political landscape in this way. If you want a social democratic federal system with real muscle, you’re going to need to look beyond the Bloc.

Combine that smart message with Layton’s perennial magnetism, and what seems to me to be a general appetite for anti-incumbency (growth of Québec Solidaire as an example), and there is big space for the NDP to move. Downsides, of course, are that seat translations are always going to be very tricky. It’s reasonable to suspect that much of the new (and old, for that matter) NDP support is trapped in safe, stalwart BQ ridings – we just don’t know.

To have steady popular support, at least, is encouraging. I’ve hoped this might come about for a long while – to sustain it, Jack best have Lac-St-Jean and Gaspésie on his travel itinerary.

I just might keep my beady, squinted eye on the polls after all.

* Québec friends, a dumb question for you. Is there any French nickname for New Democrats (ones that aren’t rude, of course) that play off the acronym? Enpédistes, maybe, in the vein of Péquistes? And, if there isn’t, can we start?

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Getting it right in the end

By this title, do I mean “getting it correct at the end of the day,” or do I mean “getting a sharp stab directly in the butt-cheek?” With the NDP, I mean both.

Éric at ThreeHundredEight has hashed out some best-case and worst-case scenarios were a federal election held today. I was happily surprised that the NDP’s best-case scenario looks quite rosy, with 42 seats and over 20% of the vote. This looks bizarrely rosy at the moment, but it is the best possible estimate using their current toplines.

The worst-case is worse, as expected, with a projected seat count of 14. This is the imaginary figure (but maybe not so imaginary) that has NDP supporters trembling a bit. Most pundits are blaming the NDP’s ultra-democratic long-gun registry approach, which is understandable. It’s tempting to say that Layton should have whipped the vote and should have declared that the party line was the line caucus must tow. Perhaps it would have stemmed some of the current bleeding. But, I think it was kind of an audaciously democratic move, and one which differentiated the NDP from the Liberals, so I see it in a positive light.

Jack Layton has a proclivity towards taking calculated risks that beget slow-burn benefits. In 2006, he was derided with the epithet Taliban Jack for suggesting that Afghan insurgents would need to come to the negotiating table with NATO, as this all-out war on shadows wasn’t going very well and would simply never end any other way, barring unilateral withdrawal. The position hurt the NDP, as the press and other parties gleefully joined forces in distancing themselves from Layton’s anti-troops lunacy. Why are you against the troops, Jack?

Today, Jack’s position is supported by the U.S. President, the British military leadership, and the Afghan President himself.

It’s one example of the NDP leader knowingly taking the road that is politically landmined, but he trusts that he and his party can survive the journey long enough to be vindicated in the end. As it may be with the LGR, if they can make hay out of the new bill they’re proposing.

Moral vindication does not necessarily lead to electoral success, unfortunately. But if the NDP can begin to draw together a broad picture of themselves as not only the “audaciously progressive party,” but also as the most democratic of the parties, the most constituency-focussed of the parties, and the most daring and insightful party with regards to the long-term policies in Canadians’ interest, then perhaps they’ll reap those elusive dividends in time for the next election. Either that, or I’m more naive than Layton himself.

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A good week for the NDP

I like what’s going on with the NDP right now, and not only gun registry wise. During tricky and trying circumstances, they’re nonetheless showing a verve and confidence that I was not expecting.

First, Saskatchewan. Jack Layton’s convened his caucus in Regina, which some might consider very hostile territory. But they’ve done well to remind everyone that the party has Farmer-Labour roots, was born in the Prairies, and that Saint Tommy Douglas belonged to both Saskatchewan and the NDP. New Democrats aren’t exclusively urbane smart-asses, they’re a worker’s party that belongs in the Prairies. And why not? They are polling ahead of the Liberals in Saskitoba, after all.

This Saskatchewan-themed week seems to suggest 1) the New Democrats may be looking to a genuine 308 strategy, and won’t write off any corner of the country as infertile ground, and 2) they know the long gun registry has been a tightrope through a windstorm for them, and they are going to have to reach out to rural voters in more ways now. Even unwhipped support for the gun registry could hurt the NDP in rural Canada, so they need to look for other ways to engage them. The caucus meeting, and the Tommy Douglas statue business are at least an early declaration of intent.

Second, the long gun registry itself. Jack seems to have done the impossible: convinced enough of his members to vote to save the registry which is a huge turnaround from NDP free votes on first reading. If this sticks, it is a massive success for Jack Layton. He knew he couldn’t whip his caucus like the Liberals and CPC could, as a lot of NDP support in northern B.C. and rural Manitoba is soft and volatile.

Giving caucus a free vote inflamed some NDP supporters (for a time, me too) as a limp sort of non-strategy. An abdication of real leadership, and timidity in the face of hard decision. But that isn’t the way the approach has panned out – Layton’s been able to articulate a principle higher than simply “should long guns be registered” – he’s articulated a grassroots democratic principle of empowering constituent MPs to consider policy implications as well as local opinion. It was a risky decision, as it could have drawn the NDP as disunited and impotent in advancing its interests. But Jack’s power to persuade, rather than whip, is an asset to his leadership, and the party looks more considered and more democratic as a result. It contrasts nicely against the authoritarianism of the big parties.

Some argue that, by saving the long gun registry, the NDP (and Liberals) would suffer a pyrrhic victory, handing the Cons a hot-button issue, and allowing Harper to enjoy whipping up anti-registry “gun freedom” rhetoric long into a future election campaign. That doesn’t worry me – such rhetoric is not going to convert centrists and lefty folks, it’s not going to get women or any of the cities on his side, and it won’t assist in any quest for a Reform Party majority government. Canada is not Tea Party Land.

Finally, they’re polling at 16% in Québec. That’s just one point behind another well-known federalist party, the Conservatives. I’m going on about the 308 strategy thing, but if we saw the NDP really hammering on this and working seriously for Québec gains, that would be thrilling. Naive? Maybe. But I see room for them to draw the Bloc as arrogant luddites who wrongly assume Quebecers aspirations are no more complex than the sovereignty question. The NDP are real social democrats who believe you get a fair and prosperous society by having a big society….. anyway, I’d like to see them nurture these growing numbers in QC.

I’ll be accused of weirdness to be so impressed by recent New Democrat movements when, overall, they’re not enjoying any polling surge, and have indeed bled support to the establishment as the gun registry debate’s taken its toll. But I think they’ve weathered the storm well, and should reap dividends before too long.

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June 2020

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