Political realignment in Canada?
It seems that there is something of a political realignment under way in Canada.
In September 1984, a Tory government was elected to Ottawa with a significant share of the popular vote and a record number of seats. Since its election, the government has been plagued by a series of scandals implicating members of the cabinet and/or caucus in sleazy and corrupt activities. In addition, virtually every policy initiative of the government has served to enhance the position of big business and the wealthy at the expense of working people and the poor. This combination has resulted in a persistent and pervasive erosion of the Tory party's electoral base.
Since the Second World War, such widespread disenchantments with a national government have resulted in a shift in voting allegiance to the other major party. This has not happened in the present situation. On the contrary, the main beneficiary of the decline in Tory support has been Canada's social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP). Thus the latest poll, conducted by Gallup between July 8 and 11, 1987, shows the NDP with support of 41 percent of the decided voters, the Liberal party with 35 percent, and the Tory party with 23 percent. Substance was added to polling results on July 20, when the NDP won three by-elections in disparate parts of the country, retaining a seat in Hamilton, Ontario, and winning seats from the Tories in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and Yukon.
When NDP electoral support started to climb, the media discounted it as a temporary phenomenon--attributable mainly to the unpopularity of the Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, and the leader of the Liberal party, John Turner. When the trend continued, the media maintained its focus on the leadership question, but shifted the emphasis to the popularity of NDP leader Ed Broadbent. The gist of the media explanation was the NDP gains reflected the fact that, because of the party's historical role as a minor third party, Broadbent has aboided both the taint of scandal and corruption and identification with entrenched interests: he comes across as "clean,' honest, and genuinely concerned about the plight of "ordinary' Canadians. To complete the story, pundits argued that as we draw closer to an election, which could come as early as the fall of 1987,* voters will be obliged to pay less attention to the leader of the NDP and more attention to its policies. When this happens, the policies will be found wanting and voters will return to the mainstream parties.
* And almost certainly will, if current trade negotiations with the United States produce an agreement which the Tory party believes it can sell to the electorate as the solution to Canada's economic ills. Such an agreement could also result in the Tories enlisting the aid of American capital and the Reagan administration in its efforts to stave off the social democratic threat.
The implication of this story is that the apparent political realignment is illusory, based strictly on the relative popularity of the three leaders rather than on a growing discontent with the economic and social policies of the Conservative and Liberal parties.
The NDP by-election victories and the results of two recent polls have exposed the limitations of this interpretation. The first of these polls was taken by Decima Research Ltd. for the Conservative government in March 1987. Its main purpose was to provide the government with an assessment of its economic policies and the likely reaction of Canadians to a tax reform package, which combines a restructuring of personal and corporate taxes with the introduction of a sales tax covering all goods and services consumed in Canada--including food. The results of this survey, which only became public when the government was compelled to release them to Southam News under the Access to Information Act, reveal growing discontent with government economic policies. Specifically, the poll shows public satisfaction with such policies at 42 percent, down from 57 percent in 1985. Moreover, the poll reveals significant opposition to Tory tax reform proposals, growing concern about unemployment, and little interest in either the promotion of entrepreneurship or the reduction of government interference in business.
The second poll, already mentioned above, a Gallup poll in July 1987, asked respondents: "Putting your politics aside, what type of man do you think would make the best prime minister for Canada at this time--should he lead Canada in the direction of socialism or away from socialism?' According to the Canadian Press report on this poll: "The results . . . show 28 percent of respondents favoring socialism, compared with 17 percent in a similar poll in 1983. The number of people against socialist principles has fallen to 40 percent. This is a drop from 55 percent in 1983.'
Since the NDP by-election victories, the media have abandoned the idea that the gain in NDP support is a transitory phenomenon and have begun to grapple with the possibility that the NDP may be established as a major political force at the national level with a serious chance of displacing one of the traditional parties in the next election. Consequently, in recent weeks there has been both an increase in the amount of coverage of the activities of the NDP and a shift in focus from the leadership qualities of Ed Broadbent to party policies and the qualities of other leading members of the party caucus.
Some of this coverage--for example, 10 pages in the August 3 number of Maclean's--attempts to be evenhanded. However, most of it is intended to undermine the credibility of the party by: (1) citing the limitations--the lack of any administrative and business experience--of NDP leading lights; (2) exposing the "serious' implications of NDP defense policy (withdrawing from NATO and NORAD) and economic policy (opposition to a bilateral free-trade agreement with the United States, a commitment to increase the burden of taxation on corporations, and an industrial strategy to increase the rate of job creation); and (3) raising questions about the links between the party and organized labor (the Canadian Labour Congress and some of its major affiliates).
Thus far most of the criticism of the NDP has been cautious and subtle; but if NDP strength increases or is sustained at the present level over the next year, the attacks can be expected to become more strident and hysterical. A recent issue of The Financial Post (July 27) hints at the probable content of such attacks. Thus, the publisher suggests--on advice from his business editor, Bernard Simon--that the surge in NDP popularity will stimulate international interest in the political situation in Canada, "because it injects a more ideological element into Canadian politics, [and] will also create great concern among international investors who up to now have regarded Canada as one of the most stable political systems in the world.'
Next, in an editorial, the Post massages statements by three NDP stalwarts on three different issues: Bob Rae, Ontario NDP leader, on plant closures; Steve Langdon, federal NDP industry critic, on government aid to business; and Marion Dewar, former NDP president and newly elected MP from Hamilton, on trade. After pointing out the apparent confusion and contradictions in these statements, the editorial asks: "So what does this leave us with?' The answer: "Not so much a party as a museum full of failed economic ideas. Take your pick: late 19th century William Morris-style pastoral anarchism (Bob), 1930s Stalinist autarky (Marion), or 1960s New Left dirigisme (Steve).'
Finally, Peter Foster, Post columnist, picks up on a Fortune article dealing with corporate power and redirects the issues to government power and what he sees as the implications of the NDP acquiring such power: "if Broadbent were to carry his personal popularity through to political power, the consequences would be economically disastrous, because governments really do have "awesome power,' and in the NDP's case it would be the power to do immeasurable economic harm.'
The Post has touched most of the bases, raising the twin spectres of political instability and economic disaster and resurrecting the ghosts of anarchism, Stalinism, and New Left dirigisme.
Moreover, the Post gives us an indication that if the next election comes down to a confrontation between the NDP and Tory parties, it is likely that the Tory campaign will consist mainly of red-baiting. Indeed, there is already some signs of this in Tory party materials. Thus, in a letter sent out May 22, 1987, soliciting contributions for a "New "N.D.P. Opposition Fund,'' Bill Jarvis, MP, warns of the dangers posed by the NDP:
The current weakness of John Turner's Liberal Party . . . has created a growing political vacuum on the left. And, into that vacuum is surging a new and more dangerous threat--Ed Broadbent and the New Democratic Party . . . I am deeply troubled by the growing threat to Canada's future should the left-wing radicals of the N.D.P. seize power . . . Stopping the political gangrene of the N.D.P. before it hurts Canada is an absolute must.
Mr Jarvis concludes his solicitation by pleading with the readers to look over the NDP "Agenda of Principles' appended to the letter. As an aid to the reader, this is accompanied by editorial comment from the Tory braintrust: "Clearly, an N.D.P. rise to power would mean wholesale changes in the way our country has been oriented for the past 120 years. Elimination of private enterprise, the introduction of a Soviet-style "planned economy,' skyrocketing taxes are all part of the N.D.P. formula proposed by Ed Broadbent.'
As for the Canadian left, its response to the improving fortunes of the NDP has been essentially one of resigned cynicism. Such a response is based on three main considerations. First, as Cy Gonick has argued, the philosophy of the NDP is post-Keynesian rather than socialist in character, and as such it does not "challenge the dominant position of capital. It presumes an ultimate harmony of interests between labour and capital, which is belied by real world experiences and confirmed by the fact that corporatism has broken down throughout Europe over the course of the crisis.'* Secondly, there is a fear that as the whiff of gaining "power' grows stronger, the NDP will retreat from established party policies on defense and on other issues which are likely to antagonize corporate and other entrenched interests. If this happens, the election debate will focus on the question of which party can do the best job of managing existing institutional arrangements rather than on the need to replace and/or restructure such arrangements so that they better serve the interests of the majority of Canadians. Therefore, if the NDP wins the debate it will do so by committing itself to maintenance of the status quo. And thirdly, there is a belief that even if the NDP sticks with its present policies it would, as some businessmen have argued, very quickly align with the interests of business.
* Cy Gonick The Great Economic Debate (Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 1987), p. 381.
Such concerns are legitimate, especially given the track record of NDP governments at the provincial level, but we should not overlook the positive possibilities inherent in the present situation and in the prospect of the NDP becoming a major political force. Certain elements of NDP philosophy (in particular, the ideas that people take precedence over profits, that markets must be subordinate to and serve society, that capitalist property must be used to enhance the lives of individuals and improve the communities in which they live, and that democracy must be extended into workplaces) are compatible with socialism and ought, therefore, to be encouraged. Similarly, in terms of goals, the NDP is on the record as favoring, and will be unlikely to abandon, full employment, an equitable tax system (with a greater burden on corporations and the rich), stronger environmental controls, an expanded system of state-supported and operated daycare, and an industrial strategy which inhibits economic and political integration into the U.S. economy. These policies are also compatible with socialism.
Canadian socialists have an obligation to ensure that these issues are on the political agenda for the next election and to help counter the formidable campaign to try and discredit them that will be mounted by right-wing interests both inside and outside Canada and the United States. Such interventions may not lead us very far toward socialism, but they do have the potential to create a dynamic which will at least start us in the appropriate direction.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 1987|
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