What just happened?

Observing the several weeks-long machinations over a fall election leaves me – and I expect most people – with a deep dissatisfaction with the politics of this country. We are stuck in a place where we have as our prime minister the most profoundly anti-democratic and anti-government politician in at least four generations. Worse, there are apparently no prospects of ridding the country of Stephen Harper any time soon. Equally frustrating, the nature of the politics surrounding the question of an election or no election is so impoverished that the very notion of public engagement becomes so unappealing that most citizens don’t want to hear any more of it. This may be at the root of the crisis in voter turn-out in federal elections. There is simply no substantive political debate happening – it is all tactics, personality, maneuvering and playing to the cameras for momentary advantage.

Not one of the political party leaders has spoken of anything substantial since the new political season began except for the issue of EI. The next most important issue, if you can believe it, is the home renovation grants.  There is no talk any more of a national child care program, no mention of the revenue crisis we face because of Liberal and Conservative tax cuts, no reference at all to the farce and tragedy of the Afghanistan “mission” even as we see dead soldiers come back in coffins every few days, no accounting of all the outrages that the Harper government manages to carry out even as a minority government.

Did we need an election?  It is clear that we need as much as ever to rid the country of the Harper government as it continues to implement those parts of its agenda that it can without reference to Parliament. A parliamentary government, even with a minority status, can do a lot by administrative fiat and Harper is becoming an expert at just that. Any reasonable opportunity to defeat his government is one that should be taken.

But a reasonable opportunity seems still to elude us. The likelihood of yet another minority Harper government coming out an election this fall was very high.  And the damage of such a result to the political psyche of the country would have been considerable – and of real benefit to Harper whose success thrives on public cynicism about politics and government.

But the damage done to politics by the all those extricating themselves from an election is also considerable. The NDP, down significantly in the polls and without the same war chest it had last time (when it spent a record amount) was facing disaster in its “incremental” increase strategy and would almost certainly have lost seats reducing its clout as a power broker in the next parliament.

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff got suckered by Stephen Harper into a full bore commitment to never consider a coalition government, this denying himself once again 50 per cent of his opportunities to become prime minister. While there was something of a backlash against the idea of a coalition last year, Canadians are by no means completely hostile to the idea. Most of the negative reaction was based on two things: one, that the idea had not been talked about during an election which would have given it more legitimacy and two, the coalition would have made an unpopular and recently rejected politician, Stephan Dion, prime minister.

Ignatieff could have given a nuanced response to Harper’s coalition-baiting – for example, referring to the fact that over 60% of Canadians voted against him and for the three opposition parties. The three opposition leaders working together on a set of agreed upon policies would make a far more legitimate government than Harper’s with less than 40 per cent. Most developed countries operate on coalitions almost all the time given their proportional representation systems.

The fact that he didn’t should make everyone very wary of this Liberal leader as Harper may not be the only politician with a hidden agenda. There is no question in my view who is more dangerous for the country. Harper is the classic revanchist – a dark angel of vengeance eager to punish Canadians for creating in Canada a country demonstrative of what activist, social democratic governance can do. Given the opportunity of a majority government he would wreak that vengeance on every last aspect of the Canada built in the post war period. He would have at least four years to do it and maybe five – if he repealed his own fixed date four year election legislation.

Yet on important policy issues Harper and Ignatieff are nearly interchangeable: on Afghanistan, Israel, the tar sands, climate change, re-regulation of financial services, so-called “free trade,” deep integration with the US, and uncritical support for the on-going US war on terror. This represents a huge chunk of the policy agenda. On funding for culture and science, on maintaining the CBC, on the general attitude towards the role of government, Ignatieff is not Harper. And he would not be able to rule like a dictator even if he wanted to because there are too many other powerful players in the Liberal Party who he depends on. He would delegate authority on issues that bore him – like the economy.

Still, this is hardly reassuring: the Liberal Party since 1993 has been dominated by those believing in the Washington Consensus. There are no powerful Liberals calling for a return to robust industrial development policies or alternatives to free trade. One example of Ignatieff’s limited authority was his short-lived (but correct) declaration last spring that at some point taxes would have to be raised to produce the revenue the country needs. He never repeated it and is now on the record committed to getting rid of the deficit without raising taxes. Someone smacked him up the side of the head on that one. Can you imagine anyone in the Conservative Party correcting Stephen Harper?

The most damage of the last few weeks was suffered by the NDP and not just because it has been tagged with propping up the hated Harper government (which it has voted against on literally every opportunity till now). There really was no point in an election if Harper could not be defeated. And having a House of Commons with fewer NDP members is also bad news for the future of the country and social democracy. We have to cut some slack for the party: running election campaigns is 90 per cent practicalities and 10 per cent principle.

But having said that, the NDP seems to have learned nothing from the past two elections. What stands out in my memory of the NDP over the past couple of months? The NDP convention which got its greatest publicity from the motion (never debated) about changing the party’s name. And from Jack Layton’s personal support for eliminating the federal income tax on small business – a squandering of nearly $5 billion in government revenue in a doomed-to-fail pitch to get small business to vote for the NDP. Coupled with Layton’s immediate attack on Ignatieff’s spring musing about tax increases suggests that the NDP is becoming a right-wing populist party, not a left wing one.

In fact in the two week long election dance, Ignatieff actually had some good lines compared to Layton and the NDP. The Liberal election theme revealed good framing: “We can do better” which sounds a bit like “A better world is possible,” the theme of the grass roots World Social Forums around the world. His framing of the Harper government was pretty smart, too: “This is a government that doesn’t believe in government” though he stole it from Stephan Dion. He appealed to Canadians directly on the basis of their values: “We can choose a small Canada – a diminished, mean and petty country or we can choose a big Canada.” It hasn’t helped him much because people still don’t trust him – even with a forest in the background.

But where is the NDP issue framing? Jack Layton once told me he reads George Lakoff, the left wing framing guru in the US, but there is precious little sign of it – except for weak variations of the “working families” mantra of the last election.  I got an email from the party recently entitled “Change YOU can believe in” but it had not a single word about progressive change and was just an attack on Ignatieff and Harper. Jack Layton does not seem to have a single advisor who can frame issues through a values lens, invoking a hopeful vision of the future, or even to speak to Canadians’ increasing opposition to the Afghan war.  If the NDP is down in the polls and donations, someone should be held responsible. Now that the election threat is over, Jack Layton has some time to get rid of some of the narrowly-focused tacticians in his office and replace them with people who can think past getting a  30 second hit on the next newscast.

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