The Liberal platform: Targeting the NDP, seducing civil society

The Liberal party released its comprehensive election platform today and it reminds me and a lot of other people of the Red Book trumpeted by Jean Chretien throughout the 1993 election: full of left of centre policies, reflecting the values of fairness and equality and stealing Liberally from the NDP’s last election platform. It worked for the Liberals in 1993. And then, of course, they very quickly turned the book of promises into a book of lies.

While I have never seen a detailed analysis comparing the Red Book to other election promises, for sheer shamelessness it should have received an award. Almost none of the “promises” were ever kept and the Liberals under finance minister Paul Martin implemented the largest cuts to social spending in Canadian history and at the end of their time in office implemented the biggest tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations in Canadian history. Perfect book ends for the Red Book – gutted social appending and tax cuts for the privileged.

If the Liberals ever got a majority government you could expect the same fate for these promises. Whether Ignatieff actually believes in the platform or not would be largely irrelevant. The power brokers in the party and their handlers on Bay Street would determine the outcome.

But the Liberals will not form a majority government and only if we are very fortunate to see Harper get fewer seats than Ignatieff, will he get to form a minority. Nonetheless, if he does some of these promises will come to pass because the NDP will be there to make sure they do.

Of course, by trying to win the election by appealing to the centre-left, the Liberals are hoping to steal as many seats from the NDP as possible, giving them less leverage in any minority government situation.

But having said all that the platform has some interesting and appealing elements. It focuses directly where progressive parties should have been focusing for years and takes the NDP’s old focus on “working families” and puts a Liberal brand on it. Indeed the whole campaign is framed on this issue. It has always frustrated me that the Reform Party, the Alliance Party and now this right wing libertarian crowd led by Harper have gotten away with declaring themselves the “family values” party.

This is little more than a sick joke – unless they are talking about the families of the wealthy. Most families in Canada rely heavily on social spending and other government programs to maintain a reasonable quality of life. The Conservatives would eliminate all of them if they could. Abortion is symbolic of this reality: right wing Christians care deeply for the fetus – but once it is born, it’s on its own.

The Liberals’ so-called “Family pack” of five programs to support families is a pretty effective strategy because it doesn’t end up sounding like a piecemeal approach to the broad issue. The Liberals are actually trying to put forward a vision without calling that. Backing up the family strategy are the numbers on still-high unemployment and the massive increase in debt that families have wracked up trying to maintain a middle class lifestyle.

There’s a bunch of interesting planks in this platform, seemingly aimed at the civil society groups who would normally look to the NDP for support and solace after the beating they have taken from the Harper government. The Court Challenges program – which makes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms real – will be back says the document.

And perhaps more significantly, the folks fighting the horrible record of Canadian mining companies abroad are being told that their concerns will be addressed. In 2007, a Canadian Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Advisory group reached a consensus on reining in rogue mining companies – which Harper ignored. The Liberals promise not to: “A Liberal government will act on the Advisory Group’s recommendations, including adopting Canadian CSR standards, and setting up an independent ombudsman office to advise Canadian companies, consider complaints made against them, and investigate those complaints where it is deemed warranted.”

If you see a pig flying by, you will know the Liberals have acted on the promise. Last year a number of Liberal MPs voted against one of their own colleague’s private member’s bill on the issue, ensuring its defeat. But it’s a smart move if you want to wean voters away from the NDP while presenting yourself as the only party that can defeat Harper and form an alternative government.

The platform also addresses many of the concerns expressed by Open Media, especially on digital media. Ditto women’s concerns about the deliberate efforts of the Harper government to ratchet back equal pay for work of equal value. “We would instead create an effective, proactive system for implementing and monitoring pay equity at the federal level in which equality is again recognized as a human right.” Nice. And it is accompanied by another promise – under the heading “Dealing with Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women” – to establish a task force into the whole issue.

On the economy the Liberals paint themselves as friends of the left by citing the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in their pledge to limit CEO pay by reining in stock options.

This is a platform aimed directly at the NDP as a way of defeating the Conservatives. History keep repeating itself in Canadian elections: the Liberals run from the left, govern from the right.

Next up – the NDP’s response. As always, it won’t be easy. The NDP has to call the Liberals on their policy and values poaching – but then will be accused of not going after the Conservatives. With the Harper Majority fear factor even greater than last time, Jack Layton has his work cut out for him.

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