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It's Liberal vs. New Democrat as de facto campaign begins

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Photo: Scazon/flickr

We're into a season of three-way political rugby.

One day, Liberals will be attacking New Democrats, who will be attacking Conservatives, who will be attacking both.

The next, the New Democrats will aim fire at the Liberals, who will be sniping at the Harper Conservatives, who will have discovered that Tom Mulcair's New Democrats are a major threat to them and lash out in their direction.

It will be a fun summer for sports fans -- and we're not talking about the Women's World Cup.

The truth is, however, that two of the parties, the New Democrats and the Liberals, have a lot more in common with each other than either does with the Harper Conservatives.

Both Liberals and New Democrats want Canada to have at least a semblance of a serious environmental policy, especially with regard to climate change.

Both advocate that Canada should not be wasting its goodwill and limited resources on bombing missions in the Middle East.

Both want a more human, and humane, immigration and refugee policy.

Both want development assistance targeted more to those most in need, not to assisting Canada's "extractive" industries.

Both agree that First Nations services, including education, should be better funded (even a Senate Committee on which the Conservatives have a majority agrees to that).

Both want the government to take seriously the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including the recommendation for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Of late, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has come around to the NDP's view that it is time Canada got over the first-past-the-post electoral system and adopted one that is fairer and more representative of the full range of political opinion in this country (although, when given a chance, Trudeau voted against such a proposal).

Trudeau also now concurs with the NDP on restoring home delivery of postal service to those affected by the recent cuts.

By the same token, one could safely assume that a lot of the other measures Trudeau put into his grab bag of reform proposals would find resonance among NDPers.

Those include: having House committee chairs elected by all MPs, by secret ballot, as they now do for the Speaker; banning the use of omnibus legislation; and, subjecting the Prime Minister's and cabinet ministers' offices to access to information rules.

Liberals and NDPers must attack each other

Despite their many commonalities, however, New Democrats and Liberals are competing for the same votes. The imperatives of electoral politics compel them to fight each other, even as they try to take down the Harper government.

The NDP has been attacking the Liberals since the last election campaign, when Jack Layton effectively chided Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff on his poor House attendance record.

These days, New Democrats are more likely to remind Canadians that the Liberals voted in favour of the Conservatives' anti-terror bill, C-51.

On Wednesday, the Canadian Press broke the story that Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service -- CSIS -- had never requested the sweeping information-sharing provisions of C-51.

It seems CSIS told the government that there were ways to facilitate the necessary degree of information sharing within the existing legal framework.

In Bill C-51, the Conservatives, nonetheless, went much further, in ways that worry Canada's Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien.

In a news release commenting on the story, the NDP promised to fix the provisions that worry Therrien. But it also took a gratuitous pot shot at the Liberals, who, in the release's words, "serenely supported the reckless Conservative legislation."

Lest we forget.

In fact, since Justin Trudeau took the helm at the Liberal Party, the NDP has made a habit of regularly skewering him and his party.

At times, it seems the Official Opposition is more focused on the third party than on the government it seeks to replace.

On June 16, after Trudeau had made his reform announcement, the NDP put out a release entitled: "Real change is too hard for Trudeau's Liberals."

It outlined a number of ways in which the Liberal leader's actions have been inconsistent with a reform agenda -- such as interfering with the candidate selection process, after promising open nominations.

It also, as is the NDP's wont, tried to hang the Liberal Party's long record around Trudeau's neck -- in this case, the Paul Martin government's failure to act on promises to deal with the "democratic deficit."

You will never find the New Democrats evoking past progressive, Liberal initiatives, where the party did work hard to be consistent with its promises, even if its efforts were subsequently turned back by the Harper government. See under: the Kelowna Accord.

The June 16 NDP news release concludes by saying:

"Now Justin Trudeau is promising Canadians he's going to do things in a new way, while acting in the same old style. It's the oldest Liberal trick in the book."

And then, there is the New Democrats' favourite tag line: "Canadians deserve better."

While showcasing 'policy,' Trudeau gets personal

Of late, however, it is mostly Justin Trudeau's Liberals who have ramped up attacks on the Official Opposition NDP, and its leader, Tom Mulcair.

In interviews notionally designed to showcase his new policy focus, Trudeau has chosen to attack Mulcair for everything from being "too centralizing" to not having anyone on his team qualified "to be finance minister."

That latter accusation is a peculiar one, to say the least, coming from a leader whose chief weakness, in the eyes of many, is his lack of qualifications and experience.

Trudeau's head-scratcher of a spontaneous comment was likely just another of his infelicitous, unplanned blurts.

And the NDP, perhaps wisely, chose not to dignify it with a response.

If Mulcair's party did want to bother proving it has the right stuff to run the department of finance, it might point to the fact that a number of the best-known and longest-serving federal finance ministers were neither economists nor investment bankers (as was the current incumbent); they were lawyers.

Among those, we can count Paul Martin, Douglas Abbott, John Crosbie, John Turner, John Manley and Jim Flaherty.

Well, it just so happens that the federal NDP caucus includes a fair number of lawyers, which might surprise those who thought New Democratic MPs were all union bureaucrats and Birkenstock-wearing activists -- with the odd single-mother bartender, for good measure.

A partial list of the NDP caucus' duly certified lawyers includes: Megan Leslie, Françoise Boivin, Murray Rankin (who has degrees from both the University of Toronto and Harvard), Jack Harris, Hoang Mai, and Don Davies.

If push came to shove, Mulcair could probably find a credible finance minister in that group -- if he did not decide to choose a non-lawyer, such as current Finance Critic Nathan Cullen or economist Guy Caron.

The argument that the Liberals are somehow "better suited" to office than other "parvenu" parties goes back to the days when they were the "natural governing party."

These days, when the Liberals' idea of a star candidate is floor-crosser Eve Adams or carding-and-kettling specialist Bill Blair, it is an argument that rings hollow.

Breaking up the country based on one vote?

A more pertinent attack the Liberals have made, and will continue to make, is that the New Democrats are "willing to break up the country on the strength of one vote."

Trudeau trotted that one out, again, during Quebec's Fête Nationale, mere days after he had criticized his NDP counterpart for being "too centralizing."

The "one-vote" attack came after Mulcair had said Quebec separation would be "bad for the middle class." (One is tempted to ask, whenever politicians invoke their favourite "class," what about the rest of us?)

Mulcair attracted Trudeau's fire when he added that his party was still committed to the Sherbrooke Declaration, which promised to recognize the legitimacy of a majority vote in Quebec on a clear referendum question.

We have written about this issue, in this space, in the past.

The NDP's Democratic Reform Critic, Craig Scott -- another lawyer -- put the Sherbrooke Declaration into legislative form, in the shape of a private member's bill.

If any fair-minded person were to read that piece of proposed legislation they would have to conclude that the New Democrats have a reasonable, moderate position on how to deal with a future sovereignty referendum.

They do not, in an way, kowtow to the separatists. Quite the contrary.

Here is some of what this writer had to say, at the time, more than two years ago. It is still relevant, today, because this issue is sure to come up again, and more than once, as Canada's endless summer becomes a nearly endless election campaign:

Craig Scott's Bill cites the 1997 Supreme Court decision, which, according to Scott, stated that the "clear expression" of the "wish to pursue secession by the population of a province" would give rise to a "reciprocal obligation on all parties to confederation to negotiate constitutional changes to respond to that desire."

The Bill then lays out some clear ground rules. First, it says that the Canadian government must decide long before any referendum vote is held whether, in its view, the question "clearly sets out the constitutional change being sought."

The Bill goes further and suggests two questions that the Government of Canada would accept as being clear: "Should Quebec become a sovereign country?" or "Should Quebec separate from Canada and become a sovereign country?"

Can't get much clearer than that -- and those questions are a long way from the long and confusing muddle of a question the 1995 referendum posed. If Quebec wanted to choose other referendum language, the Bill says, the federal government would have to agree to it. And if it did not agree with Quebec's proposed question, the Canadian Government would immediately refer the matter to the Quebec Court of Appeal (whose members are appointed by the Canadian Prime Minister).

The Bill concludes that if the question is clear, if there are no irregularities in any aspect of the vote, and if a majority of "valid votes are cast in favour of the proposed change," then -- and only then -- must the Canadian Government "enter into negotiations with the Quebec Government."

The NDP only proposes legislatively recognizing what would, in fact, almost certainly happen in the event of a yes vote on separation, whatever the margin of victory. The Government of Canada would do its duty and enter into talks with the Quebec Government.

The alternative might very well be chaos, very damaging to the Canadian economy and Canada's political stability. 

Photo: Scazon/flickr

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