Can the NDP and Liberals differentiate themselves enough to beat Harper?

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The NDP's Olivia Chow took the plunge in a particularly irritating way this week when she announced she's running against Liberal MP Adam Vaughn in a downtown Toronto riding. It felt like a bad omen for an election that hasn't even begun and will drone on for over twice as long as usual.

It wasn't irritating when she said the Harper government must be replaced. That's the view of roughly two of three voters. It felt fine when she praised the NDP for voting against over-the-top "anti-terrorism" Bill C-51. The NDP trusted Canadians not to be panicked after the Parliament Hill shootings last fall. They took a risk and it proved right. The Liberals didn't trust Canadians on that and, to be honest, I mistakenly thought they'd made a smart political choice.

But then she based the core of her appeal on her lifelong "passion" for child care. "We're on the edge of having a government that will finally build affordable child care for kids across this country," she said. "I've refused to stand on the sidelines and watch the desperation of parents waiting for child care -- 17,000 in Toronto alone."

By then I was hyperventilating. We were on that edge 10 years ago; in fact we were past it when she and her party, led by her husband, Jack Layton, voted to bring down a Liberal government which had put exactly such a program in place -- giving us instead nine years of a Harper government that immediately cancelled the program. "Let's look forward," she said. "One should really think about the future, especially our kids." Which way was she looking then? What about all the desperate parents who lost that chance forever? She could at least show some regret, if not shame.

The motion that killed the program wasn't directly on it but everyone knew it would have that effect, and passions are supposed to transcend specific situations. What else could she have done? She could've voted against the motion, left the caucus or resigned her seat in protest. True, Jack was her husband but of such things are legends made. It would've become the most fascinating moment in Canadian political history: passion over passion, not over reason. And it would've entitled her to the claim she made this week.

Let me add swiftly, passionately, that this isn't a pitch to vote Liberal. The Chrétien and Martin governments dawdled for a decade about their promise on child care. Their truest passion was deficit reduction and killing social programs to curry favour with the C.D. Howe Institute or the Wall Street Journal. Paul Martin dealt with the contradictions by having periodic, Tourette's-like remorseful outbursts of his own. When he finally moved on the progressive side of his agenda -- like child care -- his hold on power had grown shaky.

So what's the point? It's that this election, for two-thirds of Canadians, shouldn't have to be about a choice between two flawed opposition parties who don't differ on much -- but that's what it is anyway. It should be a choice between Harper and not-Harper. But that's what it isn't. Those two-thirds have to make an agonizing guess, or calculation, about how to get what they want, though it's essentially incalculable. If they choose wrongly, they could end up with another Harper government, which will receive a distinct minority of votes.

The looming Chow-Vaughn slam is this absurdity writ small. It'll squander mountains of potentially productive anger and other forms of negative energy, resources and personnel, whereas both candidates would be useful presences in Ottawa and there's little separating them in views or commitments, as opposed to tons of envenomed personal and political history.

I won't even get a chance to be part of it. I've been redistricted out of Spadina riding, where historic battles were fought, including some in the 1950s between Jewish communists and Jewish Tories. Those had substance. I'm now in a zig-zaggy freak called University-Rosedale where two other candidates who'd both make fine MPs, NDPer Linda McQuaig and Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, will bat each other around like the Three Stooges. People often describe these candidates as intelligent but you can't prove it by how they choose to spend their time. The pointless imbecility of it is almost brilliant.

I'm not especially looking forward to this one. Dolefully yours,

Cassandra.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Peter Blanchard/flickr

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