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The NDP: Minting a new political currency

Crushed Orange

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Break out the Wizard of Oz soundtrack: yes, the witch is dead.

Or is it, really? There will still be 99 Conservatives MPs sitting in the 42nd Parliament, and although some of the rats left the sinking ship months before and others were defeated in the election, some of the most rapacious ones are yet present, amongst them Stephen Harper, the Wicked Witch of the West himself -- still waving the dead hand of fear, intolerance, xenophobia, and austerity to control the members of his caucus. It promises to be an edifying spectacle. 

And while we may no longer be in Winkie Country, I'm not certain that we've arrived in Kansas either. Let's look at where we really are...adrift somewhere in Oz.

Election 2015: What happened?

"Let's get real: Election 42 was way more about sober Harperphobia than giddy Trudeaumania." -- Naomi Klein

Wicked Witch of the WestThere exists a perfectly straightforward narrative of the 2015 Canadian election.  

It is unquestionably the case that the vast majority of Canadians -- 71.2 per cent according to recent Nanos Research poll -- were sick to death of the Witch and all the hateful, vindictive, xenophobic, anti-reason, anti-science, anti-knowledge, anti-common sense, anti-democratic, corporatist, small, narrow, cruel, divisive, lying, manipulative, war-mongering, exclusionary, and simply foul travesties that had become the daily bread of Canadian governance. A toxic slime that leeched across the land poisoning everything it touched.

Nanos ResearchWe should not underestimate the actual and potential harm of this virulence: Stephen Harper's vision of obedient consumers marching to the tune of corporate kleptocracy is not a pleasant place and we shouldn't imagine that Canada could not be driven to such a dystopia. The stunning progress of neoliberalism owes its success to snake oil salesmen like Harper pitching tax cuts, austerity, the fear of whatever there is to be feared (and an infinite number of apprehensions can be conjured ex nihilo), chest-thumping patriotism, sabre-rattling at imaginary enemies, privatization, trickle-down economics and other such sleights of hand. As Naomi Klein's power book The Shock Doctrine illustrated, these tactics can work anywhere. Sow enough fear and panic and an irrational stampede can ensue.

This was what was on offer from the Harper Conservatives. It is a considerable tribute to Canadian people that they wanted nothing more of it.

And so from the outset, indeed months and years beforehand, the 2015 campaign was going to be about whether Canadians were going to remain cowed by fear, paralyzed by despair, and enthralled by austerity -- or reject that for something better. We've known since 2011 that 60 per cent of Canadians were opposed to the Harper dystopia; in 2015 that proportion grew to over 70 per cent. The question that correctly occupied the minds of many was, in the face of the dysfunctionality of the first-past-the-post electoral system, how to accomplish this? The NDP? The Liberals? Some combination of both? And so for months before the writ was dropped, and for the first weeks of the campaign, much of the Canadian public teetered back and forth between the alternatives. Indeed, the NDP enjoyed a slender, and sometimes, not so slender, lead. 

Megan LeslieTo dispel fear, as Jack Layton famously pointed out, nothing works better than hope. Nothing quashes despair more effectively than optimism.

In the months and years leading up to the election, the NDP caucus had laid a patient groundwork for this. Tom Mulcair, Megan Leslie, Charlie Angus, Peggy Nash, Pat Martin, Andrew Cash, Nathan Cullen, Craig Scott, Alexandre Boulerice, Niki Ashton, Paul Dewar, Peter Julian, Linda Duncan, Rathika Sitsabaisan, Charmaine Borg, Mylène Freeman, Ruth Ellen Brosseau and so many others in that extraordinary caucus had paved a yellow-brick road of love, hope, and optimism. So, why was it not to be?

The niqab issue fell onto the political stage, and fanned by the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois, the dark face of identity politics reared its head. Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau both condemned Harper's Islamophobic fear mongering however the NDP, holding some 59 seats in the province took the heat while the Liberals with only seven seats seemingly escaped unscathed. Indeed, three weeks later Quebec voters flocked to the Liberal standard in record numbers.

The court ruling on the Zunera Ishaq case was released on September 15 when the NDP had 41 per cent support in Québec (for consistency, all numbers from Ekos Politics). Two weeks later it was 28 percent -- an erosion of 13 points. While support for the NDP fluctuated in the province, in the end, the NDP received 25.4 per cent of votes in the province on Election Day. Meanwhile, the Liberals were polling at 20 per cent in Québec on September 15, 22 per cent on October 6, and in the end received 35.7 per cent of the vote -- an increase of 15.7 per cent.

Québec Polling _ Ekos

This 13 per cent drop in support for the NDP in Québec over two weeks translated into a 4.3 per cent drop in support nationally. As the NDP star dropped so the Liberal star began to rise. The "Anybody But Harper" vote, sensing that the Liberal horse was the one to back, gravitated there. Once this death spiral begins it is hard to halt since the motivation for the shift is strategic rather than ideological: bringing about an end to the years of Harper odium.  And so, Liberal support that stood at 27.4 per cent in Canada on September 15, grew to 39.5 per cent on Election Day. Meanwhile the level of Conservative support remained virtually unchanged from 29.6 per cent on September 15 to 31.9 per cent on October 19.  As the NDP teeter sank so rose the Liberal totter.

Canada Ekos Polling

The truth behind the curtain

"Thomas Mulcair was the ultimate "strategic" campaigner. Everything was calculated. He was undone by voters acting the same. " – Naomi Klein

Wizard of OzHowever, the above account is less an explanation than a description. The drop may have been initiated by the niqab issue in Québec, but the reason this could find traction was that the electoral balance between the two parties was indiscernibly fine. If voters perceive little difference between the parties almost any trigger, no matter of how little consequence, is enough to set imbalance into motion, and once the flow has started it is hard to reverse.  Many analysts and commentators have remarked on the dilemma faced by the large constituency of what Frank Graves at Ekos Politics calls the "promiscuous progressives." For example, in an article entitled Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair battle each other as Stephen Harper pulls ahead the Toronto Star's Thomas Walkom wrote: 

"The anti-Harper vote is not monolithic. Some NDP supporters will never vote Liberal and vice versa. But there are many in the middle who would be happy to see either opposition party topple the Conservatives. To these voters the differences between the NDP and Liberal platforms seem relatively insignificant....To partisan stalwarts, the chasm between the two parties is vast. To the uninitiated, the Liberals and New Democrats appear to be suffering from what Freud called the narcissism of small differences."

This is not to say that there are not substantive and consequential differences between NDP, Liberals and Green parties: there are. But to the "promiscuous progressives" these factor comparatively little into their electoral decisionmaking. This is a fact of life in Canada and parties need to take this into account in their political strategies and conduct, or suffer the consequences.

Considering a leap

Despite the meticulously built yellow-brick road, the electoral platform itself, while principled, was distinctly less than transformative. In an interview I conducted with Megan Leslie (The NDP's Megan Leslie on climate change and social justice) she said:

"I agree with what the Leap Manifesto is saying in terms of getting rid of austerity politics....I don't think it's austerity to say that (the NDP) are committed to bring in universal child care. I don't think it's austerity to say that we are going to realize Tommy Douglas' vision for the second phase of Medicare and start working towards Pharmacare. I don't think it's austerity to say that we are going to have greenhouse gas targets that result in deep cuts in emissions."

Leap ManifestoAnd I agree with her that all these are all solid, social-democratic objectives touching on core values of childcare, health care, and environmental stewardship.  However, the Leap Manifesto leaps further with a call for dramatic and transformative action to aggressively pursue new social, political, economic, and environmental agendas. 

The Manifesto's 15 demands -- addressing aboriginal justice, renewable energy, fossil-fuel infrastructure, energy democracy, energy poverty, sustainable and affordable mass transit, retraining for workers to participate in a clean energy economy, investments in public infrastructure, the development of localized and ecologically based agriculture, an end to trade deals that undermine Canadian sovereignty with respect to achieving such goals, substantive protections for workers, substantive investments in low-carbon sectors such as caregiving, teaching, social work, the arts, and public-interest media, a discussion about the introduction of a universal basic annual income, an end to "austerity" politics and economics, and political and electoral reform -- are precisely the terrain of an activist, progressive social-democracy ready to leap into action. 

While it may be a mistake to reach too far, it is an equal error not to reach far enough.

Making a leap

"Canadians voted against hatred and fear. Today, we need to demand a country based on caring for the planet and each other." – Naomi Klein.

How to make such a leap? I'll offer one example.

Tom Mulcair campaigned on increasing the corporate income tax rate from the current 15 per cent to 17 per cent -- certainly a progressive proposal. This rate was 50 per cent in Canada up until 1971 before neoliberal tax-reduction/evasion took hold globally with a vengeance, and even as high as 38 per cent as recently as 2005. This vast transfusion of cash to corporations has not "trickled down" to anyone, nor has it lead to increased corporate investment in the Canadian economy. Such extreme largess to corporations results in three things:

1) Increased shareholder dividends;

2) Enormously inflated salaries, stock options, and other rewards of dubious merit to corporate CEOs; and

3) Huge reservoirs of so-called "dead-money."

Instead of a paltry two per cent, imagine what increasing corporate income tax to the same level it currently is in the United States -- 35 per cent -- would bring to the Canadian federal treasury? Each percentage point of corporate taxation currently brings in circa $1.85 billion, so a 20 per cent increase would result in $37 billion. As I suggested in "Election 2015: Will Canada leap forward or fall back?" this would be:

"A tidy sum with which to address income inequality, the infrastructure deficit, a national daycare program, a national pharmacare program, assistance to aboriginal communities, and investments in renewable energy."

$37 billion in revenues would dwarf the $10 billion in infrastructure spending promised by Justin Trudeau. One could accomplish far more stimulus and still balance the budget! And this suggestion is hardly even dramatically transformative in the overall context of economic re-balancing from neoliberal excesses. It would simply be leveling the playing field with the United States, itself hardly a paragon of progressive social democracy.

To provide a comparative context, Figure 1 shows the federal rates of corporate taxation in 24 countries in the developed world (plus India). Canada's rate of 15 per cent is the second lowest after Ireland (12.5 per cent). Outside abject tax havens like the Bahamas, Bahrain, the Cayman Island, Guernsey, and Vanuatu where corporations pay no income tax at all, Canada is at the forefront of nations where corporations fail to pay their share (Source: KMPG].

Corporate Income Tax

If we recognize the precarious state of the world's climate, the dreadful consequences of years of infrastructure neglect (and not just roads and bridges, but the arts, science, public broadcasting and all the social and culture infrastructure that supports a society), the enormous human costs of economic inequality, the dreadful situation in many native communities, and the terrible democratic consequences of our dysfunctional political and electoral system, should we not dream big? If we desire substantive social, economic, political, and environmental change, is it not appropriate to reach far? Indeed, given the potentially cataclysmic consequences of climate change, should we not reach very far? 

A new political currency

"The Libs ran left and soared. The NDP moved right and crashed. Now it's up to the public to turn cynical strategy into action." -- Naomi Klein

Naomi KleinAs astute readers may have noticed, I've done little in this essay beyond expanding on the excellent points succinctly made by Naomi Klein in her recent Facebook/Twitter posts.

I'm not sure how much of the election results one can ascribe to the precise details of NDP policy, which the general public tends to pay scant attention to, so much as the lack of a substantive, transformative banner to unfurl in the political winds. Justin Trudeau soared to an electoral victory, lifted by winds of hope and change, but sometimes based on rather thin substance.

For example, where the NDP proposed a serious plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions 34 per cent by 2025, the Liberals instead offered a vague promise that, "Canada will do its part to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius." I've no idea what the new Canadian government will bring to the table at the Paris climate change conference (COP 21, the United Nations Conference of the Parties), and it may be very good indeed, but where the NDP offered electors substance the Liberals offered only platitudes.

Imagine the enormous transformative political power of wedding substantive policy to a soaring vision. Of seeing far beyond the mole-hills to the distant mountains -- and having a clear plan of how to reach them. If the New Democratic Party is to be a meaningful force on the Canadian political stage it needs to dramatically distinguish itself from the competition. While historically the Conservatives and Liberals have presented two sides of the same coin, the NDP needs to discard the two-bits and mint a new political currency.

It often seems that the closer the NDP comes to achieving its own vision, the less expansive that vision becomes. In the last Ontario provincial election, the NDP grew timid and allowed the Liberal party space to expand into progressive terrain, outflanking them on the left. In Nova Scotia, after 15 years of patient groundwork to lay out a social democratic programme, once in power the NDP veered to the center, and the electorate, confused, veered back to the Liberals (see Election Nova Scotia: Orange crush to red tide). In contrast, in 2015 in Alberta under Rachel Notley, the NDP stuck to a resolutely progressive agenda and knocked it out of the park, winning a majority government. Could this work across Canada? The alternatives have been tried -- and failed. The time has come to leap.

"It's not just the end of the world – it could be a new beginning." – Naomi Klein

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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