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A good day for Canada, an awful one for the NDP

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Have you heard the one about what Stephen Harper faced when he awoke in Calgary Tuesday morning? Naheed Nenshi is his mayor. Rachel Notley is his premier. And of course "Justin" is his Prime Minister. How can this be a bad day for Canada?

Any day that saw Paul Calandra lose his seat is a good day for Canadian democracy. Any day that saw Liberal candidate Dr. Jane Philpott defeat Paul Calandra is a very good day for Canadian democracy. Dr. Jane for Minister of International Cooperation?

Any day that saw Julian Fantino, Joe Oliver and Chris Alexander all get defeated is a triumph for simple old-fashioned decency in government.

Any day that saw the citizens of Canada end the "rotten culture" of the Harper government, as the Globe editorially described it this past weekend, is a victory for those who are fed up with Harperland and won't take it any more.

Any day that sees a clean, hopeful, positive, sunny campaign -- by the Liberals! -- triumph in the face of the usual Conservative bully tactics is a day to celebrate.

So part of me is euphoric, ebullient, thrilled. My Canada is at least starting to come back.

But of course for New Democrats, the day was also a disaster. And the party's role for the next four years is by no means obvious.

First, these rolling political waves are promiscuous. They sweep up all in its wake. So some of Canada's best Members of Parliament, part of the minority that truly deserve to be called parliamentarians, have been swept away in the red tsunami.

The likes of Megan Leslie -- surely a future NDP leader -- Peter Stoffer, Paul Dewar, Peggy Nash and other defeated NDP MPs were an ornament to parliament, never ever descending to the gutter in which too many Conservative MPs seemed to be most comfortable. They were competent, thoughtful and knowledgeable and would have been an entirely constructive opposition to the new Liberal government. And every government, not least a new excited one, needs constructive opposition. Hey, maybe they can become Senators…

NDP expectations could hardly have been more cruelly shattered. The party lost not only the government it had the right to dream of. Its very role in Canada's political process is now in doubt. There is no balance of power to hold. There is no coalition to join. There is, in fact, no one in Ottawa who needs to pay it the slightest attention.

The Trudeau government has its clear priorities, many of them embarrassingly more progressive than the NDP's platform. The NDP caucus can hardly oppose any of them, but nor can it expect the Government to pay attention to NDP overtures. Why should they? To fight the dreaded Harperman, the Liberals, and specifically their leader, received nothing but abuse during the campaign, often gratuitously personal and always strategically dubious. The Liberals will hardly be grateful for NDP advice about the right way to run Canada.

Now that it can't seriously pretend to be the government-in-waiting, the NDP must rethink its role in parliament and indeed in the country. For decades the NDP were policy pioneers, promoting social policies especially until the governing party was forced to accept them -- old-age pensions, medicare, unemployment insurance, and much more. Where are the equivalent NDP policies of today? Where are the tough but realistic policies that would address Canada's scandalous inequality?

The NDP campaign tried to prove how trustworthily conservative it was. But voters supported the real conservative party. The NDP campaign chose to allow the Liberals to present the most progressive platform. So voters looking for progressive change chose the more liberal platform.

Of course it's also arguable that the NDP made the ultimate sacrifice: In the face of Harper cynically playing the anti-Muslim card, the NDP threw away votes on a matter of principle -- supporting the right to wear a niqab -- and indeed fully paid the penalty for doing so. It cost the party their Quebec base, and with it any reason why the large "Anyone But Harper" crowd across the country should think of supporting the NDP. The noise you heard in the last week of the campaign was of progressive ABH voters flocking in their tens of thousands to the Liberals.

And where does it leave the party now? That's the question that New Democrats must start debating, the sooner the better. The answer is by no means preordained. For me, keeping the new government honest remains a pretty good cause.

Liberals notoriously like to campaign from the left and govern from the centre-right. They promised unequivocally to change the electoral system before the next election can be held. Now that they have directly benefited from the first-past-the-post system, however, can they be trusted to keep their word? After all, they themselves got 54 per cent of the seats on Monday night but only 39 per cent of the vote. The NDP would have had considerably more seats in a proportional representation system. Keeping the Liberals to their commitment sounds like a good third-party priority.

As well, the last-minute Liberal scandal, featuring Trudeau campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier, reminded the world of the close ties between senior Liberals and the energy industry. As the government fleshes out its commitments to reduce global warming, it may well require New Democrats to point out this potentially very real conflict of interest.

Of course none of this is as thrilling as watching the first NDP federal cabinet get appointed. But there's nothing to watch. The NDP needs new progressive ideas to fight for and a new government to keep a close eye on. It's a crucial role that mustn't be disdained.

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Image: Flickr/Can Pac Swire

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