Speech from the throne: Doing progressive electoral politics

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"All politicians move to the centre to compete on the basis of personality, and who is best to manage the adjustments in economy and society necessary to sustain competitiveness in the global market ... The concept of a possible alternative economy and society is excluded."

The esteemed German philosopher and social theorist Jurgen Habermas used this quote from Robert Cox (1997) of York University in Toronto to open the title essay in his book The Postnational Constellation (1998, English translation, 2001).

Canadian politics plays out as a personality contest today. Pollsters measure and compare the appeal of party leaders, news coverage is leader-focused, and campaigns are leader-centred. Just as striking is the effort to camouflage party policy in the protective coverage of business-friendly language, and position it in what opinion writers like to think is the centre of the political spectrum, largely because it is not on the left.

The 1982 recession inaugurated the age of right-wing politics, economics and social policy in Canada and elsewhere. Thanks to corporate power exercised in a myriad of the forms including lobbying, think-tanks, media ownership, advertising, sponsorships, transnational partnerships and coalitions such as the one pushing free trade with Europe, the Pacific, and anyone else (Mars could be next) the Canadian political spectrum keeps getting pushed further and further to the right.

Today Brian Mulroney is given centrist credentials for abandoning his own idea of reducing old age pensions. Happily pro-business on every policy front, Mulroney smuggled right-wing Thatcherism and Reaganomics into Canada via the Canada-U.S. trade agreement followed by NAFTA, which together tied down Canadian governments, and set international capital free to roam in Canada.

The late Dalton Camp described the Paul Martin Liberals as the Reform party in cufflinks. As researcher and rabble.ca columnist Murray Dobbin outlined, pushed by the Reform party, the Chrétien-Martin Liberals managed to outdo Mulroney in moving Canada to the right.

The desire for longevity in parliamentary politics incites government to grab policies from across the aisle, as the Liberals did from Reformers.

In the speech from the throne on Wednesday, watch for the Harper bunch to sound like Jack Layton New Democrats, particularly as polling shows Conservatives need to build new support.

Take good ideas Jack liked to raise such as reducing bank charges, or credit card interest, or lowering telecom fees, improving cable-TV billing practices, and hope to project the Conservative party as less right-wing, somewhat moderate, and a friend to consumers. Ideas defended by the NDP front bench, which the Conservatives had earlier rejected in parliamentary votes, suddenly become good enough to put in the window.

The main reason Justin Trudeau is not setting out any policy planks is that he has no intention of giving Conservatives or New Democrats anything to attack. This take-no-risk approach suggests Liberals plan to stick to the pro-business agenda, so well established in Canada since the 1982 recession that it is not generally questioned, except by those who have studied it, and seen how it fails Canadians.

The Justin Liberals doubt either Conservatives or New Democrats could outdo JT in a straight-up who do you prefer to look at, listen to, take an interest in, personality-based electoral contest.

Expect Trudeau to be the object of attention from both Conservatives and New Democrats. Each has a stake in revealing Justin to be a flake, not ready to do much more than photo ops. An overwhelming desire to see Justin rejected as a potential prime minister by the public will create lucrative work for public affairs specialists.

New Democrats have a two-pronged strategy. First, attack the credibility of Harper with anything that makes him look bad: Senate scandals, wasted spending on ships, failure to provide for water safety on the West Coast, etc. Second, establish the credibility of the NDP as the government in waiting.

The Conservative dilemma is to feed their base hungry for red meat tax cuts, energy patch promotion, and more guns, prisons and military spending, while trying to appeal as well to people who expect governments to protect them from big business. Not easy to do when Harper raises the rate of exploitation of the environment, provides corporations with fiscal holidays, and cuts off scientific research that could undermine the legitimacy of resource capitalism. 

Somewhat similarly, the NDP can try and look like the other parties -- except more honest (no scandals), and better managers (watch us balance the budget). This is a backroom-based strategy that says nothing to the New Democratic party supporters -- the ones needed to get out the vote on Election Day in October 2015 -- except disengage either quietly or noisily.

With more difficulty, the NDP can be the party of sustainable economics, saying yes to climate justice and no to pipelines, putting the brakes on exploitation of resources, and empowering direct regulation of the environment in the interest of preserving it.

In its response to the speech from the throne, the NDP needs to widen debate, establish new frames for policy.

Should the NDP champion a progressive option that the Conservatives will never accept, it will leave Liberals befuddled and torn. It might even launch a debate the party can win because evidence supports progressive policies on sustainability. 

The progressive option must be about jobs and the economy, paycheques and public services; and not about taxes or balanced budgets, which are Conservative issues, or promoting corporate capitalism as a development strategy, which unites Liberals and Conservatives.

The challenge is to reach out to allies in Quebec and outside Quebec, among youth, workers, public servants, union members, new Canadians, and minorities in order to create public space on the left, and move public opinion away from the so-called centre, really the corporate right.

Without a move to the left, the NDP could never be anything but another personality-based, policy-weak government, unable to establish legitimacy, and ready to fall at the next election. Indeed, if the NDP ever reached government clinging to a "centrist" strategy, its role would be limited to explaining to the public why, as a government, the NDP could not do anything differently than its predecessors.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: pmwebphotos/flickr

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