Neoliberalism is a spent force in electoral politics

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Photo: Andra Mihali/Flickr

What accounts for the "progressive," activist, pro-government, even leftish tone of Patrick Brown's platform for Ontario's Progressive Conservatives in the coming June election: more transit, more for mental health, etc.?

A. Someone bodysnatched the former Harperite MP and replaced him. B. He's an unprincipled politician who believes nothing except what focus groups tell him. C. He has returned to Bill Davis's inclusive Red Toryism that predated the Mike Harris/Tim Hudak eras and dominated the postwar decades.

My own answer? As a young lad of 39 (Brown qualifies as what Niki Ashton calls an "early millennial"), he grew up under neoliberal assumptions: free trade deals are the coolest, government sucks and business must be unleashed. But as a callow youth absorbed by politics, he also noticed the crash of '08 and how those promises turned out false. So neoliberalism is a spent force, electorally.

In their early days, around the time Brown was born, those ideas sounded fresh and there was nothing to test them against. Now there is declining pay, failing social programs, and, above all, the crash of 2008, from which the rich learned nothing while most leaders, like Obama, continued catering to them. That was a watershed, especially for those who once hoped for better lives and now live in despair over their student debt, their dashed dreams of owning a home, or even just being able to rent in a decent downtown area.

In other words, Brown has noticed the Zeitgeist. So have others, like U.K. Conservatives, who suddenly "recognize the good that government can do." It's even permissible to advocate "socialism" (Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos in Spain, the Frente Amplio in Chile's recent election). The alternative is no longer neoliberalism; it's Trumpian racist populism, probably a nonstarter in Ontario.

One sign that Brown has gauged this situation correctly is that premier Wynne is attacking him not for what he says he'll do but for being naive: How ya gonna pay for that, buddy? -- a hoary jibe traditionally spewed at the NDP.

It's not a simple return to Davisism, because Bill Davis was also responding to the Zeitgeist of his time: the postwar consensus. Respectable conservatives like him could still smell the stench of two world wars, a depression, the Holocaust; they realized the old order was no longer acceptable. They weren't leftists, but their perspective had shifted, partly in response to horrors they'd seen with their own eyes, partly from political realism. When the moment is past, its effects tend to fade, no matter what memorials or testimonials are shown to later generations. What Brown's eyes beheld was the folly of 2008.

There's nothing deep going on here, but there's nothing wrong either. People are allowed to change their minds, including for career reasons. Not all politicians can be Sanders or Corbyn, who stayed consistent when the Zeitgeist left them behind, then rejoined them again while they remained where they'd always been.

Kathleen Wynne should be in a strong position here. When she ran five years ago she said, "Anyone who knows me, knows I'm about social justice" -- and sounded like she meant it. But she lost her footing, especially in selling off Hydro One. It wasn't just Hydro's near-mystical status in Ontario; she also embraced one of neoliberalism's core tenets: privatization of public goods, under the hideous Orwellism of "broadening" its ownership. You never hear business say: Let's sell some of this great business we've got to government.

Wynne has since re-emerged as the person she was supposed to be then. Her government's new workplace law is pretty impressive, both for doubling the number of enforcement officers -- business had grown casual about breaking the law, knowing they wouldn't be inspected, much less charged -- and perhaps even more for imposing equal pay for part-time precarious workers. I'm not sure even the dreamers expected that. There's also the $15 minimum wage, which Brown has committed to, though more slowly. So who was that premier who sold off Hydro One and refused to raise taxes instead, or let Toronto do so?

But the party leader in the weirdest position now is NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. Whatcha gonna do when you're a socialist, or social democrat, or whatever she calls it, and you're in danger of being outflanked on your left not just by those damn Liberals but by Stephen Harper's former backbencher

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Andra Mihali/Flickr

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