Are we supposed to just carry on, pretending not to notice the weirdbehaviour of some national political parties this week? If they wereindividuals, we’d be asking if they’d skipped their pills.

The Alliance and the PC’s got together to talk about uniting under a newname. Yoohoo – you just did that. You held a meeting to unite the right andit failed. Then Reform changed its name anyway and got a new leader. Thatwas a year ago. You can’t repeat it without at least acknowledging thatit’s repetitive. It’s unhealthy. This week, people in the NDP talked aboutcreating a new party, by which they mainly seem to mean renaming the NDPand making some changes. What is it with new names?

If what I’m about to say seems obvious, well, it wouldn’t be the firsttime: what we have here is a problem of product differentiation. That’sbecause no matter who you vote in, pretty well everywhere in the worldtoday, you get the same government: Tax cuts. Diminished public programs.Deference to business and market forces. Contracting out, privatization,deregulation. Support for free trade and globalization. It’s why citizensare voting less. It doesn’t matter.

I can only imagine how this frustrates Reform Alliance people. What sloppyleftovers are they supposed to run on – abortion, gun control and capitalpunishment? They won’t be elected on those. Corruption? Voters assume ithappens under every government. The core elements of their program havebeen scarfed by the “left.” And the worst of it is not that they can’timagine ever winning (Even if they unite the right, the Liberals still pollat 53 percent); it’s that they can’t, in their hearts, figure out why they should take over, since the Liberals are already doing it.

But let me add that it’s a comparable nightmare for the slightly firmerleft, like the NDP. They too feel they have little choice even when theywin. For the sake of a really funny exercise, picture Tony Blair’s Labourgovernment going berserk and antagonizing big business. What would happen?They’d incur: 1) A business backlash, including threats to move capital out -made more plausible by free-trade agreements which are really about freeinvestment. 2) Savage attacks by corporate-owned media. 3) Drying up ofcampaign funds, dependent on corporate sources.

I feel some sympathy for political parties in opposition in this situation.When they change their names, it’s not just as if they’re trying to foolvoters into thinking something magic and new has snuck in. Maybe they’realso trying to persuade themselves. Of what? That changing the damngovernment is worth the damn trouble.

Let me finish with some thoughts on the movement for a revitalized, or justrenamed, NDP. It seems to me one of the great mysteries of Canadian historyis why the NDP has almost always managed not to get elected. It’smysterious because the political culture of the country has been andremains basically social democratic, as evidenced, for instance, by theyearly Ekos surveys on attitudes toward government.

The mystery has to do, I’d say, with the NDP’s use of language, in thesense not just of words but of tone. This makes me think in turn of theCBC, and how most “ordinary working Canadians,” the NDP’s naturalconstituency, generally prefer the news on CTV, the private broadcaster, toCBC, our public network. On CTV, they tend not to feel talked-down to,never mind why. The sound of both CBC and the NDP, I’d say, is an educatedwhine, and my problem is far more with the educated, than with the whine.Anyone can identify with a whine.

The people who wrote in the Globe yesterday on behalf of the New PoliticsInitiative in the NDP, put stress on the party “encompassing” socialjustice movements and “grassroots activism” in Canada in order to “voicetheir concerns” and “launch a new era for social change.” This seems to meoddly elitist. Social movements can voice their own concerns; whatelectoral parties can do is voice the largely unvoiced yet deeply felt,common concerns of voters who are isolated from each other. These areessentially separate functions. When such parties become governments,their role is less to “encompass” vital social groups than to engage anddebate with them, in fruitful conflict as much as in cooperation.

Encompassing can be so exhausting; you spend all your time sorting outeveryone’s priorities. The writers of that article said they aren’t”launching any leadership campaign,” but it seems to me one of the mostuseful things a party can do is find a voice to express and play back theunarticulated thoughts of a society’s members.

Eventually, as I’ve said, if such a government ever wanted to challenge theiron grip of global business, it would need a strong and politicizedpopulation behind it, because of the attacks it would face. A separate,strong set of social movements and an independent-minded, educated publicwould be essential. No political party can engender, or should encompass,such forces. On the contrary, it would be their beneficiary.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.