Kim Elliott: As you outline so well in your book and in various interviews in the U.S. media, the current financial crisis holds the possibility of being one of those moments when the shock doctrine can best be applied. Can you comment on both the Harper government’s economic and fiscal statement introduced last week, and on the Opposition’s response to that – that is, the formation of a coalition – in the context of the shock doctrine?
Naomi Klein: Yes, absolutely. What I think we are seeing is a clear example of the shock doctrine in the way the Harper government has used the economic crisis to push through a much more radical agenda than they won a mandate to do.
At the same time we are seeing an example of what I call in the book a “shock resistance,” where this tactic has been so overused around the world and also in Canada that we are becoming more resistant to the tactic – we are on to them – and Harper is not getting away with it.
What I think is really amazing about this moment is whatever happens next – whether we end up with this coalition or not, we will have an extremely chastened Harper. So the attempted shock doctrine has failed. I think we can say that decisively.
Just to be clear, what I mean by the shock doctrine, as you know, is the use of crisis to push through unpopular pro-corporate policies. This bundling of a whole package of policies: denying the right of public sector workers to strike, the attack on public financing of political parties, with the economic program – that is what failed, and people were offended by the opportunism of it.
This is what so many of us were worried about during the election – the context of a Tory victory in an economic crisis, because we know that there is this pattern of using an economic crisis to push through policies that were nowhere during the campaign.
KE: This coalition gives us lots of opportunities, but it also poses some risks if it is successful. I’d like to ask you about that. In an interview you had on Democracy Now!, you said that part of the reason that Obama was appointing a host of neo-liberal economists was because there was a lack of “intellectual honesty” among progressives about the real legacy of the Clinton years. Does the Canadian left, in a Liberal-led coalition, risk losing our understanding of the neo-liberal legacy of the Liberals, who during those same Clinton years were ripping up Canada’s welfare state, cutting social spending etc?
NK: I think it is really important to remember, and I’ve written about this in the book, and Linda McQuaig has written about it extensively, that it is the Liberals who actually implemented what I’m describing in Canada.
They were elected on an economic stimulus platform in 1993, with a huge mandate. The Tories were wiped out in those historic elections. And then they caved to pressure from Bay Street, from the corporate media and from the right-wing think tanks in the face of the debt crisis. They turned around and broke their election promises when it came to NAFTA, when it came to job creation, and the famous 1995 Paul Martin budget came down which did so much damage to unemployment insurances (which makes it particularly interesting that a key piece of the agreement for the coalition is about strengthening unemployment insurance). So we need to have long memories about the Liberals, because they have done exactly what Harper has just done, in terms of using an economic crisis for a neo-liberal about turn.
That said, what I find most exciting about what is going on right now – beyond just getting rid of Harper, which is exciting in and of itself – is that we have this opportunity to show what proportional representation (PR) would look like, because all of this talk that this is a coup is a joke.
What is being proposed by this coalition is much closer to representative democracy than what we have right now, which is a government that has [slightly more than] 35 per cent of the popular vote in a turnout that was historically low, of 59 per cent of Canadian voters, which means that even though the Tories won more seats they had fewer actual votes than in the last election.
I think it is really important to talk about democracy, about what it actually means in this period. In some ways I think it is even more important than talking about the policies, because our electoral system is broken. Because of the Tories’ extraordinary opportunism and terrible calculation we now have an opportunity to see a better version of democracy and see more people represented in government.
To me the best case scenario that could come out of this is, one, you get the coalition, and, two, the NDP uses this moment to really launch a national discussion about why we need PR and that that becomes one of the things that comes out of this crisis.
Now, they don’t have the mandate for that right now, but we could come out of this with a national referendum on proportional representation. People might actually like it, which would be really, really exciting.
KE: That is a very exciting possibility, and I wanted to ask you, if this coalition is successful, what are the two or three key issues that the NDP should focus on, the kinds of issues that were not covered in the agreement?
NK: They’ve put in writing what they’ve agreed to. I think it is going to maybe be up to the NDP to make sure that the EI improvements are protected.
KE: I’m thinking of those issues that were not in the agreement like PR, or like withdrawal from Afghanistan – those issues that were not nailed down in the agreement.
NK: Those issues weren’t nailed down because there isn’t agreement on them, and that I think it is not really about whether the NDP holds the line on these issues, but about how the NDP uses this platform. It is a historic opportunity, I think, to be very bold, not just because of what is happening in this country, but because of what is happening globally.
Another important role for the NDP, beyond putting proportional representation on the agenda, withdrawal from Afghanistan, is also the terms of the bailout. The bailout for the auto industry is part of their agreement, but we don’t know what the terms of that agreement are going to be, and that is going to be really important in terms of negotiating a progressive automobile industry bailout – a green auto industry bailout, if such a thing is possible. So that is a very important role that the NDP could play.
I think the best analogy, in terms of the kinds of concerns you are raising in regards to the Liberals and neo-liberalism, of being the party that continued and deepened Mulroney’s neo-liberal economic program, is to look at Gordon Brown. He was finance minister for Tony Blair, really the face of neo-liberalism in Britain. He is now overseeing what many are calling the death of New Labour, and the return to Keynesian economics in Britain. That is because he is fighting for his political life. That is because he was going down, until he started talking this way. That is really what is at stake for the Liberals, I think.
This is also why I think the issue of political financing for political parties is so key. The reason there is a little more latitude in Canada on these issues is because our political process is not massively owned by corporations as it is in the United States.
The way in which public financing for political parties has been presented in the press is “oh the politicians, they just got mad when they went after their money,” right? This is another key point that I think is somewhat related to the issue of proportional representation. We need to be talking about our political process here, and the issue of public financing for political parties in elections is key to protecting and deepening democracy in Canada, and for keeping it out of corporate control. It is not for nothing that the Tories are attacking that. They see attacking public financing of political parties as a way to entrench their power.
KE: Should this coalition become government, what should we as progressive movements be doing in terms of using this as an opportunity to promote these kinds of progressive agendas, to support the NDP in a predominantly Liberal caucus?
NK: I think it is PR, I really think that is the way in. By pushing PR then it is not just about this one crisis. It is about leveraging this situation to have a more democratic system. It means that if the NDP does deeply disappoint us in this moment we could still end up with a better political system.
KE: Should the coalition happen what do you see as the long-term fall-out in terms of western voters in Canada?
NK: I really think that we need to fight back this strategy. We know what the talking points are from the right and from the West, and it is about playing up this idea of making a coalition with the Bloc, “with the separatists.”
What to me is so extraordinary is the temper tantrum being thrown in Alberta right now at the prospect of having to be ruled by a majority – by a coalition of parties representing the majority of the people in this country. I really do think it is worth asking who the real separatists are, because of course the undercurrent of everything they are saying is that they will take our oil. So who are the real separatists?
KE: Do you agree then that we should be out there supporting the coalition? Attending rallies, mobilizing letter-writing campaigns?
NK: Absolutely. Listen, we’ve been given a second chance, after these elections. What is exciting about it is that a lot of people did get involved in the election to try to beat the Tories. Maybe it started a little bit too late. We were surprised a bit by how quickly the election happened, but you saw a lot of people getting involved in things like voteforenviroment.ca and the Department of Culture.
That was very much the spirit of it, it was anything but the Tories and it was kind of building a PR system without the cooperation of the political parties that got a lot of people excited during this election. It was about just doing an end-run around the political parties who were not cooperating to try to keep out the Tories.
So, what is exciting about this political moment, and how people can get involved, is that this is building on that. The political parties caught up with the grassroots movement that was happening anyway with those initiatives like voteforenvironment.ca, Department of Culture, and people like Murray Dobbin who have been making these arguments pretty steadily outside of the political parties. Now it is happening, and it is happening thanks to Stephen Harper and his extraordinary arrogance and over-reaching. We can’t lose this moment.
I just want to emphasize this point: If even through smart tactics, Harper pulls this off, if he prorogues Parliament; if the Governor General lets him get away with it; if the Liberals lose their nerve over Xmas, then the Harper we will have in January will be a deeply chastened Harper.
What everybody agrees with is that he made a massive error, that he massively overreached, and his own party, his own base agrees with that. Worst case scenario we dodged a bullet here. Best case scenario, we leverage his overreach, his attempt to use a crisis to push through his ideological pro-corporate agenda to have a deeper democracy in our country, and to prevent forevermore a situation where a party with 35 per cent of the vote is government.