Banish pundits and polls from Thanksgiving election conversations

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The journalistic cliché has it that Thanksgiving weekend will be a decisive moment for the current election campaign.

It will be when families gather and talk politics.

They will share their hopes and fears and, in some cases, try to influence how their sisters, brothers, parents, children, cousins, aunts and uncles vote.

If families munching their turkey and Brussels sprouts allow mainstream media commentary and analysis to frame their conversations, there will be a lot of what we in the trade call "horserace" talk.

As the campaign reaches its end, media commentary has become maddeningly opinion poll focused.

One pundit on Radio-Canada's national television newscast, Le Téléjournal, even put a horserace/polling spin on his analysis of the responses of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Tom Mulcair to the Globe and Mail story which showed how the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) interfered in the selection of Syrian refugees.

The pundit told Radio-Canada news anchor Céline Galipeau that Muclair's angry reaction versus Trudeau's more moderate stance showed that the NDP leader is desperate and putting on a tough-guy act because of slumping opinion polls.

The NDP leader characterized what Stephen Harper did as "abject behaviour", while Trudeau's response, initially, was more bemused than angry.

The Radio-Canada pundit's brand of reductionist pseudo-analysis is reminiscent of a scene from the French film Ridicule, which is set in King Louis XVI's 18th century court in Versailles.

In the scene in question, the King's favourite priest demonstrates a logical proof of the existence of God to a rapt audience. As he acknowledges the King and courtiers' enthusiastic applause, the priest displays unacceptable hubris when he declares:

"If you wanted me to prove the opposite, I could do that as well!"

One expects that had Mulcair's reaction to Harper's interference in the refugee process been firm but measured, while Trudeau had thundered his denunciation, the Radio-Canada pundit would have cheerily explained that Mulcair's moderation showed why the young and assertive Liberal leader was "ahead" in the horserace.

Indeed, as the controversy over the Globe's story continued the next day, Mulcair and Trudeau did, in fact, trade roles.

When asked about the refugee issue a second time, Mulcair used a scalpel to deconstruct Harper's identity politics. Trudeau, on the other hand, abandoned his moderate posture of the previous day and used a sledgehammer, calling what Harper's PMO did "disgusting".

What would our pundit have to say about that?

What Liberals and New Democrats share

The priest in Ridicule got into deep trouble when he revealed himself to be nothing more than a sophist, ready to take any side in an argument just to prove how clever he was.

The price he paid was banishment from a plush and comfortable life at court.

Voters gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table would be well advised to follow King Louis' example.

They should banish the pundits and their tiresome talk of polls.

For the many voters who say their main aim is to see the end of the Harper regime, the weekend should be an opportunity not to consult the oracles of pollster-dom, but to talk about what the parties that seek to replace Harper's Conservatives are all about.

It is true that, in many respects, the programs of the Liberals and New Democrats are similar -- perhaps closer to each other than they have ever been.

Both promise a series of democratic reforms, including ending the outrageous sort of omnibus legislation Harper has favoured, and both pledge to replace Canada's antiquated and unfair first-past-the-post electoral system before the next election. (It is worth noting, however, that the Liberals voted against an NDP electoral reform moton when it came before Parliament. Later, with an election looming, Trudeau changed his and his party's view on the matter.)

Both would ditch Harper's income splitting plan, a fiscal measure that disproportionately benefits the rich.

Both would restore respect for the Parliamentary Budget Officer and other officers of Parliament; and both have pledged to end Harper's war on science.

Both parties promise to substantially increase funding -- now, and without Harper's draconian conditions -- for First Nations education.

Mulcair and Trudeau both say they would seek to restore cooperative federalism in Canada, in part by meeting regularly with the provincial premiers, something Stephen Harper has truculently failed to do over the past decade.

And both parties agree that Canada needs an inquiry into the more than 1,000 missing and murdered indigenous women. New Democrats and Liberals alike are more worried about indigenous women than Harper's xenophobic chimera of "barbaric cultural practices".

Finally, both parties have also promised to restore health care for refugees.

The list is long. One could add many more items.

Where the two parties differ

The current campaign has, however, revealed some clear differences between the Liberals and the New Democrats.

One of those arose out of the New Democrats' somewhat surprising pledge to achieve balanced budgets in year one of their mandate.

The Liberals, many commentators tell us, jumped to the left of the NDP by promising to run deficits for at least three years. 

Since August, Trudeau has been telling voters that a Liberal government would respond to a sluggish economy by strategically borrowing money.

Interest rates are low and the debt-to-GDP ratio is dropping, Trudeau argues, and so the federal government should not be overly preoccupied with the fiscal bottom line. It should spend massively, in the short term, on much needed infrastructure investments.

Mulcair argues that a wiser course would be to finance those investments over a longer time period and in a more predictable way.

The NDP leader takes the orthodox Keynesian view that governments should only resort to deficit financing during severe economic downturns of the sort we experienced in 2008.

The economy may be sluggish now, Mulcair says, but 2015 is not 2008. Adding to the national debt at this time, he explains, would only necessitate deeper and more painful cuts a few years down the road.

Indeed, when you read the fine print, you can see that the Liberals promise a massive $6 billion of unspecified cuts in the fourth year of their mandate.

New Democrats argue that those cuts -- surprise, surprise -- will be deeper, over-all, than all of the cuts the Conservatives project, cumulatively, in their program.

New Democrats and Liberals also partially disagree on the fiscal instruments the government should use to decrease inequities and increase revenues.

Trudeau has adopted what was once an NDP policy -- to increase the marginal tax rate on the highest incomes and commensurately lower the rate for middle-income earners.

Mulcair's disagrees, an unusual position for a New Democrat, but he defends it vigorously.

If we were to carry out Trudeau's plan, the NDP leader says, some taxpayers in some provinces would pay a combined rate well over 50 per cent. With that upper income tax rate, Mulcair points out, a province such as New Brunswick would have a hard time recruiting doctors.

Instead of raising anyone's personal taxes the NDP promises a modest boost in the extremely low corporate tax rate. 

The corporate rate has never been so low, and Mulcair would only raise it from the current 15 to 17 per cent, far lower than it was ten year ago.

If dropping the corporate rate was supposed to spur increased investment and job creation, Mulcair and the NDP point out that it has not worked.

Even the late Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty complained bitterly that corporations were not investing their windfall, but rather sitting on their cash.

Mulcair also wants to end the practice of allowing high paid executives to avoid taxes by receiving part of their generous pay in low taxed stock options.

The Liberals have not signed on to either the corporate tax hike or the stock option measure. Both NDP policies have wealthy -- and often transnational -- corporations in their sights.

The Liberals want voters, especially those who have voted NDP in the past, to trust that their party has tilted leftward. But the Liberal party is still reluctant to offend large and powerful corporations. That might have something to do with the party's political DNA -- see below for more details.

When it comes to boutique tax measures, such as Harper's child care benefit, the Liberals want to take it away from upper income earners and increase it for those with more modest incomes.

Again, that sounds like something the NDP of the past might have proposed.

Mulcair argues, however, that most of the Universal Child Care Benefit going to upper incomes will be taxed back, and that his party would rather focus its efforts on creating a national $15 per day child care program.

If a federal government were able to pull it off, child care would be the first national social program created in more than four decades.

The program the New Democrats propose would not be one-size-fits-all. As with Canada's health system, each province would design its own child care system, with federal financial assistance.

But the NDP program would be universal, not targeted only to lower incomes. It would be in the tradition of Canadian medicare, which is also available to all regardless of income.

The Liberals, at the very end of their last mandate, had espoused something similar to what the NDP now proposes. Liberal Ken Dryden worked hard to enlist provincial support for a national child care program.

Oddly, the Liberals do not now support such an idea. One gets the impression that they might lack a measure of ambition, and are reluctant to get involved in anything that would require the wholehearted cooperation of the provinces.

Liberals voted for a Bill with which they vigorously disagreed

Then -- and we cannot avoid this one -- there is the Conservatives' so-called anti-terror Bill, C-51, and the New Democrats and Liberals very different reactions to it.

As I have written in this space on a number of occasions, that legislation constitutes a massive and dangerous attack on Canadians' civil and human rights.

The Harper government wants us to believe it only has bloody-minded "jihadists" in its sights.

But C-51 gives the authorities the power to investigate, disrupt and harass all kinds of targets, including First Nations groups and environmentalists who might object to pipelines and other resource exploitation in culturally and ecologically sensitive areas. There is, in fact, a specific provision in C-51 related to threatening "critical infrastructure".

C-51 also gives the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) the power to engage in dirty trick operations -- operations that would explicitly contravene the Charter of Rights -- with nothing more that the secret approval of a single judge.

The Liberals have tended to poo-poo some of this very frightening stuff.

The NDP and all those civil libertarians and experts who spoke up against C-51 are exaggerating and fear mongering, Liberals sometimes say.

In this, Trudeau's folks display a certain naiveté about the degree to which police and spies are all-too-ready to disrespect human rights. You can tell that very few Liberals have ever experienced the business end of a cop's truncheon.

But even the Liberals have found many flaws in Harper's anti-terror legislation, notably the lack of Parliamentary oversight, which they consider a fatal flaw.

Liberal MPs proposed a raft of amendments to C-51, including some dealing with oversight, all of which the Conservatives rejected.

Yet they voted for the anti-terror legislation, for no better reason than to avoid the criticism that they are soft on terrorists.

The political DNA of the Liberals and New Democrats

On other issues, the Justin Trudeau Liberals now promise to do the opposite of what the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin Liberals did when they were in power.

Take, for example, support for arts and culture and, in particular, the CBC.

Both New Democrats and Liberals pledge to roll back cuts to the public broadcaster.

But when they were in power last, the Liberals took a scythe to the CBC.  The corporation endured cuts far out of proportion to those suffered by other federal departments and agencies.

One could not find those plans for public broadcasting in the Liberals' publicly published election platform.  Indeed, none of the Liberals' brutal austerity measures ushered in by then Finance Minister Paul Martin's now infamous 1995 budget were announced in Chrétien's Red Book of campaign promises.

The Liberals' campaign to replace the nine-year-old Conservative government, back in 1993, was all about hope and optimism. Sound familiar?

The Chrétien/Martin Liberals of the 1990s only unsheathed their fiscal sabre once they were in power.

What that tells you is that when judging parties one has to consider more than their current platform and leaders.

One should consider, as well, their history, their record, their personality, and, most important, what one might call their political DNA.

The Liberals have historically been the political party of a good part of Canada's corporate elite.

Today, Justin Trudeau, a distinctly non-corporate and populist leader, has major Bay Street figures such as Toronto candidate Bill Morneau on his team.

Before becoming a Liberal candidate Morneau was Chair of the very pro-big-business think tank the C. D. Howe Institute.

If you were to frequent a certain kind of Ottawa cocktail party these days, it would be hard not to run into the legion of corporate lobbyists, with firms such as Earnscliffe, Bluesky and many others, who are salivating in anticipation of the return to power of their "natural governing party."

Despite the progressive hue of the current Liberal party and its leader, the party does have a long record of campaigning from the left and governing from the right.

Even now, with the campaign still on, Trudeau gives an indication of a typically Liberal reluctance to offend big business interests when he supports Keystone XL, is leery of criticizing the Trans Pacific Partnership, and refuses to enunciate any target for greenhouse gas emission reductions.

The current leader of the NDP is a pragmatic, managerial centrist, who is very much in former British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair's mold.

But the NDP's DNA is quite different from that of the Liberals.

The party was born in 1932, as the populist, social gospel Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (the CCF). It became the New Democratic Party as a result of a merger with the Canadian Labour Congress in 1961. The CCF and the NDP were, from the outset, competitive for power in a number of provinces. The CCF-NDP has formed the government, in some cases for decades, in six of the ten provinces.

Federally, the NDP has had its greatest influence when it has held the balance of power, as it did during the Pearson years of the 1960s. That was when the foundations of Canada's social welfare system were laid.

In the 1990s, when the NDP was reduced to a handful of seats, the Liberal government, spurred by the newly emergent, right-of-centre Reform Party, happily chipped away at those foundations.

A few facts to bear in mind when you discuss how to vote on October 19th. 

Photo: Flickr/ Satya Murthy

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