Making the most of opportunity

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Anyone with a progressive bone in their body rejoiced at the important measures taken by the minority government during its 17-month lifespan.

My call last week for Canadians to re-elect a minority Liberal government, with the NDP holding a clear balance of power, sent shockwaves through the federal campaign. And I'm still somewhat puzzled as to why. For I've simply given expression to a sentiment that is clearly shared by almost everyone on the Canadian left — including most NDP members.

Anyone with a progressive bone in their body rejoiced at the important measures taken by the minority government during its 17-month lifespan. More new social spending than any other government in the last quarter-century (all the more so thanks to Jack Layton's amendments to the 2005 budget). A long-awaited national child care program. Crucial new rights for workers — most recently including protection of collective agreements against the unilateral dictates of bankruptcy judges. Affirmation of same-sex marriage. A historic deal to address horrendous living conditions among aboriginals. Measures to reduce poverty among seniors and families with children. Other initiatives on housing, immigrants and the environment.

After two decades of hard-nosed, pro-business rule (under Conservative and Liberal majorities, alike), this is an incredible change. Obviously, this didn't all happen because Prime Minister Paul Martin had a conversion on the road to Damascus (though his leadership has been important). No, it happened because his party had to appeal to others to stay in power — both in the Commons, and indirectly to a broader range of interest groups than the powerful and well-connected ones who usually call the shots around Ottawa.

The Liberals have not been perfect, obviously. But for those Canadians working for a fairer, better society, the last 17 months have constituted an inspirational moment of opportunity. Which is precisely why I didn't want that moment of opportunity to end. However, the opposition parties made their own calculations (worrying more about seat tallies than the direction of the country), and we have our Christmas election.

The best the left can now hope for is a re-creation of another Liberal minority — this time, we hope, with the NDP holding a clearer balance of power, and the two parties negotiating a more stable and lasting way of working together. The downside risks, however, are substantial. If the Liberals lose Quebec seats to the BQ, then the math favours a Conservative minority (supported by the BQ). A marriage of convenience between the Conservatives' anti-statist, decentralizing inclinations and the BQ's separatism will quickly destroy all the good that's been done in the past 17 months, and then some.

As a union leader, I know all about bargaining power. How does the CAW win improvements for its members? By creatively seeking a “pressure point” that allows us to exercise collective strength with an employer. When a company executive says, “Trust me,” I keep a close eye on my wallet. It's not a question of trust; it's a question of power.

The same rules apply in politics. I'm even more sceptical of any politician (whatever the party) who says, “My platform is the best, so trust me.” Instead, I look for the pressure point. Minority government is just that kind of pressure point.

By endorsing a Liberal minority with an NDP balance of power, the CAW is not “drifting” toward Liberal views. Indeed, my opinions (on everything from free trade to public ownership to gun control) clearly place me to the left of the NDP hierarchy. However, politics is not about abstract ideals, it's about power — just like bargaining. We have an obligation to our members, and to the communities where they live, to make the most of our current opportunity — an opportunity to deliver more of the policies we've seen in the last 17 months, and to prevent the social destruction that would accompany a Conservative victory.

NDP strategists bemoan the CAW's perspective, because it interferes with their careful plan to deal with the “strategic voting” problem — by ignoring it and hoping it just goes away. The NDP is ignoring Stephen Harper and running against the Liberals. This is a sure-fire recipe for alienating potential supporters who are both relieved at the good things minority government has delivered (thanks in large part to the NDP), and reasonably worried about the prospects of Tory rule.

In fact, strategic voting can help the NDP as much as it hurts them — if the party claims rightful credit for the successes of the past 17 months, and focuses resources on ridings where the “strategic” vote is indeed an NDP vote. CAW volunteers will go all-out to elect NDP MPs where they are the incumbents, where they are the best hope for defeating Tories (like Sid Ryan in Oshawa), or are challenging Liberals in ridings with no Tory threat (like our own Peggy Nash in Parkdale-High Park).

Elsewhere, however, we have our eyes on a much bigger prize. If we can recreate the conditions that led to the policies of the past 17 months, we'll show our members, and all progressive Canadians, that politics really can be a good thing.

For those who are interested in the actual wording of the recommendation I made to the 900 workplace leaders who voted overwhelmingly in favour of the CAW's election strategy on December 3, it's on the CAW web site right here.

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