While the rest of the world was waking up to news about the death of OBL, 61.4% of Canadians were heading to the polls to cast their vote for the nation’s 41st federal election. By the end of the night Canada had moved from a Conservative minority government to a Conservative majority government. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that most readers of this blog would see this as a bad development akin to the announcement of Bush’s second term in office. And, of course, it is. The government is now free to pass its budget, which is replete with corporate tax cuts alongside program funding cuts, etc., without having to rely on the support of members from the opposition parties.
For anyone of the A.B.C. stripe, this is a major setback. For those who saw this election as one mainly about Harper and filled up my Facebook newsfeed daily with links to http://shitharperdid.ca/ and strategic voting sites like http://www.projectdemocracy.ca/, we’re dealing with a worst-case scenario. But for those of us who view the endgame as something a bit larger than keeping out the Conservative bad guy at any cost and are inclined to see Canadian politics as a bit more than a short-term race to form government the result is a lot less pessimistic. For those whose desire to unseat the worst of the Right is inseparable from a hope for a future for the Left last Monday was actually a good day for two reasons: a) the New Democratic party made unprecedented gains moving from 37 seats to 102 to form the Official Opposition and b) the decimation of the Liberal party (referred to by many as “the natural governing party”), which was reduced to 34 seats, a number from which it will likely not recover for awhile, if ever.
Though not everyone is convinced that these are positive developments. For example, James K. A. Smith has recently put up a post entitled “No Country for Philosopher-Kings” on his blog. Before he gets into his main point on the significance of the NDP gains and the Liberal losses, he mischaracterizes the reason for the election itself, claiming that the
Conservatives “only called the election because they were confident [a majority government] would be the outcome.”
This is, of course, not at all what happened. The government did NOT call an election, but an election was forced by the opposition parties who introduced a motion of no confidence after the Speaker found the Government to be in contempt of parliament (the first government to ever have been considered so) for withholding from opposition MPs details about certain bills.
And on the topic of the NDP’s gain, Smith is no less misleading. He writes, that
The NDP “used to be the “left” option in Canadian politics but…has now, it seems, gone the way of “New Labor.”
How so? Not a single reason is given, so we can only take the claim literally. I will not deny that in certain places rhetoric has changed over time, but not in a single direction. For example, the current campaign shifted focus from the personal income taxes of the wealthy to removing corporate tax cuts promised by the Conservatives in order to, instead, extend tax breaks to small businesses. Perhaps Smith has in mind the McDonough era of the late 90s (a position still present in the provincial parties, such as the Manitoba NDP government), where there was indeed talk of moving further to the centre in order to save the party from collapse. I don’t know when Smith was last in Canada, but since current leader Jack Layton has headed the party there has been a renewed commitment to the Left. What’s remarkable is that this time around it didn’t cost them any votes. So, in my opinion, comparing the party as it currently stands to the New Labour Third Way is ridiculous. Take an issue and compare the positions of New Labour with the current positions of the NDP and you will find the direction is the opposite on almost every single count – market-based reforms, tuition fees, corporate tax cuts, welfare, international relations, healthcare privatization, etc. Did the NDP ever stand with Bush on anything, as Blair (and the hawkish Ignatieff) did numerous times (including the Iraq War)? The answer is no.
Yet in the same breath with which he derides the Socialist International party member as a group of renegers, Smith laments the trouncing of the Liberal party, a party who is considerably to the Right of the NDP and voted with the Conservatives more times than it did against them in the last term. Why the inconsistency? Because Smith’s main concern is not with the future of the Left at all but with the future of the public academic. And he reads the disintegration of the Liberal Party as a “cautionary tale about the role of intellectuals in electoral politics,” since (as of last Monday) the Liberal party leader was the well-known Harvard political philosopher Michael Ignatieff. According to Smith, the message Canadians sent on Monday is that the direct result of appointing an academic to lead your party will be its obliteration. Now, come on. Ignatieff, the honourable philosopher returning to the cave, accepting the arduous role of philosopher-king, if only the unwashed masses would afford him the opportunity to sully himself for their benefit… Honestly? This is the narrative that’s going to help us understand what happened May 02? First of all, take a look at Layton. His party somehow managed to almost triple their number of seats despite him having a PhD and being a former professor and the author of academic books. To have an academic degree and even a teaching position at a university and to run as a Member of Parliament isn’t exactly a rare phenomenon. Sure, there haven’t been many party leaders of Ignatieff’s academic stature, but it seems wrong to attribute his party’s massive loss to this detail. If his career choice had anything to do with the election results – and I really doubt it did – the lesson to take from it is not whether intellectuals can be elected as politicians, but how such learnedness is often used to prop up an affected importance. (In fact, I’m sure that smarmy soundbites like this had more to do with his unpopularity than did the fact that he is a philosopher). Taking up this latter question needn’t mean resigning oneself to a choice between anti-intellectual engagement or intellectual disengagement.
Smith concludes his post with a sigh, claiming to be able to confirm firsthand that the Canadian electorate is indeed a group of “Tim Horton’s-addicted moral suburbanites for whom that “the world needs Canada” was always just a slogan for selling books and lattes to the elites downtown.” But if we attribute Conservative gains to Liberal losses and attribute Liberal losses to anti-Iggy fervor (which, since he’s an intellectual, must be anti-intellectual fervor!), and extend this sentiment to the Canadian electorate as a whole, we still come up short on the numbers. Even if we were to concede the entire Conservative vote to this reactionary philistinism, we’re still only left with 39% of the vote! When I spent a good percentage of the week leading up to the election campaigning for NDP MP Olivia Chow and talking to hundreds of people in my riding of Trinity-Spadina, the issue of Ignatieff’s education or career did not arise a single time. These are some of the people who didn’t vote for Harper and didn’t want to vote for the Liberals. And there are a lot of them.
If this supposed struggle between the academics and the common folk is, as I contest, actually a distraction, then the main concern returns to the political issues for me. Instead of focusing on the backwardness of the Canadian electorate or yearning for the glory days of the middle-of-the-road Liberals, the focus, then, should be on how the NDP — a party that was once a far-away fourth place party, ignored by the media, and usually derided as a party that will never make a difference in government — can grow. There is now a place for the Left in public discourse. They can no longer be written off as the ‘conscience of Parliament’ but nothing more. I would take this result before I took a Liberal minority with a Conservative opposition or a Conservative minority with a Liberal opposition. This precedent (a Left party as Official Opposition) is one step closer to the possibility of a Left party one day forming government in Canada. Not right away, but the NDP’s strength has never been in its short game. That’s been the Liberals’ strength in the past, and if the Liberals continue playing this way with their measly current roster, the NDP will likely benefit as a result. Even without the possibility of forming government, we now have a strong and clearly Left-wing alternative to the governing party.
And, though this might at first seem counterintuitive, I can even see a silver-lining in a Conservative majority as opposed to a Conservative minority government. Imagine this scenario: Conservatives get a minority government with the NDP as official opposition. Conservatives can’t pass a budget past the NDP. The NDP asks the Governor General to try forming a coalition with the Liberals rather than return to the polls for the fourth time in five years. Despite it being completely constitutional, the Canadian public is still unsure about the idea of a coalition (Conservatives have been using this as a scare tactic for awhile now), and said coalition goes down as the first move of the NDP in government, causing the public to distrust the NDP. They go back to being a third or fourth place party. However, with a majority Conservative government, the NDP gets 4-5 years of Canadians getting used to the traditionally underdog socialist party being in a prominent position, just as the Reform-Conservative-Alliance party did before they formed government as the Conservative Party of Canada.