Parties Hoist on their Own Petards (Part I)

A week has passed since the by-elections of March 17, and in a week Parliament will resume, with the four new MPs being presented in the centre aisle. Already, though, the drum beats of renewed bluff and bluster, storm and fury, and threat upon threat again takes up the airwaves and hectares of highly processed dead tree delivered daily at the door. All that noise — and the speculation of near immediate leadership change and policy change in one or more parties from the pundit gallery.

We return to the possibility of real governance in Canada facing multiple parties hoist high and fluttering in the breeze of their own rhetoric, leaks and ambitions. This faces the Harper Government no less so than those on the other side of the aisle, although it is, perhaps, working its way out differently within the ranks of the Conservatives. Leaving them to the end, then, let’s look at the others:

It Should Have Been “May is Not a Leader”, Perhaps?

After a year of Conservative advertising under the tag line “Dion is Not a Leader”, it would be difficult to use the line elsewhere, if only for fear of being copied. Yet there are numerous circles of thought in Canada today which coalesce around the following: “the Green Party would be worth a look-in were it not for Elizabeth May”.

Goodness knows May has done a number of strange things: having placed second, last time, in London North Centre (and second with a chance of taking the seat in future, not a “second to Bob Rae’s 59%” as in Toronto Centre last week), she has eschewed running there. She struck a bargain with Stéphane Dion (detrimental, certainly, to the Liberals in setting the Green Party up as a viable alternative to the local Liberal — a move that almost cost Joyce Murray her chance to parade next Monday, what with the 3:1 growth of Green votes, mostly from the Liberals, in Vancouver Quadra) to enable her to carry out a quixotic tilt against Peter MacKay in Central Nova, a seat closer to an inheritance than a contest. She could even have sought a seat in one of the four by-elections just held — one of the comments regularly heard in Quadra was “Dan Grice is doing well, but why didn’t May contest this seat: she’d have won and have made it to the Commons”. (Nothing against Grice, mind, simply a recognition that this was a likely opportunity to succeed and that the leader of the party didn’t take it.)

Then there’s the positions she has spoken on, far more Liberal-me-too than charting positive reasons to vote Green.

Come the next election, the battle will be over media time, and participation in the debate. May’s job since the election of 2006 has been to (a) create those positive reasons to look at her party so that (b) the demand to expose the party in the debates would be there (in the newsrooms as much as in the streets) and (c) get a Green into the Commons, much as Reform got Deborah Grey into the Commons. Even one seat makes a difference.

At a time when Canadian politics is showing the early signs of realignment (consider the sheer number of MPs crossing the floor — and winning re-election under their new colours! — this decade) the Green leader had, above all, the responsibility to become a viable destination for those seeking alternatives. In this she has failed.

Jack! Wishes Paul Martin Was Back

Do you recall when Jack Layton became NDP Leader in 2003? Since then, he’s been consistent: he has claimed, over and over again, that the Liberals have moved too far to the right, and that the New Democrats are their successor on the centre-left of Canadian politics. The NDP popular vote has risen in both the 2004 and again in the 2006 general elections. However, there is a huge difference to the NDP in facing a Conservative minority Government and facing a Liberal minority Government, one that Jack Layton has bet everything on — with little to show for it.

Layton’s strategy for the past two-plus years with the Liberals on his side of the aisle has been to try and convince Canadians that the Liberals are not needed. This is, of course, a welcome move from the Harper Government’s perspective: the squeezing of the middle term in the three-party equation by both ends potentially helps lead to a Conservative majority — and, if BC politics (where this squeeze occurred back in the 1950s) is anything to go by, such a squeeze would make the Conservatives the “natural party of government” and the NDP into the strong-yet-almost-never-good-enough “Permanent Opposition”.

The problem Layton’s facing is, despite the reams of truth he dispenses — his party votes against the Government while the Liberals abstain and abstain; his party raises a non-confidence motion against the Government while the Liberals avoid anything so direct; his “Canada’s Effective Opposition” tag line reflects the reality of a Liberal party silenced by its loss, going through a leadership process, then never really settling down after the convention to the task of constructing its own policy positions — the message is fundamentally rejected by the Canadian people and the Canadian media. The media rejects it both because it comes from what, in their book, is generally considered “the filler at the end of the story” (the fundamental story being the horse race between the leading parties and the knifings and back-stabbing potentials within them), and because they know it’s irrelevant: Canadians are often followers of tradition and vote from habit more than from constant consideration of the issues.

Then, too, some elements of NDP policy — even those these are consistent with who the NDP are deep in their roots — don’t sit well with the public. “Out of Afghanistan” may sound noble to many ears, but even many of those (judging by call-in radio) who don’t support being there and don’t want to stay also don’t want to be seen to cut and run. There’s a constant sense that “Working” or “Ordinary Canadians” is code for people who earn less than me: that makes some of the notions on offer seem dangerous, especially since it’s those in that family income between $40,000 and $140,000 range that are feeling stressed, yet feel Jack Layton may be talking about them paying more to transfer to others.

Jack’s best days were when he faced off against Paul Martin, with his sense of entitlement, his wealth, his dithering “all over the mapism” to be exploited (especially in a minority situation), and with the fracture lines the Chrétien-Martin wars dug deep into the Liberal party. None of these face him now with the Harper Conservatives in government. He must either position the NDP squarely with positive attributes and reasons why voters should choose them on their merits, or he will find his party squeezed.

After all, only a few Canadians per hundred spend time thinking about politics between elections. All his actions in the House since 2006 will be dust in the wind once a general campaign is underway.

Anything to Say About the Bloc?

Well, frankly, no. First, I am no expert on Québec and can’t say one way or the other whether Bloc voters are tiring of the game of blocking action in Ottawa rather than being (potentially) a part of it. Second, if Duceppe wasn’t forced out after his dalliance with moving to the PQ (and dashing back to the Bloc within a week) then the post is his regardless of performance, for neither his caucus nor voters (in the three Québec by-elections of 2007) seem disposed to make him the issue.

Tomorrow: the Liberals and the Conservatives.

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10 responses to “Parties Hoist on their Own Petards (Part I)

  1. Elizabeth May could very well be one of the worst things to happen to Canadian politics in general. Not only does she seem to share the opinion that the NDP should crawl off somewhere and die so the Liberal party can govern permanently, but has the audacity to essentially suggest that the NDP should crawl off somewhere and die so the Green party can become the new Green party (which, if you follow May’s thoughts through to their logical conclusion, ends with the Greens crawling off somewhere to die so the Liberals can govern permanently).

    Never mind the fact that many NDP supporters are NDP supporters because they have beliefs, principles and goals that conflict with those of the Liberal party — but apparently they should have no party that embodies them.

    It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder: “where the hell do these idiots come from?”

  2. Very interesting post. You reminded me of why I used to like Jack — in part, because he shared my view of Martin and conveyed that so well. I’ve come to dislike Jack so much that I had forgotten our better days. I was happy he helped bring Martin down and supported him as I had in the past. Problem is, I dislike Harper now even more than I disliked Martin (and that was a lot!) Layton seems to simply be going through the motions of trying to look like he doesn’t like Harper. For me, that’s a deal breaker.

    Again, interesting post.

  3. Patrick:

    I agree with your comments. I have voted NDP in the past and may well do so again. I don’t like feeling that I am worthless for failing to get out of Ms. May’s way!

    My support and vote for Dan Grice, Green candidate in the recent Vancouver-Quadra by-election, was more for him and his own additions to the Green platform — he came across very much as someone who recognized he was asking to be the first MP seated for his party and that he had to respond to us as a candidate, not a substitute for voting the party or the leader. I admire that in a candidate.

    While the current Liberal Party does leave me scratching my head and asking myself what role they think they are playing at the moment, there’s nothing particularly wrong with a multi-party system. The pressure parties put on each other for “space” in the minds of the electors should make each of them better. Simply going for their elimination is bad politics, and contemptuous of citizens.

  4. Catherine:

    Welcome! It’s always good to have a first-time commenter join us.

    I used to live in Toronto and remember Jack Layton well as a city alderman and as Deputy Mayor. His subsequent work with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities was also good.

    I’d like to still like Jack more than I do now. Unfortunately the game is constantly changing, and he now seems to have his party stuck in the past.

    Obviously Jack Layton and Stephen Harper do have a shared mission to shift toward the centre and deny their Liberal opponents breathing room. This may lead to that perception that, underneath it all, his “dislike” for Harper is mere rhetoric, not quite as rooted in principle as was his dislike for Martin.

    I’m afraid, however, that I do not look back on Paul Martin with anything more than contempt. As far as he was concerned, he was owed the Prime Ministership. As Finance Minister, he was essentially a toady for the civil servants in the Department of Finance. (Yes, that brought us out of deficits. The right things often get done for the wrong reasons.) Once in office, all he knew was staying there. Once out, he has failed to earn his MP’s paycheque, and left the electors of La Salle-Émard unrepresented in the House. From his subterranean takeover of the Liberal Party, leaving what was left of it (it has been a long decline) in shambles, to his pathetic pleas to remain in office on national television in 2005, to his being laughed out of the National Press Gallery for trying to claim that Belinda Stronach’s crossing the floor had nothing to do with his Government’s survival a few days hence, to his massive give-aways in the final days before falling on the November, 2005 confidence motion, it was always about him personally and never about the nation, despite the rhetoric.

    There is much about Harper to give one pause, but (aside from the secretiveness and control-freak attitude that is portrayed) I don’t get the same sense that the Prime Minister makes issues about himself personally in the same way. That makes my disagreements with him about policy and philosophy, not about hijacking a nation to serve one man’s ego.

    In any event, your comment was most welcome, and I hope you’ll continue to contribute.

  5. I certainly don’t look harbour any positive feelings of Martin, but I likely see a lot more wrong with Harper than you.

    I detest hypocrisy in leaders, such as the “transparent, accountable, ethical government” self-label. From Harper’s and Flanagan’s own words, as well as the lies told in the Riddell case, I believe Harper knew about attempted bribery and I didn’t appreciate Layton blocking the investigations. Also Harper takes dumbing down to a whole new level — his postage free mailouts with boxes to check are too dumb to even describe.

    I don’t think Harper even likes Canadians or Canada, although I suspect he has some idea of liking us better once he makes us over. As to “issues about himself personally”, perhaps, but I have a difficult time even imagining what a man who mails out Xmas cards with 23 (or was it 24) photographs of himself and covers multiple government walls with his own image, is actually like, not to mention that he is quick to sue when he doesn’t get his way. I’m really not sure what we are dealing with. All in all, I see a lot more wrong with Harper than simply policy (although there is plenty wrong with that too).

  6. Catherine:

    Fair enough. I was fortunate enough not to receive the multi-photograph Christmas Card, or the check box mail out.

    I don’t actually think Harper (the man) likes people all that much. (I recognise in him some character traits of my own: I’m also very much the introverted intuitionist [Myers-Briggs typology] who neither needs many people around himself, nor particularly wants them, either.) Those he does let in I suspect he has a lot of time and energy for, but he has a hard time carrying out the pretense of “liking the masses” that is required of any politician in the age of television in all its forms. (He really is better suited to speeches from the observation car of the train and radio work, where the motifs are a better personal fit — but that’s not today’s world.)

    So the amazing thing about him is that he was able to scrabble up the cliffs to (a) achieve a party leadership [the Canadian Alliance], (b) negotiate a merger with the Progressive Conservatives, (c) win the Conservative Party leadership, (d) lose the 2004 election and stay at the helm, and then (e) win the 2006 election, all given how ill-suited his personality and temperament are for politics as it is conducted today.

    One of the difficulties we experience, therefore, is that, if I’ve read his personality aright, he will have strong loyalty to the few he lets in. This leads us to outright bullies (we all know which ones sit in the Cabinet) able to blast away with the consent of Harper, regardless of the damage it may do to his Government. Likewise, too, the centralisation of information flows. All that desire to control the situation (to avoid having to interact without forethought and management of the situation) leads to the perception of knowing more even if he didn’t. (What that means is that both cases where he does know something, and cases where he doesn’t, end up looking the same.)

    For all that, I look at the current alternatives and outright shudder at the thought of any of them taking over from Harper. We are ill-served today by our politics, our parties and their leaders. Sigh.

  7. Pingback: Parties Hoist on their Own Petards (Part II) « Worth the Fee to Read It

  8. Pingback: Parties Hoist on their Own Petards (Part III) « Worth the Fee to Read It

  9. This is a pretty good analysis. Although I’d disagree that the NDP is at odds with most Canadians when it comes to Afghanistan. I think they’re at odds with the main-stream-media and talk-radio, but not the opinion of average Canadians. Just check out today’s Angus Reid poll.

    I think the NDP’s biggest problem is getting the MSM to notice them and getting voters to consider them.

    For the NDP and Green parties, the best they can hope for is some form of proportional representation in the future.

  10. Hi, Chris:

    Welcome aboard! It’s always good to see a new reader comment appear.

    Yes, the NDP has a real problem getting the MSM to give them decent coverage. I wonder what would happen if, for instance, a fairness doctrine required that the MSM simply alternate front page/first story coverage, thereby giving the NDP (and Greens) a reasonable number of “go first” opportunities. Very hard to work out how to do, of course, and no guarantees biases won’t come into play in how things are covered, but it would open the door to simply getting more than a tiny article seven pages in while the two leading parties get the front page, or being the 45 second afterthought after 10 minutes on the news.

    PR is held out as the solution for both parties. I have my own reasons for being interested in one particular type of PR — STV — which I’ve previously written about. What both need to do is to focus on ridings to build a base that supports the efforts in the surrounding seats. Spending 75% of the effort (and spending on the “air war” of a campaign) in a concentrated set of ridings where that effort is supported by one set of ads and appearances would probably yield seats better than trying to spread too thinly across the country, even though 308 seats would be competed for. You build a solid starting point, then do it again in another probable region.

    Finally, Afghanistan. Yes, Canadians generally don’t seem to want to be there, and that’s what the poll says. On the other hand, neither are there public protests, concerted efforts to crack into call-ins, etc. visible as public opinion. It’s easy to tell a pollster an opinion. It’s harder to get off the couch and get involved. So perhaps the real statement is that Canadians aren’t prepared to work to make their opinions felt.

    Just saying, is all. It’s hard work to crack through the MSM and the call screeners on the radio. But the efforts to do so just don’t seem to be there, either, at least in a concerted and continuing way.

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