What does a real Parliament look like?

The NDP feted May 2nd, 2011 as a great victory for progressives, in light of their electoral performance, and so after more than a year in it seems worthwhile to review their progress. Since they have never legislated nor formed government federally, all we have available to judge the NDP is their record as the Official Opposition. If we cast an eye back to shortly after the last election, Brian Topp, a prominent NDP strategist and failed leadership candidate, gave us a preview of what the NDP opposition would look like as the “new sheriff in town”.

Another session of Parliament has begun and it already feels quite familiar; it brings a disheartening sense of déjà vu. Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives are planning on serving up another omnibus bill which, if the last sitting of Parliament was any indication, will go unread, undebated, and thoroughly unchecked. Though the NDP has promised that they will make every effort to see that the proper work of Parliament is done, it seems unlikely that the eventual juggernaut of a bill will even be slowed down.  Among other things, Topp promised that the NDP “will work, within the rules of our democracy and long into the night, to shine a light on misjudgments and misgovernment.” However, since then, the NDP has done nothing to curb the instances of committees being brought in camera or the use of closure to force through bills; Elizabeth May made a solid argument that the last omnibus was illegitimate and the NDP couldn’t even debate it, let alone break it up or slow it down. Aside from taking a beating on their various socialist policies, it’s hard to point to a single accomplishment of theirs since the last election.

Before I am accused of judging the NDP too harshly, keep in mind another quote from Topp: “[b]efore May 2, there would have been relatively little debate on Mr. Harper’s intervention, since the Conservatives found a like-minded partner in the former Liberal opposition.” Topp knows as well as I do that the Liberal party was no great fan of the Conservative government (given that he was one of the main architects of the failed coalition with the Liberal party in 2008), so then he must mean that Liberals were guilty of allowing Conservative legislation to pass. If this is the standard that the NDP was planning on surpassing, then we could reasonably expect them to do something in that direction though this is not the case. Even on the issue Topp mentions in his article, “whether or not people have the right to withhold their labour”, progress is the same. Topp mentions labour being legislated back to work at Canada Post, a failure for the NDP, and implies that the next time, the NDP will be there to help. But when the same issue came up with Air Canada, the Conservatives were able to walk all over organized labour again, a thorough beating under the NDP’s watch. Even if we hold the NDP to the low bar of simply having to “shine on light on issues like this” (Topp again), they have not even been able to do that. The last time we talked about organized labour in Parliament was a joke about legislating the NHL back to work.

Just as a we judge a government’s performance based on its election promises, we judge the NDP based on their promises when they took over their current role. As Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery reporter Dale Smith points out, the NDP does not seem to fully understand the role and function of the Official Opposition. According to Topp this what “a real Parliament looks like”, a characterization that would be hilarious if it wasn’t tragic. At its best, the Official Opposition should oppose bad policy and improve legislation; judged against that bar, the NDP is far from ready to form government.

Don’t let “merger” be our 2015 version of “coalition”

In my last post, I discussed the need to distinguish the Liberal party from the NDP as a prerequisite for our party returning to power. Unfortunately, any such discussion will be hampered by the specter of a merger between our two parties. The “merger question” has the potential to be just as damaging to our electability in 2015 as the “coalition question” was in 2011. It is important to put this issue to rest as soon as possible and now, with our leadership race imminent, we have the perfect opportunity to do so.

Over eight months, the Liberal party is going to choose its next leader. Though there has been much talk about moving the party away from being completely leader-driven in our agenda, the supporter class will almost guarantee that this remains unchanged. By opening up the voting to anyone, the traditional power structures and power bases will be circumvented – anyone among the public who so chooses will vote – and since the leader has enormous power under the Elections Act, they will have enormous power within the party. Moreover, the voices of the Liberals who stayed loyal and worked hard during the dark days of 2006 to 2012 (or thereabouts), will have their voices drowned out by the throngs of new fair-weather supporters eager to have their opinions counted. Though the temptation is to take a hipster-like attitude towards the party (“Oh, I volunteered during the 2011 election when we had no chance under Ignatieff. You probably haven’t heard of him.”) we need to accept this situation as the opportunity that it truly is: all of our ideas will now be vetted by the engaged segment of the liberal-leaning public. Elections are decided by the undecideds; we’re lucky enough that our leadership candidates will now endure a trial by fire.

Though I have (clearly) not always been in favour of the idea of a supporter class of Liberals, the role that supporters will play in the next leadership race has the potential to help us a great deal in the quest to kill the “merger question”. With this in mind, it becomes vital that we have a pro-merger candidate participate in this race, who then makes their case to the country and is defeated soundly. Should this happen, we can fairly say that the idea of a merger has been put to the general public, since anyone can vote in our race. As credibly as Stephen Harper can say that voters have rejected the Green Shift, the Liberal party will be able to say that voters have rejected a merger.* At that point, we’ll be in a much better position to talk about Liberal values and positions relative to the other parties and specifically the NDP.

The Liberal party will not return to power until it has properly made its case for its necessity. The call to merge, in a lot of ways, has muddled this discussion. It is difficult to view the Liberal party as a necessary entity when the plausibility of a merger implies that our similarities are more salient than our differences. Just as the NDP elected a candidate who has made it clear that a merger is off the table, the Liberal party would be wise to make a great show of doing the same thing.

*should the pro-merger candidate win, well, maybe us anti-merger Liberals were wrong…

First they took “Secret Agenda” now we can’t say “ideology”

In the National Post, Chris Selley writes that “it is time to retire the word “ideological” from Canada’s political lexicon. It doesn’t seem to mean anything anymore.” He goes on to explain that while we may call the actions of the Harper government hypocritical it is a far cry to call them ideological, since they have very little in the way of logical consistency. This is where Selley loses me; I don’t think “ideology” means what he seems to think it means, even though he takes the time to list the Oxford definition of it. His position seems to be that logical inconsistency is the opposite of ideology, rather than the hallmark of it. This is not true at all; ideology smooths out contradictions, allows us to ignore evidence and is irrefutable.

As an example, in both the last elections in Ontario and at the federal level, the NDP put forward a plan to remove the HST from home heating. Their position was that it would help the poor and the middle class, for whom utilities bills can be quite expensive. The plan was little more than knee-jerk populism; not only are there better ways to provide assistance to low income households, outside of a subsidy for everyone, but lowering prices would encourage consumption and conflict with the NDP’s environmental agenda. Logically, the plan was a nonstarter but they championed it, campaigned on it and defended it. Their ideology is that they are the defenders of the poor and the middle class so they did something that someone who believed in those things would do. It didn’t matter that their plan was not thought out and self-defeating; the point is that it be ideologically, as opposed to logically, consistent.

Returning to Selley’s piece, he centers on Jason Kenney’s arguments about immigration. While he is willing to grant that Kenney might be mean-spirited on the file, he asks, “Is he pursuing an ‘ideological’ agenda on migration? If so, it’s tough to tell what the ideology is.” What Selley seems to be looking for is a plan, i.e. “we’re going to (increase/limit/stop/etc.) immigration”, and what he’s getting is an ideology. It is not difficult to discern a streak of xenophobia, of scaremongering, of Islamophobia, in the Conservative’s words and actions. These are all ideologies and they are the ideologies that forgive the logical inconsistencies that Selley is so happy to point out. Worse than that, we’re being led to think we should take the word “ideology” as a substitute for the term “secret agenda.” Throughout the text, the two terms could be interchangeable (and, in fact, Selley’s piece would make quite a bit more sense if the two terms were interchanged). Viewed in this way, the piece fits in well with the already established political conversation as a nice flank cover for the Conservative government. With the same indignation that they have claimed they do not have a secret agenda, they can now claim that they are not ideological even though this is clearly not the case.

Perhaps this is the lesson that Liberals should take from this whole debate; that we should have led with accusations of ideology rather of a secret agenda. By any reasonable definition of ideological, the Harper government is nothing but. With this accusation, you can (correctly) predict they will ignore evidence, contradict themselves and violate unwritten rules. In fact, had we lead with an accusation of an “ideology” rather than of a “secret agenda” we could have accomplished both goals at once. It is only with ideology, the firm belief in a cause higher than a single issue, that a secret agenda can be born.