Jack Layton’s dangerous political game

Recently, I’ve received both posted and emailed messages from Jack Layton attacking Stephane Dion for abstaining from the vote on the Throne Speech.  These attack are disingenuous and dangerous.

Ralph Nader and the Green Party in the United States made a grave error during the 2000 election by suggesting that the Republicans and Democrats were identical.  While it is incontrovertible that both parties are supported within the same electoral framework by similar moneyed interests and will produce similar policy, the notion that an Al Gore presidency would have been interchangeable with that of George W. Bush is absurd, particularly in light of what has happened since that election.  It’s clear that a Gore presidency would have been infinitely preferable for the planet.

All parties play these games of maximizing votes, occasionally at the cost of good policy.  It is ugly, and at a time when we are dangerously close to making the world unliveable, it’s a dangerous game.

Let me make this clear.  If an NDP government were elected, I would hope to work with them.  Like the Liberals and Conservatives, they need pushing on the environmental file and would benefit from a strong Green voice in parliament.  However, I have no illusions about which parties would be easier to push.  The NDP having made a lot of noise about their commitment to the environment while in opposition would probably be the easiest to push, even though provincial NDP governments have failed on the environment.  The Liberals, mainstays of Canadian culture, would generally be more difficult.  They would probably be somewhat easier under Dion, especially with Michael Ignatieff in the wings pushing for a carbon tax.

But the Harper Conservatives are most difficult of all, and by far.  In part that’s because the strong corporate support for the Conservative party resists the structural changes necessary to combat climate change.  But Conservative governments have brought in critical environmental reforms, and have been very good about building up protected areas.  The terms conservative and conservation are related, after all.  So it’s not impossible to work with any Conservative government.  In part it’s difficult to work with this Conservative government because Stephen Harper, who built up his personal support in direct opposition to the Kyoto Accord is fundamentally and personally opposed to any real action on climate change.  In part it’s because the Reform/Alliance ideology that has been inserted and is leading the current Conservative party is hostile to the kinds of changes we need.  But most of all, it’s because the current party has perfected the politics of spin, obfuscation and attack.  With every major environmental group in Canada denouncing Conservative policy, the Harper Conservatives manage to twist reports in such a way as to convince the majority of Canadians that they’re improving.

The problem with picking the easiest of the three national parties to sway on climate change is that we will not have an NDP government, no matter how much we might wish for one.  Realistically, we need to expect that the next government will be formed either by the Liberals or by the Conservatives.  And the choice between them is pretty easy.  The difference between a Dion Liberal government and a Harper Conservative government is similar to the difference between a Gore presidency and a Bush presidency.  Mr. Layton should be making the same calculation.

Well, Jack Layton is standing up to the Conservatives, and Stephane Dion isn’t, so I should applaud Layton, right?  Well, yes, and I’ve personally thanked him in a note I sent in.  But attacking Harper isn’t the real objective.  The real objective has to be to change policy.  I don’t know if there’s a politician in parliament who is honestly working towards the best policy, rather than to maximizing popularity and votes, but it’s clear that Jack is not.

Jack Layton has supported Harper in the past at points where Harper was vulnerable, where the Conservatives could have been ousted from power.  The most stupid point was the Afghanistan vote where Jack Layton voted against withdrawing in 2009 on the flimsy excuse that he wanted to withdraw before.  As a result, he has made it more likely that we’ll stay in Afghanistan long past that date, and also that Harper can remain in power longer.  Why did Layton do this?  Because the NDP were weak at the time.  Dion, by contrast, abstained from a vote when Harper was strong, when Harper had picked the issues, and was happy to fight an election.  In fact Harper was in the territory where a majority was possible.  The NDP were doing relatively well.  Not well enough to actually beat Harper, not even close, but well enough to retain their seats and even maybe pick up a couple.  Would we have gotten good policy if the Liberals had voted down the Throne Speech?  Probably not.  We might have gotten a Conservative majority.  That would have been disastrous for Canada, for the world, and critically, for the kind of policy Jack Layton’s party claims to champion.  But it would have narrowed the difference between the Liberals and NDP.

In fact that’s what Jack’s missives seem to hint at–that he’d like the NDP to be the official opposition.  The problem is, who is in power?  An NDP opposition to a Harper majority is not where we want to go for good policy.  So Jack should attack when the Conservatives are vulnerable, not when they’re strong.  Unfortunately, when the Conservatives are vulnerable, the Liberals tend to be stronger, and the NDP under Layton seem to be attacking the Liberals more than the Conservatives.  This is stupid.  The NDP are ideologically closer to the Liberals than to the Conservatives.  Under a Liberal government, we would have had a better First Nations policy, a national child care strategy, a better and possibly shorter Afghanistan mission and a better climate change strategy.  The climate strategy in particular would not have been enough, but it would have been light years ahead of what we’re getting with Harper.

The NDP have propped up Harper before and they’ve even abstained from voting on a throne speech.  So it’s absurd of Layton to object to the Liberals doing the same thing.  Do I think the Liberals are good and the NDP bad?  No.  The Liberals are in the relatively less conflicted position where an increase in their own popularity happens to correspond better with an ability to actually change the government.  I don’t necessarily think they’d behave better than Layton if they were the 3rd national party.  They are, however, being less hostile to the NDP than the NDP is to them.  And to beat back Harper, we’re all going to need to work together, not attack each other at every turn.  Put simply, Layton is in the unenviable position, not unlike the Green Party, where more support for his party may perversely impede his policy goals.  He should focus on his goals, not his votes.

As I’m writing this, my husband Charlie has shoved a Maclean’s magazine comment at me about just this issue.  In the comment, Scott Feschuk suggests that Dion needs to make an overture to Jack Layton, to offer him some cabinet posts for working together.  That’s a great idea.  I wonder if Jack would go for it.  Ironically, Feschuk’s only indication that Jack would be warm to the idea is that when he “got the vaguest whiff of the slightest notion that his party might possibly do marginally better in an election”, he “immediately brought down the Liberal government despite the fact Paul Martin was a) delivering on national child care and other NDP priorities, and b) apparently willing to meet Layton in any hotel at any time to negotiate concessions”.   As Feschuk concludes, “Layton never wore enough blame for that decision–but it proved he’s an opportunist”, and Feschuk believes this opportunism would encourage Layton to make a deal with Dion.  Funny, because it’s those very facts that convince me of Layton’s dangerous stubbornness and intransigence.  I would love it if he proved me wrong.  Prove me wrong, Jack.

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