Wayne O'Leary

The Big, Red Machine Bounces Back

No, we’re not talking here about baseball’s Cincinnati Reds, rulers of the diamond in the 1970s. There’s another big, red machine, Canada’s once-dominant Liberal party, which had been missing and presumed dead for a decade. (Reversing the American color code, red in Canadian politics denotes the left-leaning Liberals, blue the right-wing Conservatives.) Written off prematurely by political prognosticators north of the border, a victim in the early 2000s of its own maladroitness, a smug culture of internal corruption, and the prevailing Zeitgeist of anti-government austerity, the “natural” governing party of Canada is back big time.

On Oct. 19, the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, confounded the experts by winning a clear majority of parliamentary seats in a five-way race, burying Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservatives and Tom Mulcair’s official-opposition New Democratic party (NDP), which had been the early favorite. Liberals took 54% of contested seats to the Conservative party’s 30% and the NDP’s 13%; the Greens and the Parti Québécois divided the remaining 3% between them.

The Liberal victory was a reaffirmation of the enduring Trudeau legacy, out of fashion politically for about a generation, but now the beneficiary of a sudden wave of nostalgia — not quite the Trudeaumania of the late 1960s, yet nevertheless something approaching it. Handsome and charismatic, the new Liberal leader, who will succeed Harper as prime minister, is the son of famed PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who dominated Canadian politics from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. The son is not the dashing, witty, and intellectually imposing father, but he’s a close enough approximation and more likable than was the sometimes acerbic Pierre.

In that sense (likability), the youthful (43) Trudeau is a total opposite of the man he’s replacing. Stephen Harper, whose Conservatives had held power since 2006 and enjoyed a majority government since 2011, was a classic case of someone who had worn out his welcome. A renowned control freak with an authoritarian bent, Harper pitilessly imposed a harsh austerity on Canada while eliminating all vestiges of moderation from his party, going so far as to graft the former Progressive Conservatives, with their onetime “red tory” impulses, to the far-right Canadian Reform Alliance of the western provinces, creating a political entity comparable to the corporate-libertarian-evangelical coalition that is the Republican Party of the US.

This sort of right-wingery is fundamentally alien to Canada, and the Harper interregnum is likely to be viewed in the future as a temporary departure, an aberrant product of what Canadian journalistic icon Peter C. Newman once called, in another context, “the distemper of our times.” America’s Wall Street Journal loved Harper; few others did. His policies (low taxes geared to the wealthy and the corporations, cuts in government spending programs, economic deregulation, resistance to climate-change agreements, weakened gun controls, intrusive antiterrorism laws, increased militarism) and his nastiness in implementing them were increasingly unpopular across most of the Canadian political spectrum.

Before the election, Martin Patriquin, of the centrist weekly MacIean’s compared Harper’s badgering of Muslim immigrants to Donald Trump’s fear-mongering, while Heather Mallick, of the liberal Toronto Star, likened his paranoid style and twisted priorities to Richard Nixon at his worst. Harper also offended regional sensitivities, criticizing struggling Atlantic Canada’s reliance on government aid in the form of unemployment insurance as fostering a “culture of dependence” (takers, not makers). The incumbent PM was clearly riding for a fall, and the only question was, Who would pull the trip wire?

It wouldn’t be the leftist NDP, which for months looked like the obvious successor to the stumbling Conservatives, especially on the strength of its stunning spring victory in Harper’s own Alberta and its position as the second leading party in Parliament. Plagued by unimaginative leadership, namely the pugnacious but overly cautious ex-Liberal Mulcair, and by a flawed strategy, notably an inexplicable decision to tie its own hands and join the Conservatives in promising a balanced budget, the NDP dissipated its historic opportunity to form a first-ever national left-wing government.

In moderating its longstanding left progressivism in favor of an unconvincing pro-business message, Canada’s social-democratic party abandoned its well-established brand at exactly the wrong time; its ponderous attempt to project third-way respectability and gravitas, and to avoid charges of tax-and-spend socialism, left the field open to the resurgent Liberals and their intuitive leader, who sensed the populist tenor of the times and adapted accordingly.

Trudeau was helped immeasurably by an economy sliding into recession, beset by rising unemployment fed by the western energy bust. He also benefitted from strategic voting by an anti-Harper voting public forced to choose which opposition party to back in an initially tight three-way race; they chose his Liberals.

Exploiting favorable political conditions is one thing; actually governing is another. So, the question of what Trudeau will do remains a tantalizingly open one. Some broad policy changes are givens: a return to Canada’s humanitarian and internationalist roots abroad, with peacekeeping missions instead of military interventions; multicultural inclusiveness, reinforcement of the social safety net, and an easing of government austerity at home.

Specifics remain to be worked out, but they will certainly include reversing Harper’s draconian antiterrorism laws and ending Canada’s limited participation in the US Mideast bombing campaign. Other tentative plans would set national targets for reduction of greenhouse gases, cut “middle-class” income taxes while raising those on higher annual incomes (above $150,000 US), and reform a “first-to-the-post” election system that enabled the unpopular Harper to win three times with less than 40% of the vote (proportional representation has been discussed).

Most refreshing, Trudeau and his party have committed themselves to a major, deficit-funded economic stimulus ($46 billion US over 10 years) aimed at boosting Canada’s sagging economy and rebuilding its infrastructure. This heartening Keynesian rebuff to the dead hand of austerity gripping the leading industrial nations, including our own, is the first such break with conservative economic orthodoxy since it took hold worldwide in 2010.

That the source is a Liberal Party prone to oscillate between center-left activism (Pierre Trudeau in the 1960s and 1970s) and center-right somnolence (Paul Martin in the early 2000s)shouldn’t surprise anyone. Canada’s big, red machine has always been infinitely flexible, and it obviously knows which way events are moving.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2015


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