This is an astonishing election campaign and there are still 11 days left.
The Conservative and Liberal blue/red door alternative spin is weak these days. Jack Layton is by far the most respected federal leader. This week polling has the NDP in the 20s, with Layton the majority preference for the position of prime minister in a coalition with the Liberals.
Jack Layton is peaking right now in his entire political career. He resonates with the majority Canadians who do most of the living, working, struggling, celebrating and aging in our society, except notably for the hyper-rich and corporate elite. NDP policies address the circumstances of the majority of Canadians in a way that the Conservatives are incapable of imagining because their constituency is the rich or those who deem themselves elite.
The very first and still dominant campaign issue for Stephen Harper has been to scare Canadians about a coalition. He is bright. He knows that is his greatest threat, not primarily to his majority government, but his job because failing three times to gain a majority will lead to his forced resignation as leader. He has even misrepresented our constitutional provisions by encouraging the public to believe that anything other than what he wants is some kind of a coup.
Beyond the polling earlier this week, last night some polls were indicating not only that the NDP are tied with the Liberals nationally, but that they are ahead of every other party in Quebec, including the Bloc, which shares many of the NDP’s progressive policy agenda.
But before exploring the credibilty of Jack Layton being our next prime minister, we should explore the unique situation that is Canadian politics today.
- By May 2, 2011 we will have lived with minority governments in Ottawa for 57 days less than seven years. We have not slid off the continent or into domestic instability, terrorism and anarchy. We have a stable parliament, aggravated mostly by a destabilizing Conservative government that lives and breathes contempt for democracy.
- We have been free from the tyranny of the de facto absolute power of majority governments for these seven years. We have seen House of Commons committees dominated by opposition parties that were elected by the 62.35% of Canadians who did not vote for the Conservatives. These committees are doing the heavy lifting of democracy because a majority government cannot arbitrarily control their deliberations.
- The authentic debate and dialogue of a democracy that the prime minister called “bickering” in the English language debate last week is an example of the credible operation of government.
- The often reluctant cooperation that the four parties have shown in justifying their jobs by keeping parliament operating to avoid losing their jobs and having to run over and over in frequent elections has been credible. I have disliked the agreements at times, which is healthy, but I know that every resolution is a symbol of a parliament that can work without the whipped voting by majority blocks that are limited only by what the governing caucus will allow their leader to do.
- We have seen necessary but extremely uncomfortable growing pains as politicians, the media, the academics and the public learn what they forgot in Social Studies in grade 10: the operation of the House, the Senate, the cabinet, the role of the governor-general, the difference between adjournment and dissolution and proroguement, and previously arcane committee procedure.
- We have also seen this year another example of blatant manipulation of the Senate to affect House legislation, the first time since the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement in the 1980s, which while constitutionally valid has a political price to pay. Mulroney added senators to keep the Liberal-dominated Senate from killing the FTA. This year, Harper used his appointed majority in the Senate to kill the opposition climate bill. Mulroney’s government lost 167/169 seats in the 1993 election. A similar political judgement potentially awaits Stephen Harper.
- We have also witnessed a new event in the world’s history of parliamentary governments: the firing of a government as the majority of the House found the government to be in contempt of parliament.
- This is not a minority government aberration of the 1960s or 1979. This is Canada in the 21st century when the compelling, credible and legitimate power of the dozens of Bloc Quebecois MPs prevents any party from forming a majority government without a practically inconceivable sweep of English Canada.
- This is a Canada that is more than a century older than when the first-past-the-post system, a relic of the 19th century, was a useful electoral system in a land of two national parties. Canada allows more than white men to vote now. It is a pluralistic society which demands a more representative electoral system. But we don’t have it yet. Instead we are left with the crumbling decay of majority parliamentary rule on our way to the broad realization that electoral reform is the only common sense solution now.
- Canada exists in 2011 within a global context of democratic revolutions in Africa and the Middle East, anti-neoliberal protests in North America and Europe, spontaneous vote mobs, spontaneous movements against prorogation, fierce and stimulating debate about strategic voting as a valid tactic in an illegitimate electoral system, and the stunning awareness that if we let our voter turnout sink below our historic low from last time, then we will somehow be insulting the Africans murdered by their despots as they seek the end to their tyranny.
In this context, we have Jack Layton’s NDP as the only party that seems to have the clarity to navigate the post-majority parliamentary world. The NDP has tabled climate and national housing legislation, for instance, that could have been passed by the House and enacted by the government if all parties respected the credibility of the process. But the Conservatives and Liberals continue to campaign as if they can achieve a majority and that this minority thing will eventually pass.
They operate as relics of the last two centuries.
Last night at home we finished watching the West Wing again. I watched a president walking with a cane who had battled a degenerative disease while trying to maintain the integrity to rule. In Canada today, we have a national party leader fighting cancer and recovering from hip surgery. He uses a cane sometimes. We can relate to that. We can’t relate to a constantly irritated prime minister who goes to great length to express his disdain for democracy by answering no more than 5 questions each day when he’s is in a 5 week job application process.
In another Aaron Sorkin show, Sports Night, we encountered a clever creed, ostensibly Napoleon’s battle plan: First we show up, then we see what happens. Sure it’s a lark, but in the West Wing we saw Matt Santos become president by running a campaign of integrity that allowed him to retain his self-respect, but partially just by showing up and watching circumstances unfold. First the front-runner for the party nomination was caught in a sex scandal, then the Republican candidate was mired in the political fallout of a nuclear accident.
Beyond the horrifying coincidence of the Fukushima nuclear disaster across the Pacific, we have Jack Layton, an engaging party leader with policies that resonate with millions who has shown up to campaign with integrity in a 5-week election campaign where anything can happen.
Anything like a prime minister campaign through the gritted teeth of contempt and an opposition party whose nasty, neoliberal fiscal policies are aligned with the prime minister’s and whose leader has virtually no mass appeal.
I don’t like the politics of horse races, of personality politics. I much prefer issue-based campaigns and analysis. But in any electoral system, people need to relate to their leaders. We don’t have a policy binder sitting in the prime minister’s office. We have a person.
Our leaders have credibility if we believe and feel they are looking out for us. Not promoting the politics of fear to scare us into following them, but leaders who will inspire us, help us see how they will facilitate the excellence in everyone, help us reach a higher place, a place of greater self-esteem and social esteem.
I once wrote about the possibility of Jack Layton becoming prime minister during Harper’s prorogation insult from 2.5 years ago. The argument was that while constitutionally valid, proroguing parliament to avoid a non-confidence motion on Harper’s budget could have led to a coalition alternative with the NDP and Liberals with voting support from the Bloc. Since the Liberal leadership was in flux then and no one would allow an ostensibly separatist party leader to be prime minister, it could have fallen to Layton as a tolerable compromise. I elaborated on that by suggesting that if in that position he ought to pursue the end of the first-past-the-post system to reflect the post-majority parliamentary system in Canada. My arguments for that are still relevant today.
Remember also that 10 months ago, polling indicated Canadians were getting used to post-majority governments since a Layton-led coalition of NDP and Liberals would defeat the Conservatives 43% to 37% to form a consensus-seeking government.
The ultimate point is that against a dour Harper, a bland Ignatieff and an average, though high-performing Duceppe, Layton is winning this election campaign.
And though the NDP’s support has the lowest percentage of completely firm voting support, meaning some support now may bleed to the Liberals as election day draws near, every day the NDP is polling above 20% with Layton 20% ahead of his competing leaders, is an extra day of credibility for the idea that the NDP is a credible alternative to the blue/red false choices which the Conservative-Liberal coalition wants to spin as the only issue.
This is also why all the reporters wanted to ask Ignatieff yesterday about coalitions and voting arrangements. He gave a good civics lesson, but he is losing this campaign as badly as Harper is. Ignatieff needs a minority government to keep Bob Rae and Gerard Kennedy and probably others from forcing a leadership convention. Harper needs a majority to keep his job. The blue/red door framing has been in both of their best interests, but it is simply becoming less credible and more cynical and contemptuous every day.
And while the NDP polling numbers may decline in the next 11 days, we are seeing in front of us a new way of doing politics, brought to us by the one leader who has demonstrated the integrity to try to make politics work, while Harper prorogues parliament and Ignatieff keeps enough MPs out of House votes to allow Harper’s anti-social economic agenda to continue.
And it is inspiring us. And it is giving us a taste of a democracy that we can be proud of as Canadians.
And I don’t know what will happen in the next 11 days or on the evening of May 2 when BC will determine the final seat count, or May 3, or into the following days of negotiations where leaders will try to wrangle 155 MP votes. But I do know that there are 5 weeks worth of nails in the coffin of majority governments in Canada.
First show up, then see what happens?
Jack Layton has shown up. And we are seeing fate, circumstances and cycles of cynicism run their course.
And we shall all see what happens. And I would not be surprised if a man battling cancer and recovering from hip surgery will walk with a cane into the House of Commons and sit on the speaker’s right side.