The Centrists' Manifesto II

This post was crossposted to Blogs Canada EGroup.

Before I forget, I’ve got to express my solidarity with Mojtaba and Arash, two Iranian bloggers who are facing persecution for speaking their minds. POGGE has more details.

To the conservative bloggers out there looking back on the Liberals’ budget in the harsh light of day and wondering if the Grits have pulled a bait and switch on you, you’re not seeing things. The Liberals vaunted defence spending is back-end loaded, meaning the bulk of it doesn’t come into effect for three years, and this year the department of defence has to come up with $640 million in cuts over an unspecified time period (possibly the three years before the big bucks roll in).

TTC Streetcars

And, yes, this is a common tactic by the Liberals to claim that they’re spending billions of dollars on a pressing problem when, actually, they’re not. I draw your attention to the news about eleven months ago when Paul Martin made enough moves to convince the Toronto papers to exclaim “$1 Billion for the TTC!”. Except that it was spread over five years. And split equally between the provincial and municipal governments. And came with strings. All told, the Federal Liberals’ commitment to the TTC in 2004 came out to $66.67 million, and I’m not even sure if the money arrived.

So, I feel for you. I know how it feels to be had. Though it would have been nice if more conservatives had cottoned on to this fact and held the Liberals’ feet to the fire on municipal infrastructure. Maybe then they wouldn’t have pulled this stunt on national defence.

And with that out of the way, it’s on to my post…

Hat tip to Bound by Gravity, Stephen Taylor has an interesting post talking about the financial condition of the NDP. His thesis: that Jean Chretien has cut the NDP off at its knees with his political financing law banning big labour and corporate contributions. As a result, the NDP will likely be merging with the Liberals, soon, and that’s somehow a good thing for the left and the right in Canada.

His words:

There are many more corporations and small businesses in Canada than there are trade unions. In fact, singular trade unions draw their political power from the ‘solidarity’ of millions of card carrying members. The largest contributor to the NDP in 2003 was CEP, the Communications, Energy & Paperworkers Union of Canada, which donated $909,775.00. Last year, in 2004, they didn’t even bother. The next largest union contributor of 2003 was the UFCW who donated $775,919.60 to the NDP. Last year, they donated $1,225.00. In fact, the top 10 union contributors (who were also the overall top 10) contributed exactly $4,617,894.22 to the NDP. Last year, union contributions added up to a paltry $15,785.29! Because of the $5,000 cap, the unions were better off telling their members to contribute to NDP individually (which some of them may have, but most probably did not — individual contributions to the NDP, including non-unionized individuals, added up to $1,395,895.41). Also, keep in mind that this $1.3 million represents 93% of the donations received by the NDP last year.

What did Jean Chretien do? He effectively capped the influence of organized labour on political parties in Canada (ie. the NDP) and he did so in a very deliberate and neutering way to that party.

First of all, let’s look at how much the NDP is really hurting. There is no doubt that the NDP has taken a funding cut, by Stephen has forgotten, or ignored, the $1.75 per vote per year that the NDP will receive as a result of the campaign finance law. This same law has given the Green Party, with 4.3% support in the last election, a windfall of nearly $1 million per year. For the 2.1 million voters who voted NDP, that gives the party a decent $3.675 million per year with which to work. Combine that with individual donations and a corporate/union donation limit of roughly $1000 per seat, and a party such as the NDP should be able to work with that. Financially speaking, they’re hardly “neutered”.

Then Conservative Stephen Taylor takes his speculation onto bizarre territory.

Neutered financially, however not ideologically, the base of the NDP still exists. Yet without means of accomplishing political change, members of that party must now seek an alternative avenue in which to exert its influence. They will (or, as I suggest, they should) buy up Liberal Party membership en masse to have a significant influence in that party.

This suggestion only works if you view the NDP as little more than Liberals in a hurry, and if you ignore those many Canadians who are as uncertain of NDP policy as they are of Reform. This is disingenuous not only to NDP supporters, but also to the vast majority of the members of the Liberal party. One need only look at bloggers such as Greg at Sinister Thoughts to see the antipathy between the NDP and the Liberals. From Stephen’s perspective, it’s clear that he sees Martin and his party as too far to the left for his liking, but I know plenty of Canadians who see Martin as too far to the right. Indeed, 25% of the electorate sits to the left of the Liberal party on most issues — almost as many people as voted for the Conservatives in the last election — if you take the combined votes of the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois into account.

More from Stephen:

Finally, all Canadians would benefit from the debate from unambiguously left and right viewpoints without the sullying byproduct that comes with the political sidestepping of third parties.

And now we come to the part of the post that rubbed me most the wrong way, no offense to Stephen. Although he altruistically suggests that NDP supporters would benefit from a merger by finally pairing them with a party that stands a good chance of governing, he talks in terms of “fiscal conservative voters that currently hold their nose and vote Liberal would be driven towards the CPC”.

“Driven towards.”

Not encouraged to side with, but driven towards.

In these words, Stephen makes one desire plain: he seeks to force the electorate to look at the political spectrum as a simplistic left/right entity and to pick a side. He wishes to force voters to side with the Conservative Party of Canada if they are at all fiscally conservative by eliminating competing choices. Doesn’t this strike you as profoundly undemocratic?

What about the centrist voters who don’t want the country to go wholly socialist or wholly libertarian or wholly socially conservative? What about the majority of voters who want a balance of tax cuts, spending increases and debt reductions? What about those voters who are mad as hell that the gun registry is $2 billion over budget, but who still believe in the merits of having a gun registry in the first place? Perhaps Stephen believes that such voters do not exist, but if so, he’s wrong. I exist. Most people I talk to do not fit comfortably in the small, square pegholes of “left” and “right”.

Then there is the bold assumption that, in his dream of a two-party state, moderate centre-right votes would be pulled to the CPC where they belong, as though the Conservative party is owed those votes. These are not Conservative votes. These are Canadian votes, and voters do not owe their votes to anybody. The Conservatives have to earn them, just like any other party. And seeking to force those votes to go anywhere those voters don’t want to go — seeking to eliminate the centrist option and forcing centrist voters to sit next to the loonie extremes of the NDP and the Conservatives — is the sort of arrogance one typically expects to see from the Liberal Party.

This is a democracy. I, as a voter, do not come to you at your beck and call. If you want my vote, you, as a political party, have to come to me. Or explain yourself rationally and patiently until I am convinced of the soundness of your ideas.

Canada has always worked best with a three or four party system — assuming that all four parties are national in character. The Liberals have governed by placing themselves in the middle of positions such that 25% of voters think they’ve gone too far and 25% of voters think they’ve not gone far enough. That way, in an ideal world, 50% of voters are happy, and the remaining 50% get at least some of what they want. The Conservatives have governed by placing themselves close to the Liberals, doing their best to keep the government honest, ready to take over whenever the Liberals screw up.

Fringe parties such as the NDP and Social Credit (and, later, Reform) have benefitted Canadian politics not by being serious contenders for power, but by feeding radical ideas into the centre, like medicare and the need for deficit reduction. By communicating these ideas effectively, they have led centrists into adopting these ideas for the benefit of all Canadians.

The Bloc screws up this equation, but we’re still seeing this dynamic in the rest of Canada. The Liberals are still in power despite receiving the second-lowest level of popular support ever received by party that formed a government after an election. The centrists are turning away from the Liberals. Prime conditions exist for a change in government— but there is no government-in-waiting to go to. The Progressive Conservatives have been consumed by their Social Credit flank and are unelectable. The Green Party is still years away from being a serious contender. And rightly or wrongly, the NDP is persona non-gratia for 80% of Canadians.

The merger between the PCs and the Alliance may have been the worst thing to happen to the Canadian democracy in some time because this minority stalemate is precisely what it produced. Joe Clark must be kicking himself for leaving his leadership post, for had Clark still been in charge of the center-right PCs back in June, I could see the 70 Liberal seats in Ontario going to him along with many other seats in Western cities, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. Clark could have been prime minister of this minority government, able to count on the support of the Liberals, the Alliance and the Bloc to govern on an issue-by-issue basis.

And I’m sure he’d do a darn sight better job than Martin now is doing.

Earlier, I said that if Stephen Harper came out and said this:

“My party will not, ever, reopen the debate on abortion, capital punishment, gay marriage and the gun registry. We accept the verdict of Canadians as spoken in the 1997, 2000 and 2004 elections. We will take those programs that Canadians hold dear and we will run them more efficiently and openly, so that Liberal waste doesn’t threaten their integrity, so that Canadians get value for their tax dollars, so that those programs still exist, and run better than ever, at the end of a Conservative majority mandate. Those Conservative Party members who disagree with me and who believe that these issues should be the primary focus of the next government are welcome to quit the party and join Christian Heritage.”

He’d gain an additional twenty to forty seats in Ontario as well as seats in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. Let me lay this down further: if Harper actually came out and said this, and enforced the policy within his party rank and file, I would vote Conservative.

I’m not blind. I know the Liberals are overdue for replacement. I know they are tired and arrogant and in desperate need to be slapped down. But I believe, as do most Canadians, that the core of the government we’ve received from 1993 to 2002 was decent and effective. We have a surplus instead of a deficit, now. Unemployment in my area is 4%. Our taxes are coming down. Government spending in key areas is up. I’m not as happy as I could be, but I’m happier than I was in 1993.

There are areas we need to work on, such as increasing spending on defence and municipal infrastructure, and in cleaning up integrity and accountability in this government, but if you tell me that the last ten years was an unmitigated disaster, then I tell you that you don’t want my vote to bring the Liberals down.

I am interested — even eager — to send the Liberals to the opposition benches so they can shake some humility back into their heads, but my primary motivation is to ensure that the advances of the last decade don’t get whizzed away by the incompetence of the current administration.

I want a centrist alternative to the Liberal Party.

If you’re not interested in giving it to me and the centrist majority around me, then you aren’t interested in governing this country.

Worse yet, in the absense of a decent alternative from the Conservatives, the NDP is going to start looking better and better. Layton only needs to talk in terms of maintaining a balanced budget, giving national defence some attention and raising the basic personal tax exemption.

Hey, it happened to Bob Rae.

P.S. It’s a real shame that Belinda Stronach didn’t enter politics earlier. Had she had more experience under her belt, she might have been the Conservatives’ magic bullet. As it stands, I’m looking at her as a serious contender in 2008. Likewise, John Tory would have put the Conservative party in a stronger position and would be prime ministerial material had he had more experience. If the Conservatives decide to dump Harper, the Conservatives have leadership material on their hands — in a few years time. It’s unfortunate that these guys are about a decade behind schedule in building these contenders.

So, I guess the previous decade has been an unmitigated disaster — for Conservatives. But let’s not confuse the Conservative party with all of Canada.

Maybe it’s time to be giving Bernard Lord a call…

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