Sunday, May 1, 2011

Some Final Words on Election 41

So I'm working on an assumption. Odd for an election where polls have been so crucial, in this last stretch, the polls aren't able to give us the first clue what'll happen tomorrow.

So I have an assumption. It's by now a pretty conservative one, and I'm not going to pretend to be a prognosticator. But my assumption is that no part will get 155 seats, but that the Conservatives will get the most seats, followed by the NDP. I have no clue whatsoever what will happen after that, and at the moment am not even interested in addressing it.

Be that as it may, coming in second and preventing a Harper majority - if they can pull it off - is an astounding success by any measure for the NDP. Sure, it's not as big a success as being able to form a government, but it makes the NDP the winner tomorrow. By almost any standard of 'winning' you can define.

And it makes it hard as hell to keep an objective poker face. I've supported the NDP since I was a little child. My commitment to the NDP is actually a formative influence on my personality - so I can be, to a small extent, defined by my allegiance to this party, to this party that I sincerely believe has acted in the best interests of Canadians for fifty years now and has routinely been shoved into the corner.

I must confess, even this late in this remarkable campaign, to having a recurring anxiety that it will all have been a dream, that when they calculate the polls tomorrow we'll see the NDP at 15% and the vast majority of votes piling up in front of those red and blue doors. It's tough to have been an NDP supporter since the halcyon days of Ed Broadbent and not have developed that particular neurosis.

But it seems unlikely, really. Even if it's still Harper on top, we're entering a distinctly new era in Canadian political history. And I am excited, elated, honoured and proud as hell to be living through it.

It's not just partisan rah-rah. It's not just the home team's unprecedented successes. There are several reasons why this election is game-changing. Let's look at them.

1. HAVING QUÉBEC BACK AT THE DINNER TABLE: One of the things that satisfies me most about this particular election is the sense that Québec and the RoC are strolling off into these uncharted waters, hand-in-hand. It is, of course, Québec who are entirely to thank for this new redefined electoral landscape, and while obviously the partisan in me loves Québec for making such a decisive (apparent) commitment to the part I've supported my whole life, it's not just that. It's not Schadenfreude at the collapse of a seperatist party, either. But Québec seems part of the national debate in a way it hasn't for a full generation now. What Québec says and wants matters in a way that their steadfast BQ support has, since 1993, precluded them form being able to do. We are all on the same page, and that's exciting as hell. I can't count how many times this election I've had to use Google Translate because I've wanted to know what La Presse and Le Devoir have to say. That hasn't really been true in elections past.

I have recently read a wonderful analysis, one that discusses how the BQ has in its own way contributed to the rise of Stephen Harper and the rightward shift of Canadian politics by taking the significant portion of Canadian progressives who live in Québec out of the main Canadian body politic. In their absence (in that the BQ were easy to ignore or dismiss), the progressive voice in Canada was diminished, to the benefit of the Conservatives. Does this election reverse that trend?

2. REWRITING THE NARRATIVE: Stephen Harper is very fond of saying, 'Canadians want...' and 'Canadians don't want...' It's frustrated those of us who, down the years, have repeatedly come to the conclusion that Stephen Harper is completely out of touch with Canadians and what they want. This election was supposed to be 'about nothing'. That was the Conservative line, that it would change nothing and wasn't necessary. The Conservatives were smiling at the concept of 'voter fatigue'; they wanted this election to be as boring as possible. The Liberals, for their part, wanted to paint this election as one about momentious change, but it's been clear that the Liberals have not represented that 'change' for the majority of Canadians. The first step forward for this historical party, I think, will be a contrite discussion about exactly why that is. In the meantime, the people themselves have seized control of this campaign and forced the issue of what it's all about. And it really is about disgust with the current system and a desire to scrunch it up and start again. Thank God this really is a democracy after all.

3. ATTACKING THE ATTACK ADS: An interesting feature of this election is not merely the ugly depths to which negative campaigning has sunk but perhaps moreso the unexpected contrary result they may have helped create: oddly enough, the surge that the NDP are currently experiencing might well consist of people whose opinions of Michael Ignatieff and of Stephen Harper have in no small part been influenced by each other's attack ads. This election was predicated on false dichotomies, from Harper's fallacious 'us vs. the coalition' to Ignatieff's insulting 'red door and blue door'. So comfortable were each in their strategies that they presumed a little mud-slinging would do nothing other than convince voters to switch from Brand X to Brand Y. Conservatives painted Ignatieff as an élitist foreign opportunist thinking - perhaps wrongly - that that would send Liberals across the pond to the Conservatives. And Liberals tried to paint Harper as a tyrannical threat to Canadian democracy and decency figuring that it would get people into the 'big red tent'.

This strategy has worked very well in the bipartisan USA, but up here, I think we've learned that it doesn't work at all. After all, the only way attack ads can work in a legitimately tripartisan system is to attack both your opponents simultaneously - something that a future Liberal party will have a much harder time doing than either the Tories or the NDP will, 'two sides of the same coin' fallacies notwithstanding. It makes much more sense to distinguish yourself from the opposition by emphasising your positive traits than to sling mud on a crowded battlefield - especially since another lesson of Election 41 is that a positive demeanour - a smile and a relaxed confidence - works wonders on the public, especially when the contrast is with combative scowls.

4. THE PAIN-IN-THE-MASS MEDIA: While I remain stunned that the Toronto Star has officially endorsed the NDP, the fact remains that they'll be alone, so far as I can see - in fact, they'll be alone in resisting the Conservatives, excepting Le Devoir obviously endorsing the Bloc and a few parties explicitly sitting on the fence. The litany of papers trudging out insincere whitewashed messages of support for Harper is sad in light of Harper's shocking disdain for the media. He's locked them behind steel barriers, had his partisans drown out their questions, fed them false stories, and refused to take questions from them... and they respond by calling for him to be given a strengthened mandate.

But ultimately this spectacle is likely to matter little: newspapers have decided to make Layton a bogeyman at this late date, but it means nothing: as opinion-makers, the mainstream media has never been less influential.

5. ANYTHING-BUT-STRATEGIC: Danny Williams is to thank for the cool acronym 'ABC' - 'Anything But Conservatives' - which suggests that any MP from any party other than the Conservatives is preferable to a Conservative MP. We've been stuck with this mentality for a good few years now, and it's gained legs. At the outset of this campaign, it was something I heard plenty of: that New Democrats should hold their noses and vote Liberal in certain ridings, and vice versa. And Greens should hold their noses nationwide. The children of Pierre Trudeau should vote for the children of René Lévesque if the numbers - meaning of course a rough calculation based on the previous election results and provincial uniform swing - warrant it. Nothing else in politics, from the detailed gradations of the political spectrum to the unpredictable aspects of the local contest, mattered except 'get out the Conservatives at all costs'.

This tasteless approach to politics, rather disturbingly dressed up as 'democratic', has been a complete failure, even as its proponents ramp up their rhetoric during the home stretch. The simple fact is that strategic voting really encourages the status quo, refuses to allow us to dream or hope for something better. It suppresses any urge to change the system.

Put it this way: at the outset of the election, scant weeks ago, strategic voting resources would have recommended an NDP vote solely in Gatineau in the whole province of Québec. This so-called 'orange tide' everyone is talking about would not have happened. Strategic voting, had it been successful, would have gone out of its way to quell the NDP surge in Québec, calling it nothing other than unhealthy vote-splitting. A strategic voting proponent would like nothing more than to polarise the whole country into 308 two-way races, pitting the Conservatives against someone else, someone representing the 'anti-Harper' vote that is nowhere near as homogeneous as some, on both sides of the divide, would like us to think.

6. NO MORE MR NICE GUY: And speaking of that... there's something else out there now - an anti-Layton vote. If you haven't heard much of it yet, you will. There is every chance that after tomorrow three of our five parties will see their overall vote cut in half from 2008 - largely thanks to the NDP. All three have a real need for humble contrition and for a rethink. All three need to reconsider what their raison d'être really is - watching the car I support overtake the others doesn't change my perspective: we need a Liberal Party, a Green Party and a Bloc Québécois; we're richer for them, and I have no desire to see them cast away by the wayside. But they need to ask serious questions. They need to admit defeat, learn from their mistakes, and grow again.

And I don't think they will, any of them. Not yet. Their first instincts on May 3 will be to strike out at Jack Layton and the NDP, instead of offering congratulations (May's Greens might perhaps be an exception here). They'll seek the enemy without instead of the enemy within, and I don't think that'll necessarily be Harper anymore. After all, there is a devil-you-know factor at play here.

The amazing coalition of Greens, Liberals, Bloquistes and even some Conservatives currently joining long-term New Democrats like myself bring a new dynamic to the party that hopefully Layton and his caucus will recognise. Truth be told, if a scenario comes to pass that allows Layton to assume the mantle of Prime Minister, he's going to need to take a journey to the middle of the road in a way Americans might currently recognise. Jack Layton might have a slightly better mandate than Stephen Harper (based on his momentum and on the large number of voters still listing the NDP as their second choice), but a PM Layton would still have far from a consensus. And the Liberals, the Bloc and the Greens will do everything in their power to regain their parties' support - by bringing them back from the NDP. Layton now has four enemies, and that's a huge difference. He might find himself even hoping for a Stornoway doorkey instead of a Sussex one, just to let that heat simmer a little bit.

If he can withstand it, though - if he can look like the natural opposition or alternately step on the world stage as a natural leader - the demise of those three parties might start looking like a permanent thing. That's a topic for another day, though.

7. THE HARPER PROBLEM: We still have a Stephen Harper problem. On Tuesday, he'll still be here, with that weird smile of his. He will have been elected by some one-third of Canadians - people who, for reasons I can never fathom, trust him and like him. Their voices do matter and ought not to be dismissed the way the anti-Harper majority's voice has been on so many occassions. There are hints this weekend that Harper might actually attempt to incite a constitutional crisis if he's unable to get his way. This man will no leave without a fight. And as far as ugliness goes, we may in the near future come to look back nostalgically on the election campaign itself for the decorum and manners we witnessed during it.

Strange times ahead. But in 1988 there was a thirteen-year-old geek of a kid sitting in his house in Oshawa watching his hometown giant-slayer breathe fire during the leaders' debate and thinking, 'this is what public service means'. A kid who learned that politics can inspire us to dream, to hope for something bigger and better than what we have, to refuse to accept mundane limits on our potential.

A kid who hasn't really gone anywhere in 23 years, even as idealism has come to seem like the silliest of platitudes. A kid just as edge-of-his-seat excited in 2011 as he was in 1988, when it all kind of went wrong in the end.

It's for that thirteen-year-old I used to be that I'll be casting my vote for the New Democrats tomorrow, same as I always have. Same as I always will.

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