November 10, 2010 | 4 Comments
Ever find yourself wondering just what the Canadian left/centre-left needs to do in order to have a real impact once again on Canadian politics? Of course, the Opposition parties (and there may be some debate as to whether each meets the criteria of left/centre-left) continue to play an important role in critiquing the Conservative government. But there remain distinct times where I wonder just what their vision for the country is, apart from: not Stephen Harper’s vision.
So I decided to ask some Canadian bloggers who are smarter than I am for their thoughts. A number of said bloggers have been kind enough to respond and so I’ll post their answers over a series of days/posts. The question I put to them is as follows:
Despite Stephen Harper and the Canadian Conservative Party’s inability to form a majority government, it seems that Canada’s political left remains largely in disarray. Canadian progressives seem almost reflexively to define themselves by their opposition to Harper, which only has limited political capacity. Anti-Harperism might help to better balance the electoral scales, but it seems incapable of tipping those scales.
What then do you think the Canadian left and progressives need to do in order to better capture Canadians’ imagination and offer a viable alternative to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives?
First up is Impolitical.
Toward tipping the electoral scales
“Despite Stephen Harper and the Canadian Conservative Party’s inability to form a majority government, it seems that Canada’s political left remains largely I’m disarray. Canadian progressives seem almost reflexively to define themselves by their opposition to Harper, which only has limited political capacity. Anti-Harperism might help to better balance the electoral scales, but it seems incapable of tipping those scales.
What then do you think the Canadian left and progressives need to do in order to better capture Canadians’ imagination and offer a viable alternative to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives?”
We live in interesting times in Canadian politics. We all know the status quo. We live in an electoral lock box of sorts, to use Al Gore’s famous year 2000 metaphor. We’ve been living in it, this persistent state of minority governments since 2004 with a split among the centre and left and with the Harper Conservatives facing us on the other side. This is not actually so new in Canadian politics, the left and progressives have been divided since the creation of the CCF. But we do seem to be entrenched at the moment. How to galvanize the population is a great and timely question. Not sure I have earth shaking observations here but I will try to help the cause.
First, some context. Separate and apart from any electoral reform or party mergers, which I will not address here (sorry!), splits along the general lines of what we see at present might be in the cards for quite a while. Might be. Those splits don’t preclude our parliamentary system from accommodating the choices voters are making, however, and we have to keep that in mind. A mature democracy has to be vigilant about making the system work and not giving in to the demagoguery we have seen in recent years.
Further, we are not alone in asking ourselves such questions about a divided electorate and what to do about it. We should take heart from that. It’s happening around the world. Look at the recent U.S. election, the Republicans took the House back, taking them to a more deadlocked government. That’s typical for the U.S. Look at the recent U.K. election which resulted in a minority parliament and now a coalition. Polls over the past month or so show the U.K. Tories with a few points lead on Labour with the Lib Dems back in the low teens. Sound familiar? Look at the Australian election where Gillard’s Labour barely eked out a win over the rightist coalition led by Tony Abbott. She’s on a knife’s edge of governing there. It’s all very familiar for we Canadians.
So the question that is posed here, what do progressives and the left, in particular, need to do to capture the Canadian imagination is a problem being faced the world over that applies to any political party seeking to build a working majority on its own. It’s just not happening or, at least, is much more difficult to make happen. One feels small in contemplating this dynamic. So I will just offer the sense of a person who follows the Canadian political grind on a daily basis.
You feel there is something changing. It’s a product of a world where the news cycle is uber-fast. There are endless streams of news for people to digest. I have a hard time keeping up and making sense of it all and I am a keen online person. Twitter is here, Facebook, blogging, even online music services are going social now. I can’t blog when my twitter stream is open, it’s hypnotizing sometimes. It’s more difficult to think clearly. For non-politicos, I’m sure there are many comparable outlets vying for people’s attention in their daily lives. Politics is just one of many options for them. We junkies in the Canadian politicosphere don’t always get that it’s not that way for most others.
Joseph Facal touched on this idea of a new era affecting our politics in a recent speech. He made a point that may have a more general applicability beyond his subject matter, that “modern life anesthetizes audacity and courage.” It’s a toughie for we optimists to swallow and I have been a little haunted by it since I heard it. But when you think about your daily life as a citizen, it has a ring of truth. We’re comfortable in our spaces, work, family, friends, activities. Silos. Big ideas and believing in something bigger than ourselves is harder. Perhaps we’re more cynical the more information we have. Or maybe it’s that we’re more empowered and believe we can dismiss politicians more easily, remove them from our lives. While his point may be debatable, it is worth thinking about in the scattered moment we live in and it may be reflected in all these fractured western democratic political systems.
Having said all that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Canadians don’t care, are not interested, or won’t be when the time comes to make a choice. We do see that polls shift from uncertain landscapes to more firm directions over time. I’ve made this point a few times of late, with the gun registry polling for example. Look at what happened on other recent issues, with the Potash takeover and with majority support for maintaining the census. And Canadians certainly know what they do not like. See Gordon Campbell’s HST adventure. Canadians are capable of rising up and making a view point known, majoritarily, these days. This can happen for political parties and during an election as well.
So where does this take us? Politicians have to recognize all these dynamics (!!) and be more savvy and galvanized about the new era. As our civic representatives, they have to be in tune with such moments and adapt to them.
What can be done more concretely to capture the imagination and offer that viable alternative? I’m not going to rhyme off policies. Parties need to do their own thinking on that and capture the moment with the right ones, the right message (I can just hear the wizened politicos clicking their tongues and saying well, that’s it right there). And I’m not going to talk about money. Money will help, no question. That’s obvious, it’s the mother’s milk of politics. Progressive parties need to raise more money in this country. Godspeed to those in the trenches working on that one. It is key and could really turn things. We need to get on par with the Conservatives, and I’m saying that last point as a Liberal, in particular.
Here are a few suggestions.
Seize the means of communication more effectively. Be better communicators all round. The Conservatives have recognized the new media era perhaps better than other parties to date. Or, it just might be that they’re better funded as a party and are better funded by dipping into government pools they shouldn’t be (see the obscene signage effort with the EAP) and can execute it better. I don’t know for sure, but I would bet you the Conservative MPs all undergo media training and practice. We know they do a Question Period practice. They are message disciplined. Much better than the other parties. Not that I want to have a sea of blue automatons, red automatons, orange automatons, etc. on Parliament Hill. But people do have a better sense of what the Conservatives stand for and political messaging is part of it.
Attract better candidates. Attract the best candidates you can get who recognize the world we are living in and who want to help fix all this. That’s tough. Part of this task involves getting more women involved, a perennial challenge that needs ongoing attention. If the House of Commons had 50% women, what do we think Question Period would look like? The same? Studies are being done that suggest lower risk tolerances among women in decision making. $16 billion in untendered fighter jets? Maybe not if women are sitting around that table to a much larger extent.
Devote more time to developing a profile of the candidates you want and be prepared to invest the time to find them. They are not an afterthought, be pro-active. What competencies do you want your team to possess? What is your team lacking? What backgrounds do we need given the challenges we face? Flowing from this, don’t just take the ones whose turn it is. Don’t go with the Bob-Dole-in-’96 type. That’s too common in Canadian politics and needs to change. Don’t just slot in easy star names for the sake of their being stars. Make likability a key factor.
Change your posture. Love what you are doing, as politicians, and show people that you love that you are doing it. Sounds hokey, I know. But I believe in it. Many progressive politicians can seem serious, complex, boring, brooding at times, afraid even, on the defensive. In Canada right now, that’s not so surprising given the Conservative government and its success in shaping the message. They are unlike any other government we have ever seen on that score. There are any number of media outlets who will accept Conservative spin and work with it, some knowingly, some subconsciously, others unwittingly given time and financial constraints that they operate under. It puts non-Conservatives naturally on the defensive.
A remedy may be a change in posture. Be bold, be aggressive, be positive. We have to try harder. We have to be better on TV. We have to have that new breed, the multi-media savvy candidates and politicians on our side. We can win, most Canadians are with the progressive team, from far left to centre and even into the centre right. We are the majority, act like we are winners. We have to be seen as wanting to win and knowing that we can win.
Make it easier to vote. Fish in a bigger pool for voters. Expand the pool through technology. Until we can harness the technology, get creative about expanding your voter base. If we have larger numbers than the Conservatives, make it easier for people to vote. They suppress, we should unleash.
Tune out the commentariat more. I would put commentators, op-ed writers, news aggregators and pollsters in this group. Don’t tune them out entirely. But much more. They are peripheral actors, not drivers in Canadian politics and they seem to influence the agenda a little too much of late. But that shouldn’t be their effect. They comment on what others are doing and while that has value and does contribute to our democracy and the growth of ideas, it should be kept in better perspective. Don’t let them suppress the space within which politicians can make choices. Politicians need to lead, push boundaries. Bring Canadians along. Push restart on the balance here.
Be the voice that embraces the future. Conservatives are by nature minimalists in government, defaulting to tradition. Look at these Conservatives we have. Do we look at them and see the future of the nation? No. It’s caretaking, playing it safe. They make easy choices, they cut back, cherry picking votes here and there among groups. Where is the rousing and forward looking vision? What is the hopeful Canada of the future that we envision instead? That is what politics is all about. Yes, it is harder to do these days, but please try us.