Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Vote for Layton, A Vote for Canada



I remember standing in the front row of the Coalition demonstration in December of 2008. Jack Layton came over and shook my hand, and I said to him, "I hope you become Prime Minister some day." I registered a look of surprise in his face, as though he hadn't considered it a possibility. Today, it's a possibility.

The Globe and Mail endorsed Conservative leader Stephen Harper in an editorial Friday. They point to his record, his economic stewardship, his preference for free market policies and his tempered non-doctrinaire leadership.

Had the editors of the Globe and Mail been looking more closely (and indeed, one wonders what they have been looking at these past five years under Harper) they would recognize that these are Jack Layton's accomplishments, and to a lesser extent Jean Chretien's accomplishments, and not Stephen Harper's.

The economic stability pundits laud as demonstrative of Canadian strength in difficult economic times was the result of bank regulation and stewardship. Over the objections of the Conservative policy, which would have launched us into an era of bank speculation, the Liberal government of the day rejected proposed Canadian bank mergers and upheld the regulation now lauded as the basis for Canada's ability to withstand the global recession. Unlike, say, Iceland and Ireland, both victims of the sort of 'prudence' the Globe and Mail now praises.

During five years of Harper minority governments, we have seen an unrepentant Stephen Harper champing impatiently at the bit, yearning for the majority support he would been to implement what can only politely be called a thoroughgoing conservative agenda. But, being in a minority, he required opposition support.

When it came to holding the Conservative government in check, preventing the sort of irresponsible management that would have characterized their pre-recession bank policy, it was the New Democrats who faced Harper down and made him put Canada's needs ahead of the Conservative agenda.

Yes, Michael Ignatieff supported the Conservative government on a regular basis, but with the disgraceful result of concession and caving. Through a hundred votes, no Conservative proposal was too disgraceful or too damaging to escape Liberal support. Hence the corporate tax cuts and other tax policies, mistreatment and torture of prisoners, the reversal of the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, the slashing of foreign aid, the abandonment of economic development - all these and more routinely received a Liberal rubber stamp.

Harper's 'prudent' financial management, which the Globe and Mail now praises, and which received Liberal approval step by step, is one in which a surplus of $13 billion per year in 2006-07 was converted into a structural $55.6 billion deficit by 2009-10. What is more remarkable was that for months after the global financial collapse in 2008, Harper denied that there was an economic crisis at all. How quickly people forget that it was Harper's "don't worry - be happy" approach to the economy in 2008 that prompted the forming of the coalition that forced Harper to prorogue parliament and come back with a revised economic statement in 2009.

A stimulus package was approved, appropriately, with the support of the opposition partners. This is one of Layton's achievements; Harper would have simply let the economy collapse, businesses fail, and people be put out of work. The government put together a loan and guarantees package that helped save General Motors with no loss of government money. This is another of Layton's achievements. The Globe and Mail opposed the bailout. Harper would have let the company fail, as with quiescent Liberal support he allowed the star of Canada's technology sector, Northern Telecom, slip into receivership and oblivion.

While Harper was planning to enact massive and strutural corporate tax cuts with Liberal support, the New Democrats were working to help people impacted by the recession. Without Layton's urging, the Conservatives would never have passed the Employment Insurance extensions badly needed by laid off Canadian workers, reducing the number of hours a worker must have to be eligible for benefits, making EI available to the self-employed, increasing the benefits, and getting rid of the two-week waiting period.

What was Harper's economic strategy while receiving Liberal support? With the Liberal government in British Columbia, Harper supported the extension of the hated HST.  The Harper government somehow managed to spend a billion dollars on a two day meeting, an event in which the Conservatives managed to both violate basic human rights and to launch an orgy of spending on a cabinet minister's riding. Harper's government also announced a multi-billion dollar deal to purchase 65 F-35 jets, a deal Harper says will cost $15 billion but will probably be more than twice that.

What the Globe and Mail - and conservatives generally - laud as prudent economic management is nothing more that an ad hoc array of reckless spending sprees and tax cuts, a consistent record of caring nothing and doing less to help Canadians in general economic need, and a denial of the principles of sound economic management generally.

The other traits inexplicably praised by the Globe and Mail are in fact serious character flaws. When the newspaper lauds Harper's "bullheadedness", what we as Canadians are in fact experiencing, as Matthew Hays writes, "but from my daily diet of news across the ideological spectrum, Mr. Harper chooses opacity over transparency, refuses to answer questions forthrightly, if at all, and displays a downright dishonest streak." What else can we say of a national leader that allows he national media - the entire national media - only four questions a day during a federal election campaign? Or who bars people entry to campaign events because of the Facebook page?

In fact, what we see from Harper are the politics of control. All communication from his office is directed solely toward the election of a Conservative majority. Any organization that opposes him in any way is defended and silenced. Thus we see the unceremonious - and high-handed - refusal to renew funding for the respected Kairos organization. The politicization of stimulus and science funding (to the point that health and safety are compromised) and the NRC.

This is not prudent management. If it does not reach the outright levels of corruption alleged to have taken place in the previous Conservative majority government, it is only, it seems, because it is restrained by the opposition, not because of any inherent economic management.

To the NDP, then. A party that historically has an excellent record of fiscal management, bringing stability to a Saskatchewan government brought to the brink of ruin by Grant Devine's Conservatives, Manitoba's NDP government continues its record of pudent management, and Nova Scotia's NDP is the only government in the country to be reporting a surplus. Indeed, the one case of NDP financial mismanagement everybody likes to cite is Bob Rae's failure to deal with the Mulroney made-in-Canada recession in the 1980s. Rae would have made a good Liberal leader. And both Rae and the NDP learned form the experience, as more recent evidence demonstrates clearly.

On health care, the NDP record is unassailable. The party that founded health care in Canada continues to defend the single-payer system as a source of national pride. The Liberals are prepared to sacrifice health care funding for other priorities, as past performance demonstrates, with a record so poor even the Conservatives can attack it. Stephen Harper, meanwhile, would prefer to privatize the system, destroying one of Canada's major economic advantages for the sake of ideology.

Across the board on social issues - on women's rights, on aboriginal issues, on poverty, on education, even on things like copyright and usage-based billing, the NDP stands squarely on the side of the average Canadian. While Harper is weak on environmental issues and notoriously supportive of major polluters, the NDP promotes alternative energy and an end to oil company subsidies. Indeed,under Harper, Canada - which has had a sterling reputation internationally - has become something of a pariah.

It has been a sad, disappointing and careless five years under Harper, a government so marked by partisan politics and mismanagement that the Globe and Mail's lauding of it as "prudent" itself looks suspect. Canada's Liberal party as been ineffective in opposition, more compliant than defiant, hoping, it would appear, to appease those same corporate interests now filling the Conservative Party coffers. the only bright lights of the last five years have been those provided by Jack Layton's New Democrats, a fouth-ranked party whose small caucus punched well above its weight, kept in check the George Bush of Canadian politics, and which now rightfully deserves a chance to lead.

In this election, as in many previous, I am supporting the New Democratic Party, and am urging those who see the same sort of things that I do to see as well the possibilty of a Prime Minister Jack Layton and the election of a new vision for Canada, the sort of Canada we want for ourselves, and for the world.

Monday, April 25, 2011

NDP Rally, Saint John

NDP Rally by Stephen Downes
NDP Rally, a photo by Stephen Downes on Flickr.
Jack Layton speaks to a very crowded NDP rally on the dock in Saint John, New Brunswick. Full set of photos.