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Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

You Can’t Get There from Here

Why Liberal-NDP marriage plans lead straight into a minefield

Robin V. Sears

Power Trap: How Fear and Loathing Between New Democrats and Liberals Keep Stephen Harper in Power—and What Can Be Done About It

Paul Adams

290 pages, softcover

James Lorimer

ISBN: 9781459402706

By this fall, Liberal and New Democrat riding activists were beginning to feel like aging singles, sullen at the endless prodding by boozy aunts at family dinners and cottage barbeques: “When? When are you lot going to finally grow up and get married, ferchrissake! You’re being bloody selfish, you know. Your sulky dithering is abandoning Canada to Harper forever!”

Paul Adams is merely the latest aunt to wag his finger at recalcitrant Canadian progressives. Like the determined yenta in a 19th-century Polish shtetl or the grim nakoudo in a small Japanese town, he pounds the appeal, the inevitability and the desperate need for a marriage between the anti-Harper tribes. Wisely, he does not so clearly tout the prospect of marital bliss, for what the Manitoba activist-turned-journalist fails to understand is that such an arranged union would fly apart at the first tough political choice.

A better approach to the creation of a common progressive front in Canada than brokering a marriage is building a post-conflict peace. No one hates Canadian Liberals more than the competitors to their left, after all. Most Canadian Liberals have understood that they are bleeding to the left, not to the Conservatives. And as they make vehemently clear in every campaign, they resent it mightily.

Unlike a seasoned nakoudo, however, Auntie Adams knows little about the vanities, the hurts and the clan hierarchies of the reluctant bride and groom. Like his fellow matchmakers on op-ed pages and in academe, he knows the names and the political dowries of the two families, but he understands little of the feuds, the careers blunted by internecine treachery, the unresolved slights and the festering hatreds that confound the prospective couple. Bob Rae’s decision not to seek the Liberal leadership was grounded in this painful reality. Thomas Mulcair, as another floor-crosser, will long be challenged in winning the loyalty of hyper-partisan New Democrats.

These matchmaking appeals remind me of my socialist grandmother, Dorothy—the lifelong political partner and beloved mate of a CCF founder, Colin Cameron. She was also a Blackadder and Hume, both haughty Scottish clans. She was infused from childhood with the mythologies and hatreds that Celts breed with great fervour.

She would never eat Campbell’s soup or shop at any establishment linked to a Campbell, let alone vote for one. For a feminist woman devoted to social and political justice, this puzzled newcomers. When challenged, she would snap icily, “Ya canna never trust a Campbell,” and refuse to be further drawn.

In Glencoe, 220 years ago (!), the Campbells betrayed their neighbours and allies to the English, who then murdered many of them in their beds. New Democrats and Liberals are more like Camerons and Campbells nursing ancient hurts than they are political wedding prospects. Dorothy felt about Liberals as she did about Campbells.

Adams approaches the challenge of breaking the deadly embrace in which Canadian social democrats and liberals have been trapped with the innocence of a Trudeau Liberal, hailing “reason over passion,” seeking rational behaviour from players whose motivational drivers never will be. He quotes with astonishment one unnamed Queen’s Park Liberal who, with curled lip, says of Sid Ryan, the working class Ulster immigrant turned Ontario labour leader, “We don’t like people like that.” Class-conscious Grits mirror Maggie Thatcher’s putdown of Tory wets and pretenders from the lower orders: “Not really PLU [people like us], you know…”

But these partisan relations are never simple: Adams would probably find it head scratching that few in the New Democrat elite can stand the logorrheic Ryan either.

It is a cliché among anthropologists that culture trumps history, history trumps ideology and ideology is usually no more meaningful than skirt length as a predictor of alliances or behaviour. It is a truth that political scientists and journalists often ignore in matters of tribe.

Philosophical bench mates always fight their neighbours more viciously than they do distant enemies, those with whom they share borders rather than those living across real or philosophic oceans.

Secret deals between enemies are a part of every democracy’s political history. They are rarely visible, almost never acknowledged. Mackenzie King’s Liberals plotted with the Communist Party in the 1930s and ’40s to try to crush the CCF in Hamilton, Montreal, Vancouver and places in between. Tommy Douglas used Social Credit to drive a wedge into the Liberals. Adams is incredulous about this trading with the enemy.

When one looks at the story arc of progressive political marriages of convenience, the denouement is sadly predictable: one party gets kicked out of bed at the earliest possible moment or is ground into insignificance by its more successful partner. French liberals were smothered in a series of socialist/communist Fourth Republic governments, then Mitterrand first seduced and then destroyed French communism, as did socialist Bettino Craxi to his Italian Euro-communist allies.

Adams seems to understand this, predicting that Layton would have knifed his Liberal coalition partners at the first opportunity, if he had not been knifed by the incompetent Ignatieff clique first. He fails to analyze why this is almost inevitable in the partnership he promotes.

The Liberal Party of Canada—an alliance of factions built on brokerage politics and the compromises of power—necessarily regards any promise as conditional and time limited. Federal New Democrats, a traditionally weak opposition party held together often by the glue of loyalty and the politics of conviction only, understandably see policy and partnership commitments as permanent and unconditional. Nowhere were these opposing tribal cultures more painfully in conflict than in the post-coalition days in January of 2009.

Michael Ignatieff, having signed the pledge to support a coalition in December 2008, publicly and dismissively abrogated it as soon as he became leader a few weeks later. In December, he was a leadership candidate trying to conceal his efforts to unseat Stéphane Dion—his signature was important camouflage. In January, he was a new leader seeking to unseat the prime minister. As Lyndon Johnson would frequently chuckle, “Where you stand, son, depends on where you sit.”

To New Democrats this was simply classic Liberal treachery, one more proof that they could never be trusted. It remains an open wound for those New Democrats who invested much in the promise of that ill-fated coalition.

As any amateur political historian can report, divorce and defeat usually follow opportunistic marriages between progressives. In only the past two decades, French socialists and liberals have split into three bitter factions. The monoliths of social democracy, the Swedish SAP and the German SPD, have each endured bitter splits. British Liberals united, split and reunited within one decade.

Adams might better have drawn on his experience of the “narcissism of small differences” that bedevils the history of Palestinians and Israelis. As one of Canada’s more thoughtful observers of that poisonous relationship, Adams wrote powerfully about the almost suicidal impulse of each side’s behaviour. Like the furious young Palestinian activists of today—and their cultural cousins on the Israeli right—many Canadian Liberals and New Democrats are more interested in nursing their mutual hurts and picking at ancient scabs than finding a path to victory over a still ascendant new Canadian conservatism.

The cruel arithmetic of a first-past-the-post system is that if three parties are contending for two thirds of the electoral pie, they will still always lose to the one who safely protects the remaining third. For decades, the Liberals held Quebec as its one-third protection. Now, Greens, Liberals and New Democrats cannot hope to challenge the Tories’ hold on most of Canada west of Kenora by continuing to focus on scratching each other’s eyes out. Adams and his fellow yentas are not wrong in their ambition, merely in their approach.

Battle-scarred peace negotiators know that theirs is a game of inches. It can only begin when each side is finally persuaded of the futility of more bloodshed. Small confidence-building measures slowly accumulate into an edifice of trust and shared commitment. Elders from each tribe are the usual early intermediaries and they must be confident they can operate in total secrecy. First comes ceasefire, then prisoner exchange, then temporary lines of truce, then neutral observers quietly nudging each side’s miscreants back into line. Political peacemaking is no different.

Brian Mulroney and Bill Davis, among several other Conservative elders, played this role brilliantly in the much simpler task of repairing the divisions on the Canadian right. It seems inevitable that such a carefully orchestrated set of steps will be required for the Liberals and New Democrats to reluctantly drop the knives held to each other’s throats.

Adams sets up his call for progressive unity with an often wooden recitation of most of the headline political events of the past four decades. He carefully indexes and dissects the battle over constitutions, language, energy, tax policy, free trade and deficits. Like many political journalists, though, he has a breezily casual understanding of economic fundamentals. He flails both Liberals and New Democrats for not being tougher in defending deficit spending—while claiming to support Tommy Douglas’s dread of becoming an indebted prisoner of capital markets. He attacks free trade agreements with the zeal of a 1988 Liberal—ignoring their universality and success today.

More soundly, he whacks all Canadian progressives for their failure to be more courageous in defending a progressive tax-based democracy. A veteran of the political trenches is left to wonder, however, how real is Adams’s understanding of the magnitude and risk of undertaking such a strategy.

Adams is very good on the excesses and irresponsibilities of the neocon right and their humiliation in the crash of 2008. His recounting of the fall of Alan Greenspan is powerful indeed. And he is surely correct that now is the moment for progressives in all the democracies to frame a new policy agenda, an opportunity they blew following the collapse of communism.

So how might such a process—one more realistic than a series of pre-nuptial negotiations—unfold between committed progressives?

It was, as Adams reported from Jerusalem, brave and independent iconoclasts who kept the lines of communication open between Israeli and Palestinian progressives during the awful days of the Second Intifada. Courageous men and women sharing notes, furtive meals and third-country encounters who, risking censure and even death, ensured that the shutters between the two sides did not slam entirely shut.

The same process is slowly unfolding in Canada. Aging Liberals and New Democrats do not risk lives or jail time, merely some social ostracism in sharing a quiet dinner. Angry partisans on all sides will continue to attack sleeping with the enemy.

It is riding activists, not leaders, usually in obscure towns and communities, from the green, social democratic and liberal clans, who are leading the efforts at inter-tribal talks. More senior political hacks, who learned respect for their peers across the divide, are holding more tentative process-oriented conversations.

A progressive platform for Canada’s first centre-left governments should be the early focus of those keen on dumping Harper. An academically and politically credible platform, with an appeal to “Vote for candidates who pledge their support to these priorities!” would infuriate the party elites, but might prod them into discussion of joint action.

Some Liberal and New Democratic party ridings might attempt a kamikaze introduction of the Cullen plan—the joint nomination of a single progressive candidate in a riding—without permission from their party bosses. That would produce mayhem, but it would certainly be interesting to watch. The process and legal obstacles to such an approach are formidable, but as a vehicle for discussion it is compelling. After all, who should know better than friends and neighbours who best represents their political values in Ottawa than local activists?

It is no accident that it was Nathan Cullen, not Paul Dewar, who led the “Imagine” parade during the recent NDP leadership campaign. In Prince George, he could survive refusing to endorse local New Democrat candidates in favour of a more ecumenical approach to political organization. In Ottawa Centre, it would be a race between Liberal and New Democrat partisans to see who got the first knives in at anyone trying on a similar apostasy.

Adams has also done a service to Canadians who have not yet understood the implacability of the Conservative agenda, its quite remarkable success by stealth in less than six years, and its inevitable future success—unless there are deep structural changes in the Canadian partisan landscape. Deferential, tolerant, get-along English Canadians seem to harbour the hope that Harper can be house-trained over time. Adams makes painfully clear the irresponsibility of that delusion.

It is not clear, however, that Harper conservativism contains, as Canadian Liberals continue to insist, the same dark seeds of racism, sexism and gun-fetishist nativism as the wilder shores of the American Tea Party. The prime minister does hold an American “states-rights” view of the Canadian federation. The fragility of Canadian unity is such that his approach to the role of federal power risks being outmanoeuvred by a new generation of Quebec sovereigntists. His determination to cede rather than husband federal power is already making Ottawa veterans of the past generation’s constitutional wars twitch.

Adams believes such pre-power Harper convictions are bedrock and immutable. Harper’s behaviour in power on Quebec and other controversial files makes that less clear.

He excoriates at length not only Harper but Liberals and New Democrats alike for their queasiness at taking tougher environmental stands, and is especially angry about the waffling of his friends on the centre-left. Each page of attack glows with Adams’s innocence of the real limitations on the use of power. Two Australian governments have been defeated for fumbling green policy, not merely dangerous amateurs like Stéphane Dion.

More than one third of Canada’s gross domestic product is based on the business of digging rocks and cutting logs, the sector most directly burdened with the obligation to reduce carbon emissions. Imposing heavy new costs on that sector—without matching efforts by global competitors—would have immediate and serious economic, and therefore political, consequences.

Adams concludes his long cri de coeur to his friends among green, social democratic, liberal and independent progressive circles with a plea to use their money, their mouths and their political muscle to push progressive unity. The final two chapters detail at length the urgency of, the mechanisms for and the payoff of a successful project of political unity among progressives.

Few progressives would deny the power of the dream. Many will sneer that it is merely a dream.

But horrified by the long-term damage to the achievements of generations of progressive politicians and by entrenched Conservative power, perhaps some more sympathetic veterans of the progressive civil wars—shaking their heads wearily, rueful at the scale of the obstacles ahead and keenly aware of the political baggage in their path—will, nonetheless, agree that the time has come.

Adams’s plea is to move quickly. That will not happen, but we may be witnessing the first tentative signs of a long, complex journey toward unity on the centre left, one that would change Canadian politics more dramatically than has Mr. Harper.

Robin V. Sears was national director of the NDP for seven years and managed three national campaigns. He is a principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a fellow of the Broadbent Institute.

Related Letters and Responses

Paul Adams Ottawa, Ontario

Matthew Kleban New York City, New York

David Orrell