The 2008 Canadian election has some of the features of the past few elections. The majority of the population faces the quandary of how to defeat a reactionary party that just might have the largest plurality of support. Will they get a majority or just a minority? The second place party has slight differences with the ruling party but has a record of lies, destructive neoliberal economics, and destructive foreign policy. Should they be taught a lesson or have they learned it? Can they be punished without the electorate punishing itself? The electoral system is increasingly out of step with the diversity of popular opinion. And some very important questions about immigrant rights, indigenous rights, indigenous territory, corporations, and the country’s relationship to the rest of the world, are off the table. But for all that, it is still an interesting situation. In last week’s leaders’ debates, three of the five parties, who got equal time, had left-of-center views. Of course, in North America the center moves steadily to the right and is defined by it, but the debate was still refreshing. Environmentalism is popular, and the presence of the Green Party forces the NDP to run more openly to the left, since the centrist environmentalist niche is already filled by the Greens. Fighting with the Greens for this niche has also had a civilizing influence on the Liberals, who are talking about climate change seriously.
There are still too many taboo topics. Taxation, for example, was denounced by all parties in the debate, who fall over themselves and each other to insist their plans won’t increase anyone’s taxes. This is public miseducation. Like budget deficits, taxes have their role, and for politicians to eschew them is to tie the society’s hands before situations that require flexible economic responses. Making people pay more to ride public transit, or adding user fees for health care services or pharmaceuticals, or cutting funding for the arts, causes suffering just as surely as raising taxes does – it just causes suffering for different people. Letting the transportation, energy, and water infrastructure rot doesn’t make a budget deficit, but it does make an infrastructure deficit, and society ultimately will pay for either kind. This is especially true in a time when the Harper/Bush/McCain people’s economic policies have proven so spectacularly and widely disastrous and ideas of public economic management need to be quickly and sensibly resurrected and implemented.
But these simple points cannot be made in any political campaign because for a party to say they would use deficit spending or increase taxes (as opposed to “shifting” taxes) would be harmful to them politically. But allowing the society’s economic discourse to be dominated by ideological distortion also does political harm, especially to progressive forces (and parties that would use those forces to come to power).
Another example is ‘terrorism’. You would never know from politicians or the media that everything that is a crime under new ‘anti-terror’ legislation (killing people with bombs or guns, kidnapping people, destroying infrastructure) was a crime before the ‘anti-terror’ legislation. The legislation is a political tool for increasing state and police powers, and is being used in ugly ways against a group of young people in Toronto as these elections are unfolding. In his recent sentence against one of the Toronto 18, the judge argued that it did not matter that the 20-year old had committed no crime, and it didn’t matter that he may not have known. The NYT correspondent (and yes, for sensible coverage of this Canadian topic the NYT was better than the mainstream Canadian press) Ian Austen described the trial this way:
"Evidence presented in court made it clear that, at best, the man was a minor character in the group… There was no evidence offered directly linking the defendant to the bomb plot or plans to storm Parliament. Instead, most of the case focused on his attendance at two camps that the police described as terrorist training sessions but that prosecution witnesses characterized as recreational or religious retreats. Both were videotaped by a paid police informant who was part of the group and who testified that he choreographed some of the scenes." (NYT Sept 25/08)
The informant, in question, said this about the young man found guilty: ‘“I don’t believe he was a terrorist,”… Mr. Shaikh said he did not believe that the defendant was aware of the group’s violent plans.’ (NYT Sept 26/08)
As for Judge Sproat, who rendered the verdict, he argued that “planning and working toward ultimate goals that appear unattainable or even unrealistic does not militate against a finding that this was a terrorist group… engaging in activities such as paint-balling, physical exercise and rafting is by no means inconsistent with the existence of a terrorist group” (NYT Sept 26/08)
Sproat’s verdict fits with well the Rumsfeld doctrine on the same topic: “The absence of evidence does not indicate the evidence of absence.” And it has the same shocking implications for Canada’s legal system. Or would, if anyone were paying the slightest attention. But here, too, it seems politicians have nothing to gain by suggesting that we ought not allow the state to use entrapped suburban youths to terrify us into surrendering rights to due process.
Other non-debated examples that politicians stay away from? The continuing occupation of recently hurricane-devastated Haiti, Canadian support for all of Israel’s moves against Palestinians, the neoliberal “Free Trade Agreements” with the US and other Latin American countries like Colombia, the use of force and prison terms against indigenous communities defending land and life, and so on.
And yet there is the occasional glimmer of a genuine discussion. When an Afghan-Canadian argued that Canada should remain with NATO in occupying that country, Jack Layton argued that Canada should not have been there in the first place and should withdraw as soon as possible. When Harper tried to offer the usual deceptions about reducing ‘emissions intensity’ as opposed to carbon emissions, Giles Duceppe used his time to explain exactly why this was a deception: the example he gave was – you would reduce emissions by 10% per barrel, but then you would produce 5,000 barrels instead of 1,000. These are glimpses of what one could actually hope for from a political debate: people not letting sham arguments pass unexposed.
The most intriguing possibility has more to do with the voting pattern than with the outcome. As much as I like what they are doing at voteforenvironment.ca in spite of critiques like this one, I don’t like the final outcome sought by voteforenvironment.ca (75 Con, 123 Lib, 52 NDP, 1 Green, 55 Bloc, 2 IND). I would prefer it to be even closer between the Liberals and the Conservatives. The latest national poll has Con 33%, Lib 26%, NDP 19%, Green 12%, and Bloc 10%.
It is certainly true that it is worth putting thought and effort into averting a conservative majority. But a split of 35-25-20-20 in Anglo-Canada and the Bloc taking most of Quebec, for example, that resulted in a Conservative minority (or even a majority) would create strong pressure for change in the electoral system: after such an outcome the Liberals would have much more to gain from insisting on such a change than trying to keep a two-party system and hope they can win in it. Proportional representation would create other possibilities for progressive forces during elections, and reasons for politicians to have to pay attention.
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer.