March 14, 2010
2 must-read pieces about Jack Layton, the NDP and the dysfunctional political system in Canada, From The Walrus, May 2006, by James Laxer,26 jan 2010
[Merci a Line Merrette]
From The Walrus, May 2006, by James Laxer*.
*[James Laxer was one of the founders of the radical Waffle movement in the NDP in 1969. In 1971, he ran for the leadership of the NDP, placing second to David Lewis in a field of five candidates. In 1982 and 1983, he served as federal NDP caucus research director. Laxer is the author of In Search of a New Left: Canadian Politics After the Neoconservative Assault (Viking, 1996).]
On election night, January 23, 2006, New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton stood before a buoyant victory party crowd in downtown Toronto and announced that Canadians had voted for change and that more New Democrats in Parliament would mean better lives for working families and seniors. For Layton, winning twenty-nine seats and 17.5 percent of the popular vote represented an electoral triumph vindicating the NDP’s campaign strategy: an attack focused almost exclusively on the scandal-plagued Liberal government. With 460,000 new voters, ten more Members of Parliament than in 2004, better regional representation, and, judging by the jubilant crowd, more momentum, Layton had every reason to be pleased. There hadn’t been this much palpable optimism since the heady days of Ed Broadbent’s leadership.
But it was what Layton did not say that evening that was more interesting. He did not mention that the most ideologically right-wing prime minister in Canadian history was about to be sworn into office, and he did not mention that while the NDP’s 2006 election result was impressive, the party no longer held the same sway in Parliament.
Layton’s speech capped a campaign in which he had studiously avoided warning Canadians about any potential threat from Harper and the Conservatives. This odd fact was driven home to me a few days before election day when a newspaper reporter phoned to do an interview. Clearly frustrated, he told me he had been on the NDP campaign plane for three weeks and that despite repeated efforts, he couldn’t get Layton to say anything of significance about Harper, except a one-off shot at his proclivity for decentralization. The NDP leader was quick to attack Paul Martin and the Liberals, but all he would say about the front-running Conservatives was that they were “wrong on the issues.” Shortly after the election, arguing that Canadians wanted Parliament to function and for the sniping to end, Layton said that he could and would work with Harper. But based on ominous early warning signs from the Conservatives, he must now be wondering if Harper will work with him. (N.B. This was written in May 2006.)
I also find interesting what Ms. Elizabeth May says about Jack Layton in her book Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy , and I also notice she makes the same point as Mr. James Laxer in the article I mention above.
It was in early May 2006 that I first watched An Inconvenient Truth, the now famous Oscar-winning documentary about the climate crisis. The Sierra Club of Canada had organized an advance screening in Toronto to which media, politicians and various opinion leaders had been invited. Al Gore was there to make his pitch for a word-of-mouth movement to increase attention for the documentary.
I was on my way out of my role as executive director of Sierra Club of Canada. After seventeen years, I had given notice a few months earlier, and although most of my staff did not know it, I had decided to toss my hat in the ring for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada. So, while I served as MC as Al Gore fielded questions, I was on the verge of moving in the opposite direction. He had left politics and embraced a life as an environmental advocate, and I was preparing to do the reverse.
A question was posed to Gore at that session and his answer stayed with me and has shaped my thinking over the last few years. In talking about the climate crisis, Gore said that it was one aspect of the crisis in Western democracies. He mentioned that the democracy crisis in Canada did not seem as extreme as in the U.S. (a point that needed no explanation given the theft of the U.S. election in 2000), but that every modern democracy was in crisis. And he believed that without fully functioning democracies, we could not escape the worst outcomes of global warming.
I had come to the same conclusion. We had just emerged from a federal election in which the old-line party I had once thought cared most about the climate crisis, the NDP, took pains to avoid climate change as an issue. Just two years before, the NDP had highlighted the threat. NDP television ads in the 2004 campaign showcased Jack Layton calling for real action on the environment as he posed next to a gentle stream. Then NDP strategists watched as Paul Martin blitzed from coast to coast calling for NDP voters to vote Liberal to stop Harper, describing the two parties as coming from « the same wellspring. » It worked and Martin squeaked back in with a minority government. By fall of 2005, Jack Layton had decided he was not content with forcing changes to the minority government’s budget. In a meeting with other opposition leaders, he struck a deal to bring down the Paul Martin government on November 28, 2005, unless Martin agreed to trigger an election and end his government early in the new year.
It was an audacious threat of questionable constitutionality. What the news media missed, as they focused on whether Canadians would stand for an election over Christmas, was the most galling element of the Harper-Layton and Duceppe gambit; November 28 was the opening day of the most important global climate negotiations history. The 11th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was the first session to take place following the February 2005 enactment of the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto had been signed in 1997 and the expectation was that the ratification process would have concluded by 2000. Instead, Kyoto was not binding international law until 2005. The agenda for COP 11 was daunting and urgent. As the first meeting of ratifying parties under Kyoto, the conference had to establish Kyoto’s operations. At the same time, within the first phase of the agreement, negotiators had to begin work on the next phase of action. Worse yet, Canada was the host for those negotiations, set to take place in Montreal. With Canada’s government falling on the opening day, the whole process could be derailed. The president of the, COP was, under the UN terms of hosting, the environment minister from the host country, Stéphane Dion.
Environmentalists from around the world were horrified. Climate Action Network international activists had met in Montreal in September to plan. The odds were against a successful negotiation. The Bush administration did not support Kyoto and the role of Canada as host was critical. If Dion was in an election, could he perform his duties? He had spent much of the previous year in shuttle diplomacy, getting to know the lead ministers from around the world in order to broker a deal more effectively. I remember phoning Jack Layton to beg him not to bring down the government on the opening day of the climate conference. I had known and liked Jack since he was on Toronto City Council. He had been enormously helpful, volunteering as an auctioneer in local Sierra Club events. Hhe told me when he ran for leader of the NDP that he was only seeking a role in federal politics to deal with the climate crisis. I had believed him. As he threatened to sabotage the most important global climate negotiations in history, I recall leaving a message on his cellphone: « How will you look at yourself in the mirror if you do this? » We spoke a few times. He was angry that Sierra Club had issued a press release saying, « There’s more at stake than Christmas » and highlighting the threat to the Montréal talks. I had begged him to wait for a money vote in the House already scheduled for December 8. It was to no avail.
Thankfully, Dion told the world immediately after the government fell that he now worked for the United Nations. He said he would resume his life as a Canadian politician on December 10, when the meeting was over.
Incredibly, he steered the meetings to the high-water mark of possible objectives, across every issue. I may never have had a happier moment than when the meetings concluded on December 11 at 6:17 in the morning after round-the-clock negotiations. Dion brought down the gavel on the most aggressive possible actions to advance limits in the next commitment period, set to begin in 2013. I may never have been as devastated as when Stephen Harper was elected, knowing he would do whatever he could to stop progress in reducing greenhouse gases.
What we didn’t see as a further disaster in bringing down the government on November 28 was that it effectively rendered the Montreal negotiations invisible to the Canadian public. The media was off on the typical brainless pursuit of Canadian election as horse-race. Policy and science, particularly UN discussions of the climate crisis, were not going to be covered in an election campaign.
It is only with hindsight that I have come to believe that the climate negotiations were not merely collateral damage to the incidental timing of November 28. I now believe that Harper and Layton had a shared desire to pull the plug before the Martin government had a chance to look good on the world stage. I think it is extremely likely, given the way Layton downplayed the climate threat in 2006, that a conscious decision was made by NDP strategists. They had to make sure the key issue remained Liberal corruption for the NDP to avoid losing votes to the Liberals. If voters started noticing that Harper was against Kyoto, and that the Liberals finally had a (reasonable if not excellent) plan, votes would shift to the Liberals again. Both Harper and Layton adopted the adage « the enemy of my enemy is my friend. » For very different reasons, neither one wanted Kyoto to be an election issue.
Jack Layton steadfastly avoided pointing out that the Conservatives opposed living up to Kyoto. the NDP feared prompting their soft vote going Liberal to block a Conservative win. So the issue of climate did not figure in the election. Neither did foreign policy. The issue of the day was not the one that would threaten future generations or claim Canadian lives in Afghanistan. Both the Conservatives and the NDP, with lots of help from a supine media, decided the critical issue was the sponsorship scandal. The most outraged denunciations of that misadventure had come from the Liberal leader Paul martin, so arguing about how bad the sponsorship scandal really was like shooting fish in a barrel. Nevertheless, attack ads from the NDP and Conservatives piled on the abuse with the clear implication that any future Liberal government would be corrupt to its foundations. Meanwhile the Liberals put forward their own attack ads with a somber voice over about the worst possible excesses of Mr. Harper and his « secret agenda. » Our elections seemed to be going the way of those in the U.S. – politics as a form of warfare.
Additionally, we were in an election in which the turning point in the fortunes of the front-running parties would be a bizarre and unprecedented intervention by the state police. Yet no one seemed to be talking about it. Later I was convinced that the Conservative minority of Stephen Harper had been elected by accident. Forty per cent of the 36 percent who voted Conservative said they had done so to punish the Liberals. While overall voter turn out improved only slightly over the 2004 historic lows, with only 64.7 percent of Canadians voting. Meanwhile some commentators noted with dismay that it was only due to our « first past the post » system, a method of elections developed 1,100 years ago, that so many votes had not helped their party of choice. The House ended up not reflecting the will of the people as expressed through their votes.
So, it was hard to argue with the notion that democracy in Canada was in crisis. In entering politics, l felt that I could bring something different to the situation. At least, if I succeeded in becoming leader of the Green Party, I could draw attention to critical issues in the next election campaign. I wanted to identify what was wrong with Canadian politics: the marketing and selling of politicians like consumer goods; the failure to raise important issues and do so in respectful discourse. I wanted to help change the culture of politics from a confrontational and competitive field to one where greater cooperation and respect would be possible. If I could, I wanted to end the sports metaphors for politics as a “game » and see it for what it is and must be: the exercise by a free and responsible people of the democratic right to choose their own future.
Since then, the crisis has intensified.
Losing Confidence: Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy, by Elizabeth May, pages 1-8
She then goes on to describe the attack ads against Mr. Dion, the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s, and especially Stephen Harper’s, hands and the systematic derailing of the parliamentary process by the Conservatives – who even have a manual explaining them how to do it.
Also, it is pretty clear than the prorogation is basically a continuation of Mr. Harper’s strategy.
A timely reminder:: Seymour M. Hersh on the chemical attacks trail back to the Syrian rebels, 17 April 2014
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