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A spectre is haunting the Canadian left — the spectre of centrism

Tepid policy will not attract young voters this October
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In 2016, the Broadbent Institute, Canada’s self-proclaimed “leading progressive, independent organization,” declared the nation’s left was having a “moment.” But in 2019, the state of the left in Canada does not seem to reflect the think tank’s claim. 

The piece in question, like a lot of literature from 2016, was overly optimistic about Canada’s left-wing movement. Citing the growing popularity of Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, and Indigenous rights groups, as well as the fact that socialism was the most “looked-up” term of 2015 on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Institute implied that this surge of interest in left-wing solutions to growing inequality would translate to public policy initiatives. Based on what we’ve seen in the last three years, this has not been the case. 

On the contrary, it would seem that it is the right who is, in fact, “having a moment.” In Canada and around the world, right-wing parties have harnessed economic anxiety to upset elections, much to the surprise and chagrin of the — often centrist — political establishment.

In Manitoba, Brian Pallister, who came to power on a platform that boasted promises of lower income taxes and deficit elimination (read: social service cuts), was elected premier in 2016. Last fall, Québec elected Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault after he promised to cut back immigration, in addition to increasing private health care services and banning public servants from donning religious symbols (read: hijabs). Around the same time, New Brunswick elected Blaine Higgs, who campaigned on a promise to balance the budget without increasing taxes, which translated to the elimination of teaching and nursing jobs through attrition, which is the practice of not filling positions vacated by retirees.

The last Ontario election repeated an outcome that has occurred so often around the world it is almost farcical. A man that those in the Canadian political establishment made out to be some sort of vulgar clown upset the Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne last June. 

In a political victory many said would never happen, Doug Ford disrupted the Canadian political landscape, telling it “like it is” and speaking more like a ‘normal person’ than most politicians out there, shocking pundits and professional analysts. Ford pulled off a majority win almost a year ago, after promising to “find efficiencies” in the provincial government’s budget. This manifested in an outright war on the Ontario public service and institutions, including the very paper you are reading. 

Back to the Broadbent Institute. Part of the issue with the opinion piece, and indeed with the left in Canada in general, is its emphasis on the New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP) as the natural and obvious choice of Canadians who find themselves sitting left-of-centre on the political spectrum. 

On paper, it makes sense that this would be the case — the NDP website rightly boasts its role in delivering progressive policies like universal health care. In Ontario, the NDP lobbied fiercely for a higher minimum wage long before the Liberals jumped on board. And it is certainly true that the NDP have historically represented the left-wing views of a significant chunk of our population. But in the face of right-wing neoliberal economic, and, to some extent, social, movements and policies sweeping the world and exacerbating the economic inequality they claim to seek to fix, the NDP has failed Canada’s left. 

In the 2015 federal election, then-NDP leader Thomas Mulcair offered a strikingly fiscally conservative platform. Above almost everything, Mulcair emphasized balancing the federal budget. Canadians, feeling the sting of the post-2008 financial crisis, combined with almost a decade of Stephen Harper gutting the Canadian bureaucracy, saw no sense in budget-balancing and trimming social services when groceries were becoming less and less affordable.

In an odd turn of events, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals came out with a platform which sat to the left of Mulcair’s, promising to tackle inequality by investing in social services and infrastructure to grow out the middle class. It is particularly interesting that Mulcair chose this path, since just over a year earlier, Andrea Horwath’s provincial NDP in Ontario had emphasized the same economic conservatism in balancing Ontario’s budget, in contrast with a relatively large spending proposal put forward by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, which later handed Wynne a majority government. 

In the most recent provincial election in Ontario last year, Wynne and Horwath were matched in terms of left-leaning policies, but handed Doug Ford a majority win and a strong mandate to do whatever the hell he wanted. Not enough Ontarians who showed up to the polls in June believed Horwath would serve forward the kind of change this province needed, and with good cause. There is a reason that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have overlapping sympathizers: a very significant portion of the world’s population are beginning to see that there is something very wrong with the political establishment and its centrist policies. 

These policies, which emphasize balanced, gradual approaches to problem-solving and promote fiscal conservatism combined with ‘liberal’ social policy, fail. They fail to result in fiscal comfort for most working people, and increase the disparity between the very rich and the rest of the population, and as such create a deep distrust of this establishment and a new kind of populism, one in which social conservatives and liberals advocate for similar policies to ease their financial woes. In Canada, however, it seems that only the right is willing to harness this energy, while the left has opted for relative fiscal conservatism, a continued obsession with supporting the establishment and social liberalism. We will pay for this. 

Why is this important? The political overlap between the two leftist options has been pretty significant in this country. Canada’s two established left-leaning parties, which both have very similar platforms, risk splitting leftist support across the country, which could hand Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party a minority government. 

However, there is hope. Since I began writing this article, Jagmeet Singh and the NDP have come out with a platform for the upcoming election in October. In it, he pledges to fund a single-payer pharma care, dental, vision, hearing, and mental health care program, funded largely by increasing taxes on the wealthiest Canadians, defined as those who own more than $20 million in wealth. 

He has also promised to cap and reduce tuition fees and student loan interest, with the eventual goal to establish free postsecondary education, launch a universal basic income pilot program, and introduce a wealth tax. Committed leftists might say that this platform doesn’t go far enough, but, unlike other federal NDP platforms in recent history, it does do the trick of distinguishing itself from the Liberals. 

A scan of the Liberal budget from February will show significant investment in good jobs for young Canadians, a reduction of student loan interest rates, and a universal pharma care program. However, the budget lacks any sort of significant wealth transfer that would help to ease the tension of the growing disparity between the wealthiest Canadians and the rest. This is significant because while the NDP platform is looking sweeter than it has for a long time for Canadian leftists, Jagmeet Singh and his party are currently polling at a historic low among Canadians, competing neck-to-neck with Elizabeth May’s Green Party, while the Liberals and Conservatives are sitting around 30 per cent each.

If the NDP continues to struggle to gain support and the Liberals continue to sit in the centre of the Canadian political spectrum, where does this leave Canada’s left? 

The answer is fragmented. Canada’s true left wing is organized, but is expressed separately in think tanks like the Broadbent Institute, in movements like Black Lives Matter, in media organizations like North99, and in political parties like the NDP, the Green Party, the Marxist-Leninists of Canada, and the Communist Party of Canada. The bits and pieces of the left in Canada do not communicate, come together, or politically organize enough. They cannot currently manifest in any sort of strong political force or systemic change, either within an established political party or in the formation of a new party. 

This has pretty big implications for young people, who in large part support progressive policy measures. As the largest voting bloc in the country, we have a lot of political power, but we lack a credible force behind which to gather and move. So what can we, students and young people, do? After all, we’re the ones who will inherit the policies and failures of today’s leaders. 

The fact that the federal NDP platform swings significantly to the left of the Liberals should be encouraging. It means that one of Canada’s main three parties understands the power of the nation’s young people as a bloc and is ready to harness it with policy measures that appeal to them. 

That means that if a strong enough portion of young voters turn out to the polls, as they did in 2015, Canada could be looking at an NDP government sooner, rather than later. Not only that, but most of the NDP candidate positions in ridings across Canada have yet to be filled, and many of the Liberal and Green party positions are still open. There is precedent for great numbers of young candidates entering the race at election time, most recently in the NDP. Perhaps those 20- and 30-somethings who feel the need for change in this country will throw their hat in the race this time around. Perhaps this will be you, or someone you know.

However, given the dismally-low polling numbers for Singh’s party and its profound lack of organization so close to election time, prospects of an NDP victory seem impossible. As Elizabeth May’s Green Party surpasses the NDP in the polls, it is worth noting that, in addition to  meaningful action on climate change, May has promised free tuition, cancellation of student debt, and a “guaranteed liveable income,” which could manifest as something like a universal basic income or could be a top-up on working incomes, although it is unclear from the party website which the party intends. She also supports pharma care and action on reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous population. 

The rise in Green Party support in the polls, combined with its relatively progressive platform and youth support of these policies could lead to a historic election for the Greens. A strong faction of Greens and NDP in a Liberal minority government could hold Trudeau accountable and swing government policies toward the left. Who knows? The writ hasn’t been dropped yet, the game can change in just a few days. We might see our first NDP and Green coalition.

The results of October 21 are not set in stone. You and people you know can make the difference. As students, we have a particular power as a voting bloc to make our voices heard. So I challenge you to involve yourself in some small (or big!) way. Read up on the party platforms and decide for yourself who you’d like to see as the next prime minister. 

Then apply yourself: speak to friends about our current political moment. Ask them what they think and who they will vote for. Get in touch with the candidate whose party you support in your riding and knock on doors for them. Host a kitchen table party with your friends and discuss the election. Hell, given the space left to fill, candidate-wise, you could even run yourself. You don’t need experience: all you need is to believe that Canada could be better. Know that people our age hold this election in our hands, and that collective action will make the difference. Perhaps next time around, Canada’s left wing can stand united.

Disclosure: Mahoney sits on the board of North99.

Editor’s Note (September 9, 10:08 am): A reference to Jagmeet Singh in the subheading has been removed.

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