The Canadian Leaders Debates & What the Left Needs to Take Away from Them
October 3, 2008 by Paul McKeever
This week’s leaders debates in Canada made two things painfully obvious. First, Canada has a de facto two-party system. Second, the rest of this election is about whether Stéphane Dion or Jack Layton will lead the de facto opposition party following this election.
A Two-Party System
In support of my first point – that we now have a two-party system – consider that four against one equals two sides: government and opposition to government. At both debates, the leaders of the NDP (Jack Layton), Green (Elizabeth May), Liberal (Stéphane Dion), and Bloc Quebecois (Gilles Duceppe) used almost all of their time to criticize the nature and record of Stephen Harper and his governing Conservative Party.
Having failed to describe and advocate a different direction or vision for Canadian federal government policy, all four, in effect, ended up auditioning for the part of leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. However, which party forms the opposition will matter little because, in their political essentials, all four opposition parties are the same.
At both debates, all four opposition leaders asserted that they advocate government intervention in the economy. Discussing “investment” in infrastructure etc., Dion described the opposition parities’ general view in a nutshell: “There is a lot of work to do…we need to have a government that believes in the role of the government to help the people.” Duceppe: “I think the state has a role to play to help the companies, and to help the workers: the first victims of that crisis”.
Regulation, they said, is a must. May asserted that “It’s impossible to remain unregulated in the situations of [banking/finance] speculation and greed and everything that we’ve seen in the U.S.”. Layton said “we think that the [banking/finance] industry should be regulated so that we can avoid the kind of problems that are going on in the United States”.
All of the four opposition leaders were in favour of spending more money. Duceppe wanted refundable tax credits for industries. Dion, wanted spending on infrastructure and all things “green”. Layton wanted to reverse corporate tax cuts to pay for a host of different wealth redistribution schemes favouring lower-income Canadians.
The opposition leaders all asserted that, unlike themselves, Harper and his Conservatives are non-interventionists. Both Duceppe and Dion asserted, numerous times, that Harper has a “laissez faire ideology” (Dion called it a “laissez faire, don’t care” approach). Layton referred to it as a “hands-off attitude”. Duceppe said that Harper’s “philosophy” is “the invisible hand” (adding that the hand is holding the hand of big oil companies). Layton said that it’s as if Harper has “this cold hearted attitude that we’re going to let everyone sink or swim”.
While debating the economy and the US banking crisis, the four opposition leaders shared the view that Harper has “no plan”, “no platform”. Layton said that having no economic plan is “a recipe for trouble”. They did not appear to realize how much of a bizarre contradiction it is to expect an alleged “laissez faireist” to have a “plan” for the economy.
In response to the opposition leaders’ various calls for more spending, Harper listed numerous examples of spending by his government, including increased spending on arts and culture funding. He asserted that what his government’s history of spending indicates is “Hardly a laissez faire attitude”.
Clearly, though, his approach was – economically, if not philosophically – significantly different. Asked twice by the host if he would raise taxes, he said twice that it was not his plan to raise taxes. He made it clear that he was against running a deficit (though, to be fair, even a socialist can avoid running a deficit by merely raising taxes, which is why all of the opposition parties said so comfortably they too were against running deficits). Harper rejected as “too expensive” Duceppe’s proposed refundable tax credits for industrial businesses. He rejected Dion’s sketchy 30 day plan to bail out Canada’s debtors and creditors, saying the proposal was evidence that Dion had “panicked” unduly about the economy and the banking situation in Canada. He said that “…to put big taxes on companies that are making money…raising taxes right now – which is what all the opposition parties propose – simply doesn’t make sense”.
When the discussion moved on to the topic of industrial jobs leaving the country, Harper responded to the opposition parties’ calls for more government spending by saying “I believe all you guys are sincere about what you’re saying, but the policies of simply ramping up our spending, increasing our taxes and possibly going into deficit…those things – that’s exactly what you’re proposing – those things will not create jobs”. Speaking on behalf of all of the opposition parties, in response to Harper’s statement, Layton, to the nodding heads of Dion and Duceppe, responded that “we” are just proposing a “freeze” at the levels that existed when Paul Martin was Prime Minister (which means, necessarily, an increase in taxes from current levels).
The four opposition parties were all in favour of taxing carbon via a “carbon tax” or via a carbon trading scheme (i.e., a “carbon tax”). Duceppe and May pushed for meeting Kyoto accord limits. All were opposed to the Harper Conservatives’ “intensity targets” approach which allows greenhouse gas emissions to increase overall if production increases, even while per-unit emissions decrease. They rejected it as a plan that is a “fraud” (as May called it) or “not credible” (Dion) as a “climate change plan”. I would argue that none of the plans will change the climate but, more to the point: Harper’s proposal stands alone in not controlling total levels of greenhouse gas. Given that increased production inevitably will require greenhouse gas emissions (note: the climate change folks are generally against nuclear power), the real dividing line between the opposition parties and the Harper Conservatives is: all of the opposition parties implicitly or explicitly advocate decreased production (hence decreased wealth), whereas the Conservatives are allowing increased production (hence increased wealth).
All that said, the Nail on the Head award simply must go to Gilles Duceppe. The leaders were asked what they would do first as Prime Minister. Duceppe let this zinger fly:
I know I won’t be prime minister, and three of you won’t be prime minister, either. Some of you know it, but you don’t say it.
As he said those words, he gestured toward Layton and Dion. Being realistic for a change, May had already said, prior to the debates, that she would not pretend that she is going to be the next Prime Minister.
Duceppe continued in his assessment:
I know I won’t be Prime Minister. That won’t stop me from asking the one who will be Prime Minister to start helping [a number of different segments of society].
As he finished his list, he was looking straight at Harper and pointing. Thus, even in the view of one of the opposition parties, the Conservatives will be on the opposite side of the House, in government, and the rest of the parties will play the role of opposition.
Fighting to Lead the Opposition Party
It appeared also to be an unstated belief of both Dion and Layton, who crossed swords with one another at a number of points, but who did not trade swords nearly as much, if at all, with the other two opposition parties. Layton and Dion know that they are in competition with one another for second place. They knew that whereas attacking Harper might show them to be capable of opposing government effectively, only an attack on one another would make it clear which of the two of them was more fit for the position of leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
Dion accused Layton being in a coalition with the Conservatives to “kill” the Kelowna Accord (concerning funding for aboriginal purposes). In response, Layton gave Dion both barrels:
You supported Mr. Harper 43 times. His policies, your responsibility. Start to realize the responsibility of your own party and your role as leader of the opposition to keep Mr. Harper in power for so long. If you can’t do your job as leader of the opposition, I don’t know why you are running to be prime minister…
It was an obvious, and effective, display that Layton is the stronger opponent.
Layton also lit into Dion over initially having supported a 2009 date for pulling troops out of Afghanistan, and then switching to Harper’s 2011 date. Harper agreed with Layton that Dion had switched his position, but threw some salt in the wound by noting that Dion had actually changed his mind more than once. Ouch.
Speaking of co-operation with the first ministers of the provinces, Layton said that the Liberal Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, thinks Dion’s carbon tax is a “bad” idea and supports Layton’s carbon trading plan. Liberal vs. Liberal. That hurt Dion, but what hurt him more was host Steve Paikin’s clarification that, although he didn’t think McGuinty said what Layton had said McGuinty had said, McGuinty certainly had refused to endorse Dion. That part coming from the host rather than from a party leader, the Layton-Paikin combo laid Dion out like a jab followed by an upper cut. Pop! Bam!!
Dion having been made to look less competent than Layton at least three times during the debate – and having been made to look like he had been disowned by provincial Liberals – Layton certainly ended up looking like the victor over Dion. Indeed, on October 3rd, Canadians woke up to an Ipsos Reid poll showing 25% of Canadians believed Layton to be the English debate’s winner, ahead of May at 17% and Dion at 15%. Harper topped the poll with 31% of Canadians believing he won the debate.
The above analysis has few implications for those voting Conservative. However, for those voting against the Conservatives, the time has come to recognize that one of Dion and Layton has to go down hard – and soon – or else Harper’s Conservatives may be looking at a sizeable majority. The anti-Conservative vote will have to find a way to put their differences aside and rally behind one of Dion or Layton. And, if their respective performances in the English debate are any indication of their abilities in Parliament, it’s time for any Liberal who cannot vote Conservative to vote…NDP.