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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

The rise of ‘small ball’ politics Add to ...

We have entered an era of “small ball” politics, in which vision is banned and large social projects are out of reach, replaced instead with a relentless focus on the costs of everyday activities.

The Harper Conservatives have practised “small ball” politics for years, concentrating on targeted promises to help people cope with the cost of living. And now, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the New Democrats, the country’s Official Opposition, are following suit.

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Across the country, the NDP has launched what it calls an “affordability campaign,” a campaign not about the large issues of tax policy or spending, let alone the redistribution of income and grappling with inequality, but “beating the debt trap.”

In the NDP’s grand scheme, the party proposes (without outlining just how) to cap ATM fees at 50 cents, reduce overdue credit-card payments to 5 per cent over prime, bring down gas prices by stopping “illegal price collusion among oil companies,” prevent companies from penalizing consumers who pay their bills by mail, crack down on payday-loan companies, and so forth.

Was it for this that so many progressives created the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation? And was it for this that T.C. Douglas left Saskatchewan to lead the New Democratic Party. Is this what it has come to: a leftish populist imitation of the Conservatives slicing and dicing the electorate into little chunks and feeding each small bits of relief?

When the NDP plays this kind of politics, it assists the Conservatives, for it is they who insist that taxpayers need relief from the high cost of living. And which entity in Canada takes the most from taxpayers? Not banks or oil companies. Not payday-loan companies. But government, which is as it should be, since government provides services for all citizens.

It is the Conservatives who pose as the party most interested in protecting taxpayers from government. This positioning is often just that, a pose, witness to which is the way the Conservatives spend taxpayers’ dollars on advertising or spread money around the country. Nonetheless, this approach impresses many voters, since perception is often more powerful than reality in politics.

If politics is all about describing voters as beleaguered and focused only on their pocketbooks, without any concerns about the wider, collective public interest, then the Conservatives have essentially won the political debate. Or rather, they have framed the debate in such a way that the other parties must pitch their message within the Conservatives’ frame.

Put another way, while Conservatives beat up on the Big Telcos for what they claim are excessive wireless rates and rap banks for high fees, the NDP criticizes oil companies for (unproven) collusion and the same banks for ATM fees. Both parties are playing in the same political sandbox, addressing in only slightly different ways concerns about the daily cost of living, which the NDP in its current populist mode believes is politically imperative, even in an age of record-low inflation. The Ontario provincial NDP now approaches politics in the same way, offering a shopping list of promises to protect consumers.

As for the “debt trap” that the NDP defines, it has almost nothing to do with the items central to its “affordability campaign,” but rather revolves around rising house prices, stagnant incomes, people on low incomes, rock-bottom interest rates that encourage borrowing and a fragile job market, among other factors.

Obviously, the NDP test-marketed this “affordability campaign” with the usual pre-campaign marketing techniques of focus groups and the like. It might well be that since the Conservatives and NDP have both decided that only “small ball” politics works (where the federal Liberals stand on many issues remains a mystery) we should now settle in for a prolonged bidding war between parties as to which can offer more protection against the assailants of the middle-class.

And there seems, judging by these two parties’ assessment of the electorate’s anxieties, little appetite to address issues of longer-term importance, such as the aging of the population for which the country is ill-prepared, the inadequacies of the health-care system that yet another report from the Health Council of Canada has underscored, the distressing amount of poverty, and anything else that might appeal to a sense of wider, collective interest.

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