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lawrence martin

You want to make the case that Canadian progressives have suffered the worst drubbing in their history? It is a task not onerous.

Consider how Stephen Harper has stuck it to them through the past decade. With his rightward march on foreign policy, on climate change, on civil liberties, on criminal justice, on fiscal policy with his shrinking of the revenue base, on labour, on the Charter.

Humiliation! There it is.

The question for progressives now is which opposition party stands the best chance of making the big correction. Which is the party of real change?

Mr. Harper's calculus, driving hard on the right as opposed to courting the middle, means the election will be fought on trenchant ideological grounds.

In the 2000 election, Eddie Goldenberg, Jean Chrétien's top adviser, cast the fight against Stockwell Day's Alliance Party in American ideological terms. It was like Lyndon Johnson versus Barry Goldwater, he said. The Chrétien Liberals won easily. Canadians were in no mood for the radical right.

How things have changed. Even though Canadian progressives – Liberals, New Democrats, Greens – outnumber conservatives by almost a 2-to-1 margin, they have been inept in making that majority work.

And now, even with Conservative support numbers having fallen significantly since the last election, they could be headed for failure again. The NDP's recent rise in the polls is great for that party, but it risks dividing the opposition to Mr. Harper in perfect halves.

To stand a good chance of winning, one of the opposition formations has to distance itself and offer voters a choice. In the policy compartments, with the Liberals in the moderate middle as per custom, the NDP comes across as the clearest alternative to the Conservatives.

On economic policy, the fight for the middle class has become a big muddle. All parties are falling over backward trying to curry favour. It is one area where Conservatives are pushing to broaden their base and, with their advertising advantage, can hold their own.

On the foreign stage the Prime Minister's hawkish sabre-rattling wouldn't normally be a good fit in this country. But terrorism, Islamic State, and Vladimir Putin's aggression have helped make it acceptable. The Liberals have the look of being partly in with the Harper approach, partly out. The NDP is more out.

On civil liberties and alleged curtailments of freedoms in Bill C-51, Justin Trudeau's Liberals are handcuffed. They have given halfhearted support to C-51, leaving the NDP to carry the reform banner.

On natural resources and the environment, the Grits support the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and oil sands development. The NDP is anti-Keystone and takes a stronger stance against carbon emissions.

On the whole question of the downgrading of parliamentary democracy and of autocratic governance, the Conservatives keep setting themselves up for a big fall. Last week's stunner saw them rewriting the Access to Information law to shield the RCMP retroactively from potential criminal charges. On the question of democratic reform, they are using their majority in the Senate to inter Michael Chong's already watered down reform bill.

In response, each opposition party has some useful reforms in its platform, but neither goes far enough to convince Canadians that they really are intent on a reconstruction of the failing system. Given the incredible sweep of prime ministerial powers it is hard to do without a revision of the Constitution. But Thomas Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau need to come up with some radical measures.

With their policy approach, the Liberals are gambling that Canadians want a more centrist, as opposed to leftish, alternative. It's what worked for them in the past. But with the New Democrats' breakthrough in the 2011 election, and with what was seen in the recent Alberta provincial election, it may not work now.

Given the dramatic Conservative ascent of the last decade, voters might be more inclined to opt for the party offering the big correction as opposed to a more middling remake.

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