On Protest and Power
The rush to the middle is killing the historical political construct – Thomas Mulcair’s victory as the new leader of the NDP assures it. The lack of political identity, I have come to believe, is part of what is turning Canadians off from politics. I know about the partisan bickering, the occasional scandal, voter suppression, and the permanent campaign, but these alone wouldn’t be enough to turn almost half of this country off from voting. A further contributing factor is that Canadians have reached a conclusion they hadn’t in times previous – politics is all about … politics.
Real political debate has been missing for years, having lost much of its meaning for the left, the centre, and the right. Some viewed such ideological divides as meaningless, but in their own way they served a purpose. It gave us the ability to debate issues in more than one-dimension. People claim that ideology is alive and well today in the Canadian context, but in reality it has transformed in ways that are entirely perplexing to the average voter. Andrew Coyne performed a heroic task by reminding the Conservatives at their recent convention that he didn’t recognize them anymore. As Liberals undergo a rebuilding mode, it remains difficult for them to come to agreement whether they are left-of-centre, right-of-centre, or smack dab in the middle.
The NDP have enjoyed a terrific year, though tinged by the loss of Jack Layton. But the temptation to move to the centre to gain power is having a perplexing effect. While Liberals and Conservatives duked it out over the last two decades, the country could always count on the NDP to fight for those people and issues that were more peripheral to the two ruling parties – the environment, the poor, aboriginal justice, women’s rights, to name a few. It was one of the realities that I came to appreciate about that party: they were champions for the marginalized in a way that seemed to guarantee they would never grasp the brass ring.
Which brings us to Thomas Mulcair. I never talked to the man – by his own choice. We sat in the same lobby together for a number of years and not once did he acknowledge me when I said hello – likely because I wasn’t a significant player. He would journey down to our end of the lobby to grab a coffee or a tea, always with blinders on, and always with no intention of talking to any of us. If there were ever to be an initiative to work in compromise with other parties, this might prove difficult now.
Let me state here that I have always had an appreciation for the NDP, despite some difficult moments early in my political tenure. People like Paul Dewar, Chris Charlton, Nathan Cullen, Joe Comartin, Irene Matthyssen, and, yes, Jack Layton, came to be my friends. There were champions for the underdog in Canadian life and earned my respect the honest way, by being true to these marginalized groups.
So many in the NDP caucus didn’t know what to make of Thomas Mulcair. His temper and ability to display it could occur at the drop of a hat. He was on the arc of his own career; it was as obvious then as it was at the convention this week. Many of my NDP friends worry that his ambition and supposed desire to move to the centre to gain power will leave the party championing the oppressed in rhetoric only – a prescient possibility. If what they say comes to pass it will be a sad trajectory of modern Canadian political life. I’ll miss the sense of reform and protest the NDP always brought to the table should that happen. They were sometimes insufferable in their piety, like some others, but their issues were genuine. Should they grasp for power in Mulcair’s fashion they will inevitably have to move to the centre – a place already overcrowded by Conservatives, Liberals, the Bloc and the Greens. That will be nothing but bad news for aboriginal women, action on climate change, women’s equality, electoral reform, and the poor. I’m not confident that even with Mulcair’s clear talent that he can hold together a caucus who are being asked to forego principle for power.
It is a sign of political sterility and citizen disengagement that everyone is in a rush to the centre. As this happens, voters are growing increasingly detached because so much of political movement these days is characterized by artifice as opposed to accountability, of party preference over transparency, and crippling political acting over authenticity.
Acquiring the world isn’t much worth it if you lose your own soul. As principle becomes slowly eclipsed by the lust for power, even the genuine MPs in all parties – and there are many – will be pushed to the periphery. Worse still, the Canadian voter will despise the whole ambition of it. Sadly, that day now seems to have arrived. I sincerely hope I’ve got this wrong.