This is a written version of my opening remarks at a roundtable/ discussion forum that the Acadia Politics department organized, called “#Elxn42: What Does It Mean?” on October 23.
My thoughts about the election are pretty scattered. I’ve provisionally organized at least some of them under the rubric of the 1966 spaghetti western film, “The good, the bad, and the ugly,” starring Clint Eastwood (this time not talking to an empty chair).
The Good: A Liberal majority will likely mean a reversal of a number of the divisive policies, approaches, and techniques of the previous Conservative government. We can expect in fairly short order, a somewhat more humane approach to immigration, an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, and a reversal of some of the more egregious forms of “deregulation” that occurred under the Conservatives. (Deregulation in quotes, because it is more accurately described as re-regulation to enforce stronger private property rights.) I think we will also see a shift, at least in tone, to a more positive form of engagement with the civil service (un-muzzling scientists, more interest in evidence-based decision-making, and just less seeing the professional civil service as an adversary of the party in power which has demoralized a lot of government workers). And finally, the Liberals’ commitment to infrastructure spending has the potential to address important problems, both in terms of building or maintaining things that are actually needed, and in terms of macro-economic stimulus.
On infrastructure in particular, but actually on all of the above points, the details will matter. Immigration, engagement with First Nations, de-/re-regulation, and engagement with the government’s employees – all of these have the potential to be dealt with in tokenistic or “merely” symbolic ways. I do think that symbolic politics matter, but also that there are forms of substantive change that symbolic forms of engagement can’t deliver. As for infrastructure spending, this should be focused on the provision of public, collective goods and services, and the transition to a greener society and economy. Infrastructure that is narrowly targeted and increases individualization and privatization rather than public-ness (e.g. commuter toll highways), and/or that relies heavily on “public-private partnerships” (another misnomer, more accurately described as “privatization” – not enough space to deal with that here), won’t help us to build and imagine our way out of two generations of neoliberalism.* In all cases, it will require citizen vigilance and activism to mitigate governments’ (and especially Liberal governments’) tendencies to “talk left, walk right”
The Bad: What’s bad about a Liberal majority? In a broad sense, it is just the other side of the “good” points, above: the prospect that “change” under the Liberals will be more symbolic than substantive. More specifically, a couple of policy areas are of particular concern. The first is security. It is striking that the Liberals have already said they will repeal “problematic elements” of C-51. I’m less optimistic that these changes will reduce the scale and scope of the national security state, partly because this is a policy area that, unless or until you are on the sharp end of it, seems quite abstract and technical. And partly because Trudeau didn’t see enough “problematic elements” to vote against C-51 in the first place. I also worry that gentle, Liberal governance, like creating an “Office of the Community Outreach and Counter-radicalization Co-ordinator” will mean more rather than less intrusive forms of governance. It’s worth recalling that “radicalization” has been broadly (re)defined over the last decade, and includes not just violent Islamists, but also environmental and Indigenous activists, among others. On that point, the election of Bill Blair – Toronto’s Chief of Police during the G20 protests, which was the largest mass arrest in Canadian history – is worth noting. Especially if he makes it into cabinet. Rinaldo Walcott has pointed to the prospect of the national security apparatus being turned inwards and merged with urban policing, with potentially very worrisome results, particularly for people of colour.
Second is electoral reform. Trudeau did say that this would be the last election under the “first past the post” (Poli Sci Nerd point: this is more correctly described as “single member pluarlity,” since there is no post to pass). The Liberals don’t have a stated preferred alternative, unlike the Greens, who favour proportional representation (PR – also advocated for by Fair Vote Canada), and the NDP, who favour a mixed-member proportional system (MMP). I suspect that with a majority government, the temptation for Canada’s “natural governing party” not to mess too much with the system that has brought them electoral success will be pretty strong. Electoral reform only looks good when you are not winning elections. One possible reform that will be attractive to them is a “ranked ballot” (used in Australia, for example), aka “Instant Runoff Voting.” Because voters rank candidates instead of picking just one, it tends to favour politically moderate candidates and parties – ones that a majority of voters feel they can live with, even if they aren’t their preferred option. In other words, centrist parties like the Liberals.
The Ugly: Each of the three parties faces some ugly choices in the aftermath of the election.
For the Conservatives, the task is to rebuild a Harper-centric party without Stephen Harper. Whatever else you might say about him, Harper did manage to both broaden the Conservatives’ appeal – becoming fluent in French and reaching out to Quebec, targeting selected immigrant communities – while maintaining solid support among the Conservative base. There isn’t anyone who comes to mind who would be able to do both of these successfully. This is partly because a component of Harper-centrism was ensuring that Harper remained at the centre, so there wasn’t a clear path to develop potential successors (rivals).
For the NDP, this election, and Mulcair’s leadership more generally, was about trying to extend Jack Layton’s push to the centre. The party will have to go through the process of deciding whether they want to try that strategy again, re-committing to Muclair or (more likely) someone else who can more or less plausibly be seen as bon Jack 2.0. Or return to their “natural” position of being a more ideologically principled third party. The electoral system creates incentives to favour the first option – even more so in a ranked ballot system – and there is a fair amount of party history providing inertia in that direction, so they are more likely to choose that option. This despite the fact that the chances of it working and engineering another “orange crush” seem remote… Although it isn’t impossible that Liberal corruption would taint their brand, and the Conservatives won’t be able to find a broadly appealing leader. That combination would leave room for a successful centrist NDP campaign in 2019. The other possibility is to see the party as a vehicle for political education and socialization, and mobilization outside of narrowly electoral politics. In other words, for the party to see itself as committed to ideological principles with the goal of moving the electorate further to the left, rather than the party moving to the centre to capture more voters where they currently are.
Finally, the Liberals. For them, the difficulty will be in resisting the urge to centralize and tightly control decision-making and messaging. Electoral success certainly can come more easily with such control, at least in the shorter term. But successful democratic governance demands space for dissensus. Trying to repress it eventually leads to an authoritarian image, which ultimately lays the conditions for electoral defeat, as the Conservatives have now discovered. Here it is important to note that “Harperism” is not reducible to a single person, nor even to “mere” ideology. Like all ideologies, when in place as a ruling ideology it creates institutions that reflect its ideals. A well-resourced PMO filled with fervent staffers – a least potentially a material legacy of Harperism – is a powerful, and thus tempting, political tool.
Anton Chekhov once said that if you hang a pistol on the wall in the first act, it had better go off in the second. What happens to the PMO in the early weeks and months of the era of Trudeau 2 may be the most telling indicator of the extent to which Harperism will continue after Harper.
* Hat tip to Geoffrey Whitehall’s presentation for the focus on the broader context of neoliberal governance.