Canadian politics are in for a front-end alignment

Thursday, January 29, 2004

  • Bring me your tired, your poor, your disenfranchised.

    Bring me your tired, your poor, your disenfranchised.

Written by Scott Piatkowski

When Scott Brison and Keith Martin left the newly formed Conservative Party to become Liberals, many observers assumed that a combination of opportunism and disaffection with their new party were the primary motivators for their defections. While both factors definitely played a role, I believe that something much more significant is happening. These defections are just one manifestation of a fundamental realignment of Canada’s political parties.

While Brison, who is one of four MPs who publicly acknowledge being gay, could hardly be expected to remain in a caucus whose pre-eminent political priority was to attack same-sex relationships, his views on economic views are far to the right of the political spectrum. The fact that Brison would feel comfortable taking a prominent role in a Liberal government says a lot about how far the Liberal Party has drifted from its progressive roots. There may be a leadership race going on in the Conservative Party at the moment, but the true conservative leader in Canada has already been chosen; his name is Paul Martin.

Likewise, Keith Martin cited his allegedly progressive social views as an impetus for leaving the Conservatives. But, he managed to run for and serve in the caucus of the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance for over a decade, differing publicly with his party only on the question of marijuana legalization. When Martin announced that he wanted to be a Liberal, he reiterated his support for private health care to reporters and said that he fully expected Paul Martin to be open his views. “The exciting thing on health care that Paul Martin has said is that he hasn't trumped up and said he's going to be wedded to the Canada Health Act.” NDP health critic Svend Robinson has called the “two Martins, Keith Martin and Paul Martin, serious threats” to public health care. “What kind of message does it send out that Prime Minister Paul Martin is apparently prepared to welcome into his caucus . . . someone who has clearly and unabashedly advocated private health care?”

Martin (Paul not Keith) is also going out of his way to push the last progressive elements out of the Liberal Party and remake the party in his own image. His new cabinet is marked not only by the fierce loyalty that he demands, but by a marked rightward tilt. New International Trade Minister Jim Peterson, for example, has renounced the Liberals’ history of opposing free trade agreements negotiated by Brian Mulroney. In an interview with the National Post, Peterson praised Mulroney for negotiating the agreements that once prompted the Liberals – including Martin and Peterson -- to engage in a rhetorical “fight of their lives”. “We have one of the best stories around,” Peterson told the Post. “We're global. Right now, there is $100-billion more invested by Canadians abroad than is invested by foreigners in Canada. What did it was free trade and I credit Brian Mulroney with this. He deserves the credit of all Canadians.” This gushing tribute to the government that Canadians thought they were rid of in 1993 is highly indicative of where the Liberal Party is today.

It’s no accident that the fortunes of the NDP have improved of late. As Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson noted this week, “There is no getting around it: Jack Layton needs to be watched.” According to Ibbitson, “Paul Martin is helping the NDP as much as Jack Layton is. The Prime Minister's brand of liberalism has clearly alienated the social-reform wing of his party. Similarly, former Progressive Conservatives may be looking for a new home if Stephen Harper ends up in control of the merged party. Since genuine (as opposed to neo-) conservatism and social democracy are both communitarian movements, Red Tories should feel more at home with the NDP than with the Liberals, now that their own party has disappeared out from underneath them.” Even former Mulroney speechwriter Ian MacDonald has noted Martin’s rightward shift, saying that it has “created an opening big enough for Jack Layton to drive a Mac Truck through.”

Clearly, the NDP is ready to open its doors to disaffected Liberals, to Greens and even disaffected Red Tories. Martin’s attempts to make Sheila Copps disappear have led her to muse aloud about running for the NDP against the Martin candidate, and the battle goes far beyond the personality clash that the media likes to emphasize. But, the real victory for the NDP will not come in attracting high profile defectors (if that happens). It will come with the hundreds of thousands of votes that will flow from Liberal to NDP in the next election as Martin continues to cater to CEOs and ignore the needs of the rest of the country.

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