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January 9, 2012

A year characterized by lost opportunities

The Canadian Charger

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The New Year is of course the time when people often make resolutions and changes to their lives that they hope will lead to better things. It is also a time people look back to identify key events of the last twelve months. In Canada, three appear as key: the election of a Conservative majority government with most voters voting against it, the Quebec NDP breakthrough, and the Occupation.

As a result of the Tory victory we are facing a full-force attack on progressive policy. We also encounter a policy on crime and corrections that defies reason and massive expenditures on prisons and useless fighter jets.  These mad expenditures are guaranteed to burden the country’s finances, federally and provincially. 

At the same time, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty promises no new taxes “ever”.  The result can only be a shifting of costs to the provinces and a cutting of other programs, especially social programs.

On the bright side, due to its breakthrough in Quebec the NDP is now the Official Opposition.  Its gains in Quebec give the left in that province a more federalist face.

What can be made of the Occupation movement? 

To begin, Occupy Wall Street is a Canadian invention.  Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine proposed the action, and it lit a flame not only in North America but overseas as well.  Participants in the Arab Spring sent greetings.  But what was/is the movement and what were its implications? 

The key slogan was one of the inequitable distribution of wealth–the 99% versus the one per cent.  Participants were a highly disparate bunch. Three speakers from the Occupy Ottawa encampment spoke at Ottawa’s First Unitarian Congregation, and their message was one of love, peace, and freedom.  The 99% versus one per cent issue was mentioned in passing. 

If the whole thing could be summed up in one word, it would be Woodstock.  Their message was so broad that it could be compared to a largely empty vessel waiting to be filled.  Waiting largely in vain.

At this point, let us digress to consider the importance of symbolism to influence support.  Stephen Harper is very much attuned to the importance of symbols and catch phrases.  He used them skillfully against Ignatieff (“Just visiting”).  Then there was the “Canada’s New Government” stunt and the tagging of Royal on everything in sight.

Sergei Chakotin wrote a fascinating account of the battle of symbols between the Social Democrats and the Nazis in pre-World War II Germany in his book The Rape of the Masses.  He was in charge of propaganda for the Social Democrats.

Briefly, in the graffiti battle, he designed the three-arrows socialist symbol.  When the Socialists saw a swastika on a wall, they ran three arrows through it.  And when the Nazis superimposed a swastika over three arrows, it still appeared that the arrows were piercing the swastika.  He also orchestrated massive parades.  Eventually, other voices in the party ended his program. 

While we may be skeptical of his claim that the Nazi victory was the product of the ending of his program, it seems clear that his tactics played a role in the eventually unsuccessful effort to thwart the Nazis.  So what does Chakotin have to do with the Occupy movement?

As suggested, the movement has been a largely empty vessel, waiting to be filled.  Imagine the impact there would have been if Nycole Turmel or Elizabeth May had pitched a tent in Confederation Park across the street from Ottawa City Hall.  The participation of a party leader would have caused tongues to be wagging around the country and around the world.  It would have largely drowned out the attention that Bob Rae has garnered from his skillful performance in the House.  And instead of leaving the park uneventfully as in Ottawa or in an invasion of dump trucks and destroyed Occupiers’ property elsewhere, the Occupiers could have finished off with a peaceful mass march, Occupiers, politicians, and unionists.  In Ottawa the march could have ended with a demonstration on Parliament Hill, addressed by political leaders.

Instead, the politicians who should have moved to support the Occupation more demonstratively gave at best tepid support–in Canada and elsewhere as well.  One wonders why the level of support for the NDP in Quebec has so quickly fallen off.  Canada needs a new Chakotin.

Harper’s disastrous victory has raised talk in both NDP and Liberal quarters of merger.  Thomas Mulcair among others has been entertaining the idea.  Such a merger would not augur well for social progress.  Remember that it was Bob Rae who gave Harper the go-ahead for four more years in Afghanistan.

Where Liberals have gone into coalition with another party, in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, it was with the Tories, and when the Liberals in Quebec went looking for a new leader, they chose a prominent federal Conservative.  If the NDP is looking to bulk up to increase its impact, the party that comes to mind is the Greens. 

This critique does not rule out post-electoral coalitions to get the Tories out, but merging the Liberals and NDP would not likely serve to promote positive social change.  Many of Canada’s social programs were introduced by the Liberals in minority governments with CCF-NDP support, but when the Liberals had majorities they undermined social programs.  The Canada Assistance Plan was destroyed.  The Chrétien-Martin austerity program cut severely into social program spending, including for health care, driving nurses out of Canada for jobs in the States.  Our health care system has still not recovered from this move. 

The Tory victory should be the impetus for new thinking, but a merger or joint electoral program for the NDP and the Liberals would be a wrong move.  A Liberal-NDP merger or electoral alliance would not be a merger of the Left because the Liberals are not of the Left.  In Germany, Willy Brandt would not countenance his Social Democrats doing business with the Greens, but when he was no longer in the picture Germany had a Red-Green government for a time.

  1. The one per cent versus the 99%.  
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