Winnipeg Free Press, May 23rd, 2002
What's left on the left?
by Anthony Hall
One of the most consistently
reported stories in the coverage of Canadian politics in recent
years is the search for a movement and a leader to "unite the right".
Ever since the Western component of Brian Mulroney's Progressive
Conservatives broke away after the Meech Lake debacle to form Preston
Manning's Reform party, pundits have maintained a relentless rightward
tilt in their tireless messiah watch.
The mark of such a messiah would be her or his ability to stitch
together a political coalition capable of challenging and unseating
Canada's ruling Liberals. Would that person, the media has wondered,
be Tom Long? Mike Harris? Ralph Klein? Stockwell Day? Joe Clark?
Now the speculation centres on Stephen Harper, the new leader of
a western-based rump whose very name advertises the unfulfilled
objective of forging an alliance with the PC's remaining core.
To be sure, there can be no salvation from perpetual Liberal dominance
of our national government until someone figures out a way to consolidate
at least two competing parties and thereby break the parliamentary
traffic jam on Canada's opposition benches. But is there some unwritten
law of nature which precludes the possibility that the best hope
for Canada's emancipation from the Liberal monopoly of our national
institutions lies in a popular movement to unite the left?
I think not. Indeed, given the growing likelihood that the rightward-leaning
Paul Martin will lead the Liberals in the next federal election,
the biggest opportunity to put up a big and attractive electoral
tent at the strategic centre of Canada's political culture lies
just to the left of Jean Chretien's heir- apparent. In fact, the
emergence of a Martin ascendancy leaves only minimal room for the
Harper camp to exploit Canada's right-wing extremes and offer a
true alternative. In short, he's outflanked.
While the possibilities of some sort of NDP-Tory coalition might
at first seem like a non-starter, the persistent importance of red
Tories in our evolving political culture speaks of a left-leaning
component of Canada's conservative heritage. In, for instance, the
political writings of Stephen Leacock, Eugene Forsey, George Grant,
W.L. Morton, John Farthing, Jacques Monet, Gad Horowitz, Donald
Creighton, David Orchard and Dalton Camp there is abundant evidence
of a rich tradition of Canadian thought and action highlighting
the indigenous overlap between social democracy and conservatism.
From the building of the Canadian Pacific to the establishment of
the CBC and Ontario Hydro, conservative regimes have not shied away
from engaging the activist power of government to develop a viable
North American society different from that of the United States.
The larger implications of a failure to unite the left were suggested
in the outcome of the recent national vote in France. It saw the
ruling Socialist party of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin eliminated
from the final presidential round by Jean-Marie Le Pen's right-wing
National Front. Although candidates on France's political left garnered
almost half of the votes in the first round, Jospin's moderate Socialists
had to contend with a number of challengers, including three Trotskyites,
who drew electoral support to the outer extremes of European politics.
Svend Robinson, Judy Rebick and the other would-be founders of
a splinter party on the NDP's left ought to bear this lesson in
mind when considering their next moves. From Austria's Joerg Haider
to the party of the Netherlands' assassinated Pim Fortuyn, rightwingers
everywhere are cashing in on anti-immigrant xenophobia generated
in the wake of 9/11. With this development we need more discipline,
not less, in marshalling and enhancing the left's electoral muscle.
The U.S. offers the best proof of this necessity: The American right
owes a huge debt of gratitude to Ralph Nader's Greens for drawing
votes from the Democrats and handing George W. Bush the keys to
the White House.
Clearly, the performance of Tony Blair's "New Labour" in Great
Britain offers an important model rich with examples to emulate
and mistakes to avoid in putting together a ruling coalition originating
in the politics of the left. Essential to this governing formula
must be a demonstrable ability to combine the ideals of the welfare
state with the competitive imperatives of the shareholder state.
That having been said, there is one element of our political economy
that deserves to be exposed for its oppressive effects on many other
facets of commercial and civil life: Big Oil.
The state of Canada's energy industry at this moment offers an
especially wide opening for bold political initiatives that don't
shy away from invoking the creative potential of the activist state.
Just as Pierre Trudeau confounded the timid orthodoxies of Canadian
politics in the late 1960s by affirming simultaneously his French-Canadian
identity and his advocacy of a strong federal government, so the
time is right for an emerging leader from Western Canada to declare
that it is entirely appropriate to deploy Canada's oil and gas resources
as a vital instrument of national policy.
Canada desperately needs some straight talk from the left about
the politics of the narrow provincialism that is favoured by both
the Alliance party and the U.S.-based companies which dominate Alberta's
oilpatch. We need a concerted infusion into our national politics
of articulate will that does not shy away from exposing the malevolent
machinations of Big Oil, an industry which presently dominates the
U.S. White House.
The evidence has become simply overwhelming that this dirty twilight
industry is holding back authentic democratic reform and sound economic
development wherever it predominates. From Saudi Arabia to Indonesia,
Nigeria to Alberta, the jurisdictions monopolized by Big Oil are
consistently governed by right-wing oligarchies whose typical inclination
is to opt for repression over the kind of innovation which is the
real life-blood of genuine economic and political progress. From
the unmistakable marks of covert U.S. involvement in Venezuela's
failed coup attempt to the scuzzy politics of Enron and electricity
marketing in California, the fraud and corruption enmeshed in the
right's infatuation with militarism and business deregulation are
What we need now is a genre of leadership capable of drawing the
correct lessons from these fiascos -- a leadership capable of explaining
and implementing the principle that, in the long run, capitalism
works best in mixed economies where the tension between individual
entrepreneurship and collective well-being is expertly and creatively
Recent indications that both Joe Clark and Alexa McDonough are
seriously considering giving up their party leaderships highlight
the possibilities of a unite-the-left movement. At the very least,
the idea presents a set of obvious questions to be put to the likes
of Bill Blaikie, Lorne Nystrom, Jack Layton or David Orchard, politicians
of the left who have all expressed leadership aspirations.
Joe Clark continues to hold significant potential to play a key
role in determining the future configuration of Canadian politics.
Clark has some important hands yet to play at the centre of our
nation's political life because, as the undisputed saviour of the
centrist PC party and the primary spoiler of the unite-the-right
movement, he still holds the political ground that makes a credible
unite-the-left movement possible. At this point, it's anybody's
guess whether Clark himself might lead that movement, ideally through
some timely negotiations with the federal NDP.
But clearly, the support of one David Orchard will be vital if
Clark's leadership is to survive August's crucial Conservative gathering.
A farmer from the Saskatoon area, Orchard came in second to Clark
the last time the Tories voted to choose the head of John A. Macdonald's
party. Orchard's ascent into national politics from Saskatchewan
represents a credible marriage of the complementary legacies left
by John Diefenbaker and Tommy Douglas.
As one of the clearest and most consistent voices of opposition
to the Mulroney trade deals, Orchard would certainly catch the attention
of the U.S. leadership if he ever came to high office in Canada.
Orchard's rise would definitely send a very clear signal to Washington
that the Canadian people do not take lightly the commercial impairments
heaped on us because of the U.S. government's pandering to its own
economic nationalists in agriculture, softwood lumber and other
sectors. The predatory actions of the Bush regime partially vindicate
the position of those such as Orchard, who warned that the commercial
treaties of 1988 and 1993 tied the hands of our own national government
without giving our economy any real protection from U.S. unilateralism.
It remains to be seen, however, if Orchard could temper his economic
nationalism with sufficient pragmatism to play a central role in
any movement to curtail vote-splitting in a concerted electoral
attack on the Liberals from the centre-left of Canada's political
spectrum. But without such a movement, it's hard to imagine how
Canadians will have the national debate we need on Canada-U.S. relations,
the issue which transcends all others in determining the real content
of our political culture and the true extent of our national sovereignty.
is associate professor of native American studies at the University