Tuesday, April 17, 2007

To Tell the Truth

The recent agreement between Liberal leader Stephane Dion and Green Party leader Elizabeth May has generated alot of comment, much of it negative. Calling the agreement a "misguided gift to the Greens," The Toronto Star editorialized that, of the two leaders, May was the real winner. Worse, the paper maintained, there was "no compelling rationale" for the agreement. Jack Layton called the agreement "backroom wheeling and dealing;" and Chantal Hebert, also writing in the Star, claimed that the deal was a strategic mistake. She claimed that May has no chance of defeating Peter MacKay in Central Nova, a riding which he and his father have held for almost forty years. Moreover, she wrote, "the 10,000 voters who supported the Liberals in the 2006 election have been turned into political orphans."

On the surface, the disenfranchisement argument appears to hold water. But that argument cuts both ways. If 10,000 Liberals have been denied a potential voice in Parliament, there were 660,000 Green Party voters who were also denied a voice in the last election. And, in the absence of some kind of system of proportional representation, the Green Party -- unless May wins a seat -- will remain voiceless for some time.

Andrew Coyne, in The National Post, writes that "the real target of the operation is not Mr. Mackay. It's the NDP." He suggests that what Dion is doing is trying to unite the political left, so that it will not succumb to the weakness that dogged the political right during the Chretien era.

So there are alot of theories to choose from, all with an appropriate soupcon of cynicism. But there is another explanation; and, in advancing it, I may be looking at the world through rose coloured glasses.

All of these theories start from the same assumption. In the past, any Canadian Party has had to move to the political centre to win a Parliamentary majority. The Liberals have been particularly adept at this. In the '50's and '60's, when the NDP was on the rise, the Liberals advocated programs which began as NDP policies. Thus, we got the Canada Pension Plan and Medicare. With the rise of the Reform Party in the 1980's, the Liberals advocated balanced budgets and decentralization of the federal government.

Now, say the pundits, the Conservatives have borrowed the Liberals playbook. If the Liberals under Dion are tilting in favour of the environment, they will, too. And, if the Liberals (in pursuit of a majority) spread money around lavishly, then the Conservatives will, too. The Conservatives, they say, have stopped acting like the purists they have -- with the exception of Brian Mulroney -- always been. And the Liberals -- acting like the purists they have never been -- are marginalizing themselves, choosing not the political centre, but the left wing fringe.

All of that holds -- until the political centre undergoes a radical shift. That happened in 1966 when the Liberals, under Lester Pearson, introduced Medicare. Even though he led a minority government, Pearson realized that -- despite opposition from John Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives -- medicare was an idea whose time had come.

Rather than playing politics as usual, Dion may be betting that environmentalism's time has come. If one examines the platform which won him the party leadership, one would have to conclude that he believes this to be so. And, given the Conservatives abandonment of their Clean Air Act and former environment minister Rona Ambrose, in favour of recycled Liberal policies and the combative John Baird, it is not too much of a stretch to conclude that the Conservatives are moving in the same direction. Couple that with the fact that the NDP has espoused green policies for longer than either the Liberals or the Conservatives, and it may be that Dion is right.

If Dion's political antenna have led him to the right spot, then the next election may be the Canadian equivalent of that old game show, To Tell the Truth. For those not old enough to remember, the show consisted of a panel of three guests and a panel of four celebrities. The guests all claimed to be the same person, someone who was notable for a particular accomplishment or personality trait. The task of the celebrity panel was to determine which person was the real thing and which two guests were impostors.

In the next election, I suspect that Mr. Harper, Mr. Dion and Mr. Layton will all claim the environmentalist's mantle. Mr. Duceppe, given the recent Quebec election results, will be working very hard to keep his party's raison d'etre viable. He may even be contemplating a move to Quebec to succeed Mr. Boisclair as the leader of the Parti Quebecois.

In such circumstances, the central question of the next election would be, "Will the true environmentalist please stand up?" Given Mr. Harper's recent conversion to environmentalism, his support for Quebec's status as "a nation within a nation" and his recruitment to the cabinet of David Emerson, it would not be surprising if Canadian voters did not buy what he was selling. And, despite the NDP's support for green initiatives, the Party has never garnered enough support to control the national agenda -- even in its halcyon days under Ed Broadbent. They simply lack the support to give their policies legs.

That would leave Mr. Dion, whose recent suggestion in the Star that we set absolute targets for greenhouse emissions and that we achieve those targets by instituting a carbon tax, would be a clear policy departure from both ineffective Liberal policies of the past, as well as the fuzzy policies of Mr. Baird and Mr. Harper. Support from Green Party advocates could give him political capital to put green policies in place.

Despite opposition, Pierre Trudeau made official bilingualism a part of the Canadian fabric and he repatriated the Constitution. Dion, like Trudeau before him, could put in place policies which, until his arrival, were unthinkable. He could begin the task of turning Canada green. The first steps in that direction might be taken if Canadian voters put together a coalition of Liberal, NDP and Green Party Members of Parliament. It would be their way of giving the policies a test drive.

A wide eyed delusion? Maybe. It certainly would be a departure from politics as usual. In the end it is, perhaps, too much to hope for. But there have been moments in history -- admittedly rare and far between -- when politics as usual has been abandoned for a new order. As Tennyson wrote,"'Tis not too late to seek a newer world."

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