Get used to it: The new dynamic in federal politics is a two-way fight: Blue Vs Orange

- September 28th, 2011

Tomorrow's column today — an extended version, with hyperlinks, of some ideas I'll have in the 50+ Sun Media papers across the country tomorrow:

It’s early in the life of this historic 41st Parliament of Canada but already we’re seeing Conservatives and New Democrats take sharply different partisan approaches to the business of the nation. If this keeps up for four years, as I suspect it will, it could radically re-shape the dynamic of federal politics in Canada, something both Conservatives and New Democrats should be pleased with though it will scare Liberals who now stand to be further marginalized from the national conversation.

Before I try to convince you of the merits of that reasoning, let me first bring you up to speed on what has happened in just the first day-and-a-half this week on Parliament Hill.

On Monday, the New Democrats broke with other parties in the House of Commons to oppose the extension of the military mission in Libya. For most of the last decade, on broad foreign policy questions such as our commitment in Afghanistan, the Liberals and Conservatives largely agreed with each other, regardless of who was in power. Indeed, though the Liberals pushed the governing Tories for allocating more resources and foreign aid in Libya, Liberals and Conservatives voted the same way.

Then, yesterday, to speed the adoption of their controversial omnibus crime bill through the House of Commons, the Conservatives moved to limit debate. NDP deputy leader Libby Davies called this “a nasty motion” by the Conservatives intended “to stifle debate.” Rookie Conservative MP Mark Strahl replied: “We're just delivering on campaign promises. Get used to it.”

The Liberals were with the NDP on this one.

As that was happening, MPs on a House of Commons committee were arguing about how best to proceed with a study of CBC’s decision to fight in court an order by Parliament’s Information Commissioner that it, like other government departments, must release information about some of its activities.

Ostensibly, the committee meeting should have been all about “process” – timing of future meetings, who will speak, etc. – and it should have been behind closed doors, as almost all committee meetingswhere they sort out this usually dull procedural stuff takes place. But, lo and behold, Conservative and New Democrats were champing at the bit to start arguing about CBC itself and so the doors were thrown open and it was all committee chair, New Democrat Nathan Cullen, could do to remind members to stop debating real issues and get back to the procedural questions at hand.

Now, during the last few years of minority parliaments, committee work would often get bogged down in procedural minutaie as all parties sought to frustrate their opponents by using parliamentary procedure. Committee chairs would be making the reverse of the plea that Cullen made several times yesterday, that being to get off the procedural arcana and back to the issues “that matter to Canadians.”

Yesterday’s arguments at the Commons Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics committee is evidence that committee chairs need no longer worry about getting bogged down in procedural arcana. As NDP MP Charlie Angus acknowledged at that ethics committee meeting, the Conservatives have the numbers to get their way no matter what and so Angus fired up some attacks on some substantive – though possibly off-topic – points, such as Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s complicity in cutting the corners in G8 funding last summer.The Conservatives fired back at the NDP over alleged violations of election financing laws for taking money from “big labour”, as Conservative Dean Del Mastro put it, to finance their spring convention.

Strahl’s right: We should get used to this.

With the voting outcome assured because of the Tory majority, there will be few of the procedural logjams that gummed up our last minority Parliaments. Ethics Committee chair Nathan Cullen was overruled on a procedural matter by that very same Tory majority yesterday. Message: The Tories are doing it their way. “Get used to this.”

The opposition is right to take the cue from Angus and have at them while they can as hard as they can. And that is precisely what the NDP are doing, whether it’s Libya, Tony Clement or new crime legislation. They will spend the next four year always be arguing a different vision.

And so we’re going to get some real debates. Socialists versus Conservatives. Peacenicks versus militarists. Big Labour versus Big Oil. Hallelujah! The political conversation in Ottawa will no longer be Conservatives and Liberals grasping over degrees around the political centre. The party whose constitution still calls for a federal government based on socialist values versus one that (in theory, but not always in practice) believes in small-government and free markets.

Strong opinions on either side will help Conservatives and New Democrats raise money by pushing the “hot buttons” of their bases. The fundraising e-mail from the NDP will read: Stop Harper’s militarist agenda! From the Conservatives: Help us kill the CBC!

And from the Liberals? Right.That’s the problem. Already Tories are smoking the Liberals when it comes to raising money. The NDP's fundraising machine is more organized and efficient than the current Liberal one. Without the sharp focus that comes from being at the extremes of the political spectrum, the Liberals will have trouble raising money and attracting volunteers.

The cliché has always been that Liberals campaigned on the left and governed from the right. Canadians who voted Liberal will spend the next four years watching a pitched battle on substantive, high-stakes issues between a party that will campaign and then actually govern from the left and a party that will actually campaign from and then govern from the right.

That includes Quebecers, I suspect, many of whom are tired of voting for old-line parties both federally and provincially who saw every public policy choice as a chance argue about being in or out of Canada. Instead, those Quebecers who voted NDP federally and would vote provincially for François Legault if only he led a real party, seem to be those want to do politics the way it’s done in the rest of Canada – a battle between left and right instead of in or out.

Given this new dynamic in Quebec, in the House of Commons, and in the rest of the country, I suspect more and more Liberal voters will desert the centre of the political spectrum and choose a new team. They will get off the fence. The big question is: How many will go left and how many will go right?

Categories: Politics

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2 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Good points, David. I'm wondering how many more elections will the Liberals be around to face in the current circumstances.

  2. OdysseusCA says:

    I think you’re delusional. The Liberal Party of Canada is perhaps moribund now, but you under estimate them at your peril.

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