Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ignoring Reality: The Liberal Party of Canada

After decades of neoliberal cant which has stripped wealth from the majority of the population, we are faced with what many mainstream economists feel might be the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. We are certainly still at risk of a system-throttling financial crisis, brought about by extreme deregulation of an already over-inflated financial sector.

In this context, the Liberal Party of Canada is having a hard time finding its footing. Since the 1940s the Liberal Party of Canada has been able to portray itself as a steady hand on the tiller. It managed to appear more progressive than its Conservative (or "Progressive Conservative") rival while comforting both the powerful and the timid or complacent amongst the populace that there would be no disturbing of the equilibrium of Canada's traditional political-economy. With the Liberal Party of Canada it was possible to have one's cake (social programs) and eat it too (no wrenching transformations of the power structure or our economic direction).

That illusion worked until the 1970s, the decade when the contradictions of Keynesian capitalism started to become impossible to reconcile and paper over. The bloom was definitely falling off the rose in the brutal last years of the Trudeau government. Fortunately for the Liberals' mythology, the rightward tilt of the Trudeau Liberals was forgotten after two lengthy majority governments for the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney. Between 1984 & 1993, neoliberal free trade deals, tax-cut policies, anti-union policies and slashes to social programs started to make their impact felt on the well-being of the majority of Canadians, but it was the Progressive Conservatives who would be blamed. Jean Chretien's announcement upon his election in 1993 that the good times were back was greeted with much enthusiasm by the party faithful and many centrist Canadians.

Betrayals of Liberal promises on the GST and NAFTA quickly soured this love affair, as did finance minister Paul Martin's destruction of practically every major promise in their "Red Book" of election promises. Chretien and Martin orchestrated deficit hysteria in order to justify their slashing and burning of valuable public programs and to convince Canadians that they were only trying to clean up after Brian Mulroney.

The fact of the matter is that Mulroney's Central Banker (John Crow) was just pursuing a slightly more fanatical monetarist insanity as Trudeau's CB chief Gerald Bouey, who was himself following Paul Volcker and Milton Friedman in the United States. The fact of the matter is that Chretien and Martin would have been pleased to pile on just as much debt as Mulroney did in order to fight inflation by "break[ing] workers."

The Liberals managed to convince a lot of Canadians that once we returned to surpluses there would be a restoration of the public housing, healthcare, education and other social spending that the big, bad deficit had made unaffordable. (They also benefitted from the fact that clueless right-wing voters were forced to split their vote between the remnants of the Progressive Conservative Party and various incarnations of the Reform Party. And by the fact that the left-wing vote had decided either that vote-splitting had brought us Mulroney and the FTA and that only the Liberals were a bulwark against the Conservatives, or that social democrats had thrown in the towel and gone over to "Third Way" Blairite nonsense making voting a waste of time. Chretien's three straight majorities had more to do with the disarray of his opponents and the clumsiness of our electoral system than with massive popularity of his neoliberal agenda.)

By the time Paul "Mr. Dithers" Martin inherited the Liberal leadership the lingering image of a party of compassion and democracy had all but disappeared. As well, Martin demonstrated perfectly the vacuous nature of Canadian liberalism at the end of the 20th century. Martin was regularly derided for his inanely soaring rhetoric and its contrast with his directionless, empty governing style. Having achieved the neoliberal nirvana of balanced budgets and a business class with no social obligations, Martin was at a loss to imagine anything else a government could do (at least domestically; being a Liberal, Martin genuinely believes that US foreign policy is at least benign and currying favour with them is in Canada's best interests).

It was only the spur of being in a minority government (as a result of the absorbtion of the PC's into Stephen Harper's Conservative Party of Canada and widespread disgust with Liberal corruption and austerity) that Martin discovered more uses for public revenues than debt repayment and tax cuts for the wealthy. (The benefits of minority governments would be lost forever if the drooling nitwits who believed Stephen Harper's shrieking about parliamentary "coups" actually had their way!) Martin began to give away in a wholly unsystematic fashion a fraction of the money he'd taken away to pay debts and slash taxes.

It was too late however and he lost power to the Harper Conservatives. But Harper's far-right agenda did not sit well with thinking Canadians. The lunatic fringe that comprises the majority of his colleagues was deeply frightening to the Canadian political culture. For this reason, Harper was only able to construct a minority government. To lull Canadians into a false sense of security Harper ruthlessly suppressed the social conservatives within his party and served up a relatively restrained version of the neoliberalism and authoritarianism that he was harbouring.

Thus began the long twilight of the Liberal Party of Canada. After his defeat, Paul Martin resigned as leader of the Liberal Party to be replaced by what termed out to be the caretaker leadership of failed Environment Minister Stephane Dion. Dion portrayed himself as an environmentalist politician when his signal achievement was the consistent failure of Canada to meet its Kyoto Accord obligations to lower carbon emissions and help reduce global warming. Dion's failure came out of the Alberta Tar-Sands Project which the Albertan provincial government was pursuing full-steam ahead despite it being the single-biggest carbon polluting project in the entire world. A federal environment minister's failure to consider a provincial government's ability to make a hash out of a national commitment to an international treaty is akin to signing over the deed to a house that you do not own. Anyway, Dion's leadership was only meant to preserve the Liberal tradition of rotating English-French leadership and to allow Michael Ignatieff and his shadowy supporters to disabuse NDP-defector Bob Rae's aspirations for the leader's role.

Dion's leadership suffered from the embarrassment of having to oppose Harper's neoliberal, authoritarian policies with the double-whammy of sharing many of the same policy beliefs and of being afraid to bring down the government and face the electorate. Dion and the federal Liberals were reduced to hiding from confidence votes in the House of Commons and enduring the mockery of the Conservatives for their gutlessness. When Harper overplayed his hand following his cynical Fall 2008 election call and tried to force the opposition parties to vote for their own suicide thereby bringing on the threat of a coalition government the Liberal power-brokers moved swiftly to remove Dion from power and replace him with Ignatieff. It just wouldn't do to have a spot-holder actually become Prime Minister through a twist of fate while their golden boy steamed impotently in frustration.

But now, Ignatieff finds himself in the same boat Dion did, despite having the backing of the Liberals' corporate and political masters and having eliminated the threat of a rivalry with Bob Rae, he remains unable to offer genuine resistance to the Harper agenda. Not because the Harper agenda is popular among Canadians. Not because Harper himself is popular among Canadians. No, Ignatieff's problem is that the Liberal Party of Canada embraces the same neoliberal snakeoil as the Conservative Party of Canada but cannot capture Harper's firm grip on the rabid, drooling morons who foolishly vote for that agenda. Ignatieff's Liberals offer nothing to middle-of-the-road Canadians or anyone else. They've lost Quebec as a dependable stronghold and they can't promise anything to most Ontarians besides more of the same deindustrialization and destruction of the welfare state. Years of empty rhetoric have caused Liberal Party of Canada support to wither away to dangerously small proportions and they can't be guaranteed of an election win unless and until the Harper government does something particularly revolting or gets saddled with governing the country during a major recession for which they can (fairly or unfairly) be blamed.

None of this has really registered on a conscious level yet because self-delusion is essential to be a Liberal in Canada today. Ignatieff can talk about values and compassion and Liberal principles tirelessly while pursuing practical policies at variance with them. He can talk tough about holding the Conservatives accountable -- or else, when he has no intention or capability of doing so and it isn't until reality slaps him in the face that he (temporarily) realizes his empty posturing has made him look like a fool.

But more than the Liberal Party has to wake up. The Canadian electorate has to realize that the game they've been playing is rigged against them. They have to realize that the "centre" of a political spectrum in a system created by authoritarian corporate greed-heads and absolute morons isn't any place that sane, self-interested people would want to be. They have to realize that the system needs to be confronted and overturned and that comfortable comprise is not an option.


Scott Neigh said...

By the time Paul "Mr. Dithers" Martin inherited the Liberal leadership the lingering image of a party of compassion and democracy had all but disappeared.

I'm not sure that's true. It certainly should have disappeared by then, but my sense is that there are still a nontrivial number of people who cast their votes in a Liberal direction for precisely that reason -- that is, that image somehow manages to linger waaaaaay past its expiration date.

thwap said...

Sadly true. But I think enough Canadians have grown disenchanted enough with Liberal betrayal to deprive them of their firm grip on power.