Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday May 7, 1997
NDP’s ideas may be old, but they’re not stale
The last time I recall my morning paper giving heartfelt advice to Alexa McDonough, the NDP leader, was on the occasion of the federal by-election in Hamilton East. The vacancy in Hamilton East was what is nowadays called a “virtual” vacancy in that it was created by the virtual resignation of the sitting member, Sheila Copps, who is the ritual deputy prime minister, mock minister of t he environment, and the government’s let’s-pretend-friend of the CBC. She was resigning her seat in order to seek official atonement for being unable to persuade, as promised earlier, to eliminate the GST by increasing mothers’ allowances and ridding the Great Lakes of conger eels.
Attired in the most fashionable of sackcloth haut couture, the first female deputy prime minister in Canadian history fell weeping upon the shoulders of the good voters of Hamilton East, beseeching their forgiveness for nothing, after all, more than an excess of zeal. And it was midst this thick mist of Liberal lachrymation that my morning paper proposed that the NDP leader test her voter appeal; kamikaze pilots have had better advice from their chaplains. McDonough chose not to run, but filed instead for the seat in her hometown and native province on the occasion of the next grand assize.
All this came to mind when, after the NDP met in Regina to produce its election manifesto, my morning paper filed an editorial complaint under the heading of “New Democrats, old ideas.” This suggested to me that relations between the NDP leader and the editorial board had further deteriorated since her abandonment of Hamilton East. Once into the text, this indeed proved true.
To begin with, the NDP leader has expressed the opinion her party was unlikely to form the next government. It would, however, like to win enough seats in the coming election to be a presence in the next Parliament – anything from a dozen to 40 would be nice, any more than that unlikely but welcome. Unaccustomed to the lack of puffery, critics of McDonough have come unnerved, my morning paper amon g them: “The problem is as long as the New Democrats aspire to Opposition, the longer they will remain there. . . Opposition demands a different calculation and generates a different expectation than government. It allows a less ambitious, less rigorous view of the world, unchallenged by the discipline of power.”
None of this is so, even in the most rudimentary sense. It is like saying the Liberals, in 1993, promised to eliminate the GST, revise the free trade pact with the Great Neighbor, stabilize the funding for the CBC, and do an incredibly better job of creating jobs for Canadians of all ages, and all this implausible promising which all turned out to be impossible of delivery was made because the Liberals had “a less rigorous view of the world” and secretly hoped to remain in Opposition. The NDP might not be able to do half what they say they would do, if elected to govern, but they would likely try harder than the Liberals to keep their word.
Indeed, the rap on the NDP platform is that it promises to make good on some broken Liberal promises. Old stuff, according to my morning paper, and its boardroom constituents. What’s new – as compared to what’s old – in the world of ideas is “reduced unemployment benefits, however imperfect” and reduced “abuses.” This latter is a reference to reform of benefits for the poor, which has been a new idea for the privileged since the Poor Law Amendments of 1834.
Back then – 163 years ago – public assistance to the poor was made conditional on their being put to work. Strong argument was made, by the intellectual forbears of today’s neo-conservatives, against the provision of meals for hungry school children. In the words of one of the neo-cons of that day, “To feed a child is to give relief to its parents – to undermine their independence and self-reliance.”
The difference between the Bleak House of Charles Dickens and the Common Sense Revolution of Mike Harris is that the latter has the endorsement of my morning paper, and three of the four principal political parties running candidates in the federal election to come. The Liberals, from fiscal 1996 to 1999, will cut almost $28 billion from the Canada Assistance Plan. As a result, the poor will be poorer still and their children at greater risk.
The NDP begins its campaign by admitting it is not likely to win it. This must be compared to the predictions of Preston Manning who has promised to win a majority of the seats, including a good handful in Quebec. Manning is my morning paper’s kind of politician, the familiar windbag. But he is as likely to become the next prime minister of Canada as, well, the Reverend Al Sharpton.
It seems to me the NDP’s value to the debate is that the party represents ideas about politics and government that have been absent since the electoral aberrations of 1993 and have been sorely missed. Some of the ideas are old, but as the Conservatives once believed, such was a good part of their virtue. Even so, for those who like their ideas old – as in cheese – some of those being retailed by other parties in today’s contest predate the Industrial Revolution and the invention of income tax. (F3, 4/20/1997, Toronto Star by Dalton Camp, political commentator and broadcaster.)