Friday, February 08, 2008

Where Did Paul Martin Go Wrong? Or, Lessons for a Progressive Politics

By any measure I can figure out, Paul Martin talked the right talk. He made a serious commitment to address corruption in government (OK, it was his government, more-or-less with whose corruption he was dealing), worked out the best framework Canada has ever had for a national childcare programme, and engineered a conference that reversed the previous administration’s (OK, one in which he played a key role) ridiculous approach to First Peoples and signed an accord which marked a clear and direct step in the right direction in terms of addressing the problems of First Peoples. His government was committed to the Kyoto Accord and established a new framework to re-energize Canada/US relations. By any stretch of the imagination, it is difficult to create a more impressive list of would-be accomplishments for a government that did not last very long at all. And, we could note, this was all done with every forecast possible projecting not just a balanced budget but a reduced national debt as well. So … why didn’t Paul Martin catch on?

The general consensus, in my view, is pretty good on this point. In effect, the general interpretation suggests that the failure of the Martin government was the result of a series of factor that, in effect, over-determined its defeat. Martin got caught in the Sponsorship Scandal and Canadians simply did not believe that he had no idea what was going on. The Liberal Party itself had been in office since 1993 and Canadians were interested in a change anyway, Martin actually offered few particularly new ideas that could light a fire under his supporters who were, at any rate, curiously bad running actual election campaigns. The Liberal Party itself was divided with supporters of former PM Chretien and other Liberal notables (like Sheila Copps) choosing to “sit on their hands” rather than supporting Martin. And, the opposition presented -- for the first time since who knows when truly credible alternatives via a newly united moderate Conservative Party and a re-energized NDP. I’ve also suggested that the NDP unwittingly helped the Conservatives defeat the Liberals (and, in the process, cost the country some pretty good ideas like Kyoto and the Kelowna Accord) through its own campaign against the Liberals and its own efforts to displace the party as the official opposition and that the National media, for its own reasons, decided that it would publish story after story painting the Liberals as buffoons (a process that continued well after the Conservatives had won election).

In retrospect, however, I wonder if there might be other lessons here that are worth considering, particularly for people who like to think of themselves (as I do) as a "progressive" type of person. One lesson that might be taken away from the defeat of the Martin Liberals is this: Canadians simply did not believe Martin, nor did they understand the rationale lying behind the series of centre-left reform measures his government introduced in short order. I am, of course, not trying to provide a rationale for "well, the Liberals didn't do anything when they were in power" Conservative retort for their own lack of action on key issues. What I am trying to say is that the Martin had been part of an administration that had stacked out very clear political ground a wide range of issues. For instance, Martin's supposedly "more friendly" approach to Quebec was nowhere evident government of which he was a part from 1993 to 2003. Indeed, for right or wrong, Chretien's Liberal party stacked out a principled oppositional stance to Quebec independence and via a re-assertion of traditional liberal values: rule of law, individual rights, workable federalism, etc. Martin's implicit "I'll be nicer to Quebec then Chretien was" approach seemed to appear out of nowhere. Nor did there appear to be any serious thinking behind it. What did it entail in terms of a revision of Liberal thought? In terms of the traditional Liberal approach to federalism? In terms of fiscal federalism and the social union?

The same point might be made about the Martin government's commitment to the Kyoto Accord or Aboriginal Rights. What did these actually entail? The Chretien government defined aboriginal rights within the traditional framework of Canadian liberal civic nationalism? I don't actually share the assumptions that underlie this political-philosophical perspective so I won't do a good job defending but ... again, for right or wrong, the Liberal party under Chretien followed a pretty consistent line that dated back, in fact, to the 1970s. You can disagree with this line (I do) but it had a long, established pedigree and Canadians knew basically what to expect from it.

The problem with Martin's conversion to progressive, left-wing policies (support for a national day-care programme, support for the environment, support for First Peoples rights, etc.) was that it appeared to come out of nowhere and so was suspect. It appeared forced, a political manouevre bent on maintaining power as opposed to a sincere and grounded commitment. What is more, exactly what these series of reformist policies were intended to accomplish is not entirely clear. "Help people", "address the problems of First Nations", "deal with environmental degradation." All these things sound good by themselves but put together (along with other issues like support for gay rights and easing off on the federalist offensive against nationalism in Quebec), seem more like a salad with different ingredients thrown together in a haphazard attempt to please a range of different constituencies, as opposed to a recipe for the national future.

This is one of the things that separated Paul Martin's reformist agenda from previous reform-minded governments. To be clear: pragmatic power-oriented concerns intrude on all governments. All political parties compromise with their ideological objectives in order to increase their chances of electoral success. Sometimes those compromises signal shifts in party policy and philosophy; other times they are just compromises accepted for the sake of power. Effective reforming governments, however, build their reform agenda around a coherent vision of the future. One can agree or disagree with this vision but it is coherent with different planks in a reformist agenda tied together into a wider policy objective that is designed to transform the society.

A couple of examples to illustrate my point. Centrist liberal-reform governments (such as those of Mackenzie King and Trudeau) organized their reforming agenda in a broader philosophic imperative: the corporatist, welfare state grounded in a North American context in the case of King; the civic nation in the case of Trudeau. To be sure, these political leaders made ideological compromises, they could be inconsistent, and they certainly were willing to contradict themselves. Canadians, however, were willing to forgive these theoretical disjunctures and aporia because of the relatively coherent national project each administration articulated. To continue just one example: King looked to move Canada away from its connection to British-ness as a defining raison d'etre and to institute a form of corporatist welfare state politics as a form of political-economic democracy. Examples of relatively coherent right-wing governments at the provincial level include Mike Harris' "common sense revolution" in Ontario. The Ontario electorate was able to forgive Harris a great deal because his government seemed to stake out a clear direct and vision of a future society grounded in a coherent ideological framework (neo-conservatism).

The Martin government never managed to stake out a clear ideological vision, a sense of the type of future it was trying to engineer. Martin had spent most of the 1990s staking out what might be viewed as a right-wing liberal ground: pro-business, efficient non-ideological economic management, tacit (if not explicit) support for a federalist hard-line in Quebec, a retrenched welfare state that preserved the rudiments of equality of opportunity. His dramatic shift in 2004-6 was out of character. And, it was justified with a series of slogans (Liberals always support progressive issues, liberals are always reformist, etc.) that did not point to a theoretically-stable political position. Instead, the grab-bag approach to social reform appeared more like the Martin administration trying to be all things to all people. For instance, how did their commitment to the Kyoto Accord mesh with their commitment to improve relations with the US? How did the supposed easier line on Quebec nationalism fit with a commitment to address day care? To be clear about my own point: there may be answers to these questions. Martin and his government just did not make them.

What is the lesson here? The lesson here is reformist politics rarely succeed unless linked to a wider vision of social change. One can like or dislike a particular vision of social change, or how the political community of the nation (or, "society") is imagined by different movements for change. Indeed, the fact that one likes or dislikes particular movements for change is often the fulcrum around which politics actually takes place. The key point, however, is that without this vision animating a series of policies reforms, the reforms themselves appear more like a disconnected political "salad" then a recipe for change or for the future. Canadians, I would suggest, don't respond particular well to the salad approach. Paul Martin's administration had a bunch of problems but they also had an amazing opportunity. With government coffers overflowing, they could have established a re-new liberal politics for Canada. Instead, they tried to be all things to all people, appealing to all matter of different people on all matters of different issues from the character of federalism to relations with the US to social justice issues to the environment to the character of democracy.

What did the Conservatives offer in its place? Well ... remarkably little. There were the standard "family" (read, anti-gay and lesbian) protestations with an implicit promise that nothing would really be done to role back the steps that had been made toward equality in Canada. There were promises of increased military spend, modest tax cuts, and the like. Really, however, the Conservatives went out of their way to say that the last elections were not about ideological issues or divisions. They were about good government. Harper's Conservatives may engineer some sort of conservative revolution in Canada, but that was not what they campaigned on. They campaigned on standard non-conservative issues: solid economic management and anti-corruption. Against this mild campaign, Harper and his team claimed to be fighting for the soul of the nation. It was not Harper's defense ("I'm not interested in the nation's soul") but his own inability to actually explain what that soul meant to him in clear and concise terms. In that absence, reformist policies spewed everywhere and convinced no one because they had not underlying principles (at least that were articulated).

This is an important lesson, I think, for any political movement to learn. You don't need to be an advocate for change to win elections. You don't need to defend the soul of the nation to win elections. Indeed, Canadians will accept a great deal less from there governments. They will accept honesty and good economic management as the basis of good government. (And, there may not be anything wrong with that.) If you are going to turn your politics into the promotion of social change, however, you need to articulate what that change actually means and what your vision of the future actually is ... at least if you want Canadians to take you seriously.
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