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Winnipeg Free Press, May 23rd, 2002

What's left on the left?

by Anthony Hall

One of the most consistently reported stories in the coverage of Canadian politics in recent years is the search for a movement and a leader to "unite the right". Ever since the Western component of Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives broke away after the Meech Lake debacle to form Preston Manning's Reform party, pundits have maintained a relentless rightward tilt in their tireless messiah watch.

The mark of such a messiah would be her or his ability to stitch together a political coalition capable of challenging and unseating Canada's ruling Liberals. Would that person, the media has wondered, be Tom Long? Mike Harris? Ralph Klein? Stockwell Day? Joe Clark? Now the speculation centres on Stephen Harper, the new leader of a western-based rump whose very name advertises the unfulfilled objective of forging an alliance with the PC's remaining core.

To be sure, there can be no salvation from perpetual Liberal dominance of our national government until someone figures out a way to consolidate at least two competing parties and thereby break the parliamentary traffic jam on Canada's opposition benches. But is there some unwritten law of nature which precludes the possibility that the best hope for Canada's emancipation from the Liberal monopoly of our national institutions lies in a popular movement to unite the left?

I think not. Indeed, given the growing likelihood that the rightward-leaning Paul Martin will lead the Liberals in the next federal election, the biggest opportunity to put up a big and attractive electoral tent at the strategic centre of Canada's political culture lies just to the left of Jean Chretien's heir- apparent. In fact, the emergence of a Martin ascendancy leaves only minimal room for the Harper camp to exploit Canada's right-wing extremes and offer a true alternative. In short, he's outflanked.

While the possibilities of some sort of NDP-Tory coalition might at first seem like a non-starter, the persistent importance of red Tories in our evolving political culture speaks of a left-leaning component of Canada's conservative heritage. In, for instance, the political writings of Stephen Leacock, Eugene Forsey, George Grant, W.L. Morton, John Farthing, Jacques Monet, Gad Horowitz, Donald Creighton, David Orchard and Dalton Camp there is abundant evidence of a rich tradition of Canadian thought and action highlighting the indigenous overlap between social democracy and conservatism. From the building of the Canadian Pacific to the establishment of the CBC and Ontario Hydro, conservative regimes have not shied away from engaging the activist power of government to develop a viable North American society different from that of the United States.

The larger implications of a failure to unite the left were suggested in the outcome of the recent national vote in France. It saw the ruling Socialist party of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin eliminated from the final presidential round by Jean-Marie Le Pen's right-wing National Front. Although candidates on France's political left garnered almost half of the votes in the first round, Jospin's moderate Socialists had to contend with a number of challengers, including three Trotskyites, who drew electoral support to the outer extremes of European politics.

Svend Robinson, Judy Rebick and the other would-be founders of a splinter party on the NDP's left ought to bear this lesson in mind when considering their next moves. From Austria's Joerg Haider to the party of the Netherlands' assassinated Pim Fortuyn, rightwingers everywhere are cashing in on anti-immigrant xenophobia generated in the wake of 9/11. With this development we need more discipline, not less, in marshalling and enhancing the left's electoral muscle. The U.S. offers the best proof of this necessity: The American right owes a huge debt of gratitude to Ralph Nader's Greens for drawing votes from the Democrats and handing George W. Bush the keys to the White House.

Clearly, the performance of Tony Blair's "New Labour" in Great Britain offers an important model rich with examples to emulate and mistakes to avoid in putting together a ruling coalition originating in the politics of the left. Essential to this governing formula must be a demonstrable ability to combine the ideals of the welfare state with the competitive imperatives of the shareholder state. That having been said, there is one element of our political economy that deserves to be exposed for its oppressive effects on many other facets of commercial and civil life: Big Oil.

The state of Canada's energy industry at this moment offers an especially wide opening for bold political initiatives that don't shy away from invoking the creative potential of the activist state. Just as Pierre Trudeau confounded the timid orthodoxies of Canadian politics in the late 1960s by affirming simultaneously his French-Canadian identity and his advocacy of a strong federal government, so the time is right for an emerging leader from Western Canada to declare that it is entirely appropriate to deploy Canada's oil and gas resources as a vital instrument of national policy.

Canada desperately needs some straight talk from the left about the politics of the narrow provincialism that is favoured by both the Alliance party and the U.S.-based companies which dominate Alberta's oilpatch. We need a concerted infusion into our national politics of articulate will that does not shy away from exposing the malevolent machinations of Big Oil, an industry which presently dominates the U.S. White House.

The evidence has become simply overwhelming that this dirty twilight industry is holding back authentic democratic reform and sound economic development wherever it predominates. From Saudi Arabia to Indonesia, Nigeria to Alberta, the jurisdictions monopolized by Big Oil are consistently governed by right-wing oligarchies whose typical inclination is to opt for repression over the kind of innovation which is the real life-blood of genuine economic and political progress. From the unmistakable marks of covert U.S. involvement in Venezuela's failed coup attempt to the scuzzy politics of Enron and electricity marketing in California, the fraud and corruption enmeshed in the right's infatuation with militarism and business deregulation are presently irrefutable.

What we need now is a genre of leadership capable of drawing the correct lessons from these fiascos -- a leadership capable of explaining and implementing the principle that, in the long run, capitalism works best in mixed economies where the tension between individual entrepreneurship and collective well-being is expertly and creatively managed.

Recent indications that both Joe Clark and Alexa McDonough are seriously considering giving up their party leaderships highlight the possibilities of a unite-the-left movement. At the very least, the idea presents a set of obvious questions to be put to the likes of Bill Blaikie, Lorne Nystrom, Jack Layton or David Orchard, politicians of the left who have all expressed leadership aspirations.

Joe Clark continues to hold significant potential to play a key role in determining the future configuration of Canadian politics. Clark has some important hands yet to play at the centre of our nation's political life because, as the undisputed saviour of the centrist PC party and the primary spoiler of the unite-the-right movement, he still holds the political ground that makes a credible unite-the-left movement possible. At this point, it's anybody's guess whether Clark himself might lead that movement, ideally through some timely negotiations with the federal NDP.

But clearly, the support of one David Orchard will be vital if Clark's leadership is to survive August's crucial Conservative gathering. A farmer from the Saskatoon area, Orchard came in second to Clark the last time the Tories voted to choose the head of John A. Macdonald's party. Orchard's ascent into national politics from Saskatchewan represents a credible marriage of the complementary legacies left by John Diefenbaker and Tommy Douglas.

As one of the clearest and most consistent voices of opposition to the Mulroney trade deals, Orchard would certainly catch the attention of the U.S. leadership if he ever came to high office in Canada. Orchard's rise would definitely send a very clear signal to Washington that the Canadian people do not take lightly the commercial impairments heaped on us because of the U.S. government's pandering to its own economic nationalists in agriculture, softwood lumber and other sectors. The predatory actions of the Bush regime partially vindicate the position of those such as Orchard, who warned that the commercial treaties of 1988 and 1993 tied the hands of our own national government without giving our economy any real protection from U.S. unilateralism.

It remains to be seen, however, if Orchard could temper his economic nationalism with sufficient pragmatism to play a central role in any movement to curtail vote-splitting in a concerted electoral attack on the Liberals from the centre-left of Canada's political spectrum. But without such a movement, it's hard to imagine how Canadians will have the national debate we need on Canada-U.S. relations, the issue which transcends all others in determining the real content of our political culture and the true extent of our national sovereignty.

Anthony Hall is associate professor of native American studies at the University of Lethbridge.

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