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Senior Editor Paul Jay sat down with Rick Salutin to discuss the sudden rise in the polls of the Liberal Party, just days before the Canadian election. Salutin talked about the fact that the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper has never really represented a majority of Canadians’ values and as such many Canadians have been looking for a reason not to give them a mandate to see-through their vision of the country. Rick also talked about the vote-splitting which allows the Conservatives to get into office in the first place and summarizes some of the innovative ways that Canadians are organizing to overcome this electoral phenomenon that the Canadian party system presents.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: A Canadian electoral race that only days ago appeared to be all but finished has narrowed drastically in recent days. With less than a week to go before the election, polls released today put the Liberal Party within four points of the incumbent Conservatives. Joining us today to discuss the upcoming Canadian election is freelance writer Rick Salutin. Rick’s been following the election for The Globe and Mail newspaper and writing a column for The Globe for many years. Thanks for joining us, Rick.


JAY: So let’s start just with the horse race. Why are the polls closing?

SALUTIN: I think that the political culture in this country has always been a sort of mild social-democratic one, and that was always reflected in both the two main parties, ’cause the conservatives were called Progressive Conservatives to try and create an umbrella, as well as the Liberals. And then it’s only in the last few years that we’ve had a genuine, conservative, right-wing, American-style party, and the political culture of the country never quite caught up with it. But because the leftish, Liberal, left, social-democratic vote was fragmented among four different parties, the Conservatives were able to form a minority government. And I think that probably would have happened again, and it may happen again. But I think voters have been looking all along for some reason to reject this right-wing government. They’re not really comfortable with it.

JAY: Usually, the analysis goes there’s maybe a hardcore 30 percent that really buys into the Conservative Party values, and for them to get into minority government territory or even majority government territory, they’ve got to inch into an 8, 10 percentile that could kind of go either way and isn’t so ideologically persuaded. And Harper seems to, up until the last week or so, two weeks, but even last week, have been able to transcend this image of being hard right and look more traditionally moderate. But something’s happened to shake that.

SALUTIN: I think he’s a bit interesting a character, logically. You know, he’s a bit like Robert Redford in The Candidate, that he’s learned to make the compromises where you sound a bit liberal or a bit Canadian, and you accept the fact that the country will never be your heart’s desire, which is the United States. But then outbursts in a sort of Tourette’s-like way these kind of right-wing impulses. And in his case, that sometimes comes out ideologically, and it just comes out in a kind of meanness.

JAY: What’s an example of that?

SALUTIN: Well, let me see. Well, the meanness, for sure, that any time anybody disagrees with him, it’s because they belong to the Liberal Party or they’ve got a third cousin who’s connected to the Liberal Party or something. And what that does is, in a way, it’s being honest with the voters, in a way, in they can see that underneath—. And for his own piece of mind, I would say, I’ve always sort of felt, is that you can’t compromise totally and become a kind of a mid-ground compromiser for the sake of power or he’d lose respect for himself.

JAY: Are we seeing in Canada what we’re also seeing in the US, that since this financial crisis hit, the markets tanked and a fear of a serious recession, even serious—we’re even talking, people are talking, about a decade of depression, that people have just clicked in their minds and associated that this hard-right neoconservatives, maybe they’re partly responsible for this? And is this starting to affect Canada in the same way it’s affecting the American campaign?

SALUTIN: Well, I think they’re responsible for it. Well, they are, so that would be part of it; they’re responsible for it. But part of it is also is they’re just inadequate to the task at the moment. I mean, in a way, I think there’s something sad about Harper, being the moment in which he’s going for his true majority is a moment for interventionist government, not Reagan-Thatcher, so-called non-interventionist government. So he’s at the ass end of history, and it’s not his fault particularly. And it’s a bit, you know, mildly tragic, but great for the Canadian people, I think.

JAY: Now, for the Canadian people, as you mentioned before—and we’ve talked about this in some of the other items we’ve done—if you actually took the vote that’s for a left-of-center campaign, whether you believe all those campaigns really are left-of-center—some people—.

SALUTIN: Leftish, you know, but in favor of more government. They have a kind of a social vision as opposed to the—.

JAY: It’s a big majority in terms of population.

SALUTIN: It’s two out of three. It’s close to two out of three.

JAY: So the fractioning of this parties, of the fact that we have so many parties occupying the same space, this left-of-center space, splits the vote. And for American viewers, we have a—we also have a first-past—they have a first-past-the-vote-post system as well, but they only have two parties that ever win anything.

SALUTIN: They only have two parties, so actually a first-past-the-post system is democratic. But if you’re first past the post and you’ve got five parties or four parties, then somebody who gets 30 percent of the vote can win.

JAY: So the debate here amongst people who want to stop Harper is does one vote strategically or not? So talk a bit about what’s happening in that area.

SALUTIN: People, they only get a chance to vote once every four years, and it’s the only political expression that they’re allowed in this society, so they want to express themselves. So if they’re primarily environmental, they’d like to vote for the Green Party. If they’re primarily kind of mildly socialist, they’d like to vote for what we call the NDP. And yet it has gradually dawned on them through recent years that that way all you’re really doing in most cases is throwing away a vote and allowing the right-winger to slip through. So I think there’s a burden on them to give up that chance to express—. There’s a conflict between expressing what you truly feel by voting for the party of your choice and practically throwing it away and just strategically voting for whichever party in your area, or what we call “riding,” has the best chance of defeating the right-winger. And it’s become a much more sophisticated movement, so that there are a number of websites. But people are just aware of it. It’s you pick it up on the bus now or in the café.

JAY: Well, it’s always a dilemma. And I think in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about why there isn’t a political party force that more represents how people feel about this and why there are such factions. But let’s talk right now more about the strategic voting issue. There’s a more organized campaign about strategic voting than we’ve seen in Canada before. In fact, there’s three Web sites, and if people are interested in them, one of them’s Another is is waging a campaign to organize strategic voting. Another one is a Facebook application. If people go to their Facebook site and look for Anti-Harper Vote Swap Canada, they’ll find another way.

SALUTIN: It’s actually even more anarchic than that. I think it has a real grassroots quality. There’s one called There’s That is, it has the quality of a real movement.

JAY: But one thing I think is particularly interesting, and most of it, maybe not all of it, seems to be driven by the climate-change issue, by environmental issues, even at this time of economic crisis and political issues, and it’s the green movement that seems to have the thrust.

SALUTIN: But I think that’s interesting. I think that, you know, the role that socialism as a rallying cry played at some times in the past the climate and environment has taken up now. There is no real socialist impulse, and what used to work, the sort of youthful idealism, for example, and a kind of excitement that used to organize itself around that is in the area of climate. Or maybe it’s become a kind of a catchword for just people who want a better, non-acquisitive, non-greedy and -corporate kind of culture.

JAY: And in terms of the closing of the polls, for American viewers, they might not know that the party at the moment that’s running in number two, the Liberals, who used to be in power for many years, in fact the climate change issue is one of their primary planks. This isn’t just something that’s coming from the periphery.

SALUTIN: Yeah. I mean, the Liberals are a corporate party like the Democrats, but they elected a new leader a couple of years ago, Stéphane Dion, who was a kind of grassroots candidate a bit out of the mainstream of the party and an environmental fanatic. And there was a kind of a party, grassroots revolt that elected him. But he’s been a nebbish. He’s been a real problem. He has none of the leadership qualities, strong leader qualities, that are supposed to matter so much. And I think you could feel Canadians through this campaign period thinking, “Are we really allowed to support a guy who’s such a loser in terms of standard political imagery and culture?”

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about a problem which probably exists in both the United States and Canada, which is a political movement, party, something that expresses the kind of politics people seem to believe in but don’t find a political vehicle to express it through. So please join us for the next segment of our interview with Rick Salutin.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Rick Salutin is an novelist, playwright and freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada. He has written columns for Canadian Business, Toronto Life, TV Times, and This Magazine, of which he is a founding editor, as well as a series of plays, novels and books. He was The Globe and Mail media columnist from 1991 to 1999 and is now an op-ed columnist with that paper.