The Crisis of the Left in Canada
Following the unceremonious dumping of Tom Mulcair from NDP and clear signals from the Liberals that they will not support pro-labor reforms, there’s a vacuum for the left to fill, says Dimitri Lascaris
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
The electoral victory of the Liberal Party of Canada led by Justin Trudeau last year, defeating Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, left a badly dislodged New Democratic Party, the NDP, that is the traditionally left party in Canada. Now its leader, Thomas Mulcair, is on his way out. And in the last few decades, the NDP has moved considerably to the center, making the NDP less distinguishable from the Liberals. As a result, there is a crisis of the left in Canada.
With us to discuss this and much more is Dimitri Lascaris. Dimitri is a lawyer called to the bar of New York State and Ontario, Canada. He’s currently the justice critic in the shadow cabinet of the Green Party of Canada. And he does legal work in the field of human rights and environmental law. He’s also a board member at The Real News Network.
Dimitri, as always, thank you so much for joining us today.
DIMITRI LASCARIS, LAWYER AND GREEN PARTY OF CANADA SHADOW CABINET MEMBER: Thank you, Sharmini.
PERIES: Now, Dimitri, the NDP is not quite dead. In fact, they had a convention recently. They ousted the former leader, Mulcair. And they’re talking about the challenges ahead. So what is happening to the NDP here?
LASCARIS: I think what you’re seeing in the NDP is a process of reconciliation, or attempted reconciliation, to core progressive values that’s unfolding in many jurisdictions in the West, oftentimes with very tumultuous results. You’ve seen this in Greece, where traditionally social democratic and leftist parties embraced austerity. You’ve seen it in France, where the Socialist Party of FranÃ§ois Hollande is nothing like any socialist party we’ve ever seen before. It’s extraordinarily right-wing in its geopolitics, its domestic policy. You’ve seen the United States with the Democrats and Bill Clinton taking the party the way of the third way back in the ’90s. And this happened here with, as you mentioned, the NDP, which was traditionally the social democratic party in this country. There’s nothing about the NDP nowadays that’s left-wing, and very little that you could even call progressive. I think the best you can say about it, if you are, like me, a progressive, is that it’s a centrist party. And Tom Mulcair, the current leader who’s on his way out after being unceremoniously dumped by the grassroots at the most recent convention of the NDP, quite consciously adopted that policy.
And Justin Trudeau–I don’t give him credit for this; I give it, credit, to his advisers–he very deftly exploited this by tacking just slightly to the left, just far enough to the left to position himself as the champion of progressive values in the last election. And one way he did that, perhaps the key way in which he did that, was that he advocated for a small increase in the top marginal tax rate on individuals. Really it was a minor increase that wasn’t going to have a dramatic impact on the finances of this country or the increasingly severe and unacceptable inequality we see in this country, but it was just enough that he could say with a straight face that he was more progressive than Tom Mulcair and the NDP. And there are a lot of people in the grassroots in the NDP right now reacting to that. They’re understandably quite accept upset about it. They’re quite upset that there’s been an entire vacuum created on the left of the political spectrum in this country, as has happened in numerous other countries in the West. And so far nobody has exploited that vacuum. And the question is who’s going to be first to rise to that opportunity and that occasion.
PERIES: Now, the NDP has been traditionally a party of labor in Canada, and unions have supported the NDP. But recently you have sent me some references, actually, Dimitri, that allude to the fact that the Liberals are now reaching out to the union sector. Is this a significant shift for the liberals? And what does this do to the NDP?
LASCARIS: I think it’s cold, hard political calculation by the Liberals. They see that the NDP is starting to resemble a spent political force. It’s in disarray. They understand perfectly well that there is a vacuum on the left of the political spectrum, and they’re trying to exploit that.
However, I don’t think that this means anything. I don’t think you’re going to actually see–and this is the genius of Liberal politics is paying lip service to progressive values while pursuing a decidedly neoliberal agenda. And I have no reason to believe that that is going to change in regard to their overtures to organized labor in this country. There’ll be lip service paid to the things that matter to organized labor–workplace safety, the right to strike, which was assaulted relentlessly under the prior Conservative government of Stephen Harper. But you’re not going to see any dramatic reforms that are going to be prolabor. I would be very surprised about that. And I haven’t really heard of any concrete proposals by the Liberal government, who command a majority in that regard. Ultimately this is optics, and they’re very, very good at playing the game of optics in the Liberal party.
PERIES: Now, in the last election, in October 2015, there was a massive effort on the part of the entire Liberal center and left to defeat the Harper government that had done so much damage to the Canadian milieu and social values that that was the objective. But now that the Conservatives have been defeated, we can take a more clear, harder look at the Liberals and their policies. What is it about Liberal policies that, as you say, are neoliberal? And so clear the forest for us a little bit here. What are some of their main objectives that are clearly not progressive or left?
LASCARIS: Well, we have rock-bottom corporate tax rates in this country, in significant part because of Liberal cuts to the corporate tax rate before Harper came to power. And they have no intention of raising the corporate tax rate. We desperately need that to be raised.
They are passionate proponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is a democracy-destroying trade agreement that is going to do serious damage to organized labor in this country and to the quality of jobs that are available. They are passionate–they call the Canada-European trade agreement the gold standard of trade agreements. Again, that’s antilabor, antidemocratic in nature.
They have embraced a deeply oppressive anti-terror law that was put on the table by the Harper government–it was known as Bill C-51–which is really a frontal assault on the civil liberties of Canadians. And I’m very skeptical that it’s going to withstand constitutional scrutiny at the end of the day.
You know, as I say, despite a growing problem of inequality in this country, their increase in the top marginal tax rate was pretty much windowdressing.
And perhaps most importantly, because of the climate crisis, this is a party, the Liberal Party, that is tied to the hip to the oil industry. The cochair of Justin Trudeau’s campaign was a lobbyist to big oil in Alberta. During the campaign he was giving advice to a major player in the Calgary oil patch. And just yesterday, as a matter of fact, Justin Trudeau promised that this board, called the National Energy Board, which assesses pipeline projects, tar sands pipeline projects, and whether they should be approved by the government, he promised that that board would be reformed, because it had become widely acknowledged that it was just jam-packed with industry lackeys and that the revolving door had eliminated any credibility that it had in terms of an honest assessment of the environmental impact of tar sands pipelines.
So this board, the NEB, the National Energy Board, is going around the country holding what I regard pretty much as sham hearings. And people have caught on to this. And yesterday in Montreal there was a protest at one of the scheduled hearings, and it was such a vigorous protest that they had to call off the hearing of the NED. And today the Green Party of Canada, of which I am a member, called for a complete overhaul of the NEB and declared what everybody has known for some time, that the commissioners of the NEB have lost all credibility. They’re not impartial arbiters. And the Liberal government doesn’t seem to have any serious intention of reforming the NEB so that the public interest is safeguarded when pipeline projects are considered by the government.
PERIES: Dimitri, Thomas Mulcair is now leaving the NDP. And so what’s going to happen in terms of its leadership and the issues that you have identified here? Are they in a better position to revive, revamp, and recapture their old constituency here?
LASCARIS: I think the grassroots, I think, predominantly wants to see the party go back to its traditional, strong progressive values. But there is now in place within the NDP–it’s not just Tom Mulcair. Tom Mulcair will leave. But there are others there who are absolutely determined to keep the party ensconced firmly in the center of the political spectrum. And that really emerged at the last convention when the grassroots, certain of the members, wanted to debate something called the Leap Manifesto.
The Leap Manifesto, for those in your audience who haven’t heard of it before, has been formulated by people who have a really strong critique, including Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis, a really strong critique of the foundations of capitalism and how capitalism is really at the heart of our problems today, unrestrained capitalism, and that we need to dramatically reform not just our environmental practices, but the way our economy is structured and the way that we view nature, and to stop viewing it as a commodity and to start viewing it as something upon which we depend and something that we have a custodial responsibility to protect. And so the NDP members wanted to debate the Leap Manifesto.
And simply because of that, the establishment of the party, particularly in Alberta, where the oil patch is centered, went ballistic and they started to say some quite nasty things about the founders of the Leap Manifesto in the national media. It was very divisive ad hominem attacks on them in the media. So you see there the establishment of the NDP bearing its fangs at the prospect of the party being taken back to its fundamentally social democratic roots.
I don’t know how that’s going to play out, but it’s far from a given that the NDP will return to those roots, and that vacuum is going to remain. And I for one, as a member of the Green Party and as a member of the shadow cabinet of Green Party, am strongly of the view that we are very well situated, both philosophically and just in terms of the political environment in which we find ourselves in today, to fill that vacuum. We can be the party of progressivism in this country. Our leader is well equipped to lead us into the progressive promised land, Elizabeth May. Our core values are fundamentally progressive. We have embraced the Leap Manifesto, and we did that in a way that didn’t cause any real dissension within our party.
So I’m hopeful that other members of the Green Party and the establishment of our party will come around to that view. And I think they’re aware of that opportunity, but I think that people like me, we have some work to do in order to really help educate the membership of the party about the possibility of our becoming the champion of progressivism in this country. The opportunity is definitely there, and it’s an unprecedented one.
PERIES: It is an opportunity. However, Dimitri, the Green Party has only one seat in Parliament. Correct me if I’m wrong. And, also, the progressive elements of the NDP Party, at the convention you mentioned, there was Stephen Lewis, who gave a very impassioned speech and supported the Leap Manifesto and some of the issues and policies that the Green Party embraces. Is there an opportunity for a merger between the progressive elements of the NDP and the Green Party?
LASCARIS: Well, I’m not aware of any real discussions in that regard, anything in the way–talk about a formal merger.
What I can tell you is that a lot of people have come to the Green Party from the NDP in the last couple of years for precisely the reason that I have articulated. We have people in our shadow cabinet who came from the NDP. Paul Manly came from the NDP. Richard Walsh came from the NDP. These are wonderful individuals, extraordinarily talented people with the highest integrity. And I think that the floodgates will open, if we really establish ourselves as the champion of progressivism, and you’re going to see a migration, a massive migration from the NDP to our party. And I think also you’ll see people from the left wing of the Liberal Party coming into our fold if we play our cards right.
PERIES: Alright, Dimitri. I thank you so much. This is a very important opening of a debate and discussion about the left in Canada, and I hope to continue that with you. Thank you so much for joining us, Dimitri.
LASCARIS: Thank you, Sharmini.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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