DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.
In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won a majority of seats in Canada’s Parliament, with less than 40% of the popular vote. His victory ended a decade of Conservative rule. It also constituted a crushing defeat for the traditionally social democratic New Democratic Party, which had displaced the Liberals as the Official Opposition in the prior election, and which seemed poised to win the 2015 election before a late Liberal surge in the polls.
In the aftermath of the election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper — or, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper now — resigned as the leader of the Conservative Party and, at its recent convention in Alberta, NDP leader Tom Mulcair failed to garner enough support to remain leader of the NDP.
As a result, both the Conservatives and the NDP, the two main opposition parties in Canada’s Parliament, had been distracted by leadership contests virtually from the last election in 2015.
To give us a sense of what is going on in the Conservative leadership contest, we’re going to watch a clip of one of the main candidates speaking at a recent leadership debate. That candidate is Kellie Leitch.
KELLIE LEITCH: Now, this is in line with the recommendation of the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence.
The Committee called for a pilot project, and I will ensure that this is implemented across the board.
There is a second part to my proposal. That is to screen all immigrants, refugees and visitors to Canada for their agreement with Canadian values. Do they support the ideas of hard work, and generosity, freedom, and tolerance? Do they believe men and women are equal? Do they agree that violence has no place in political disagreements? Do they agree that all should be left to worship how they see fit? Do they agree that there is one law that applies to all Canadians equally?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Now, here to discuss with us the leadership contests in the Conservative and NDP parties, is Nora Loreto. Nora is a freelance writer and also the editor of the Canadian Association of Labour Media. She is the author of “From Demonized to Organized: Building The New Union Movement.”
She joins us today from Quebec City. Thanks for joining us today, Nora.
NORA LORETO: Thank you.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I’d like to start with the Conservative leadership contest. We just heard a clip from Kellie Leitch, one of the candidates. Why do Canadians believe that Stephen Harper was the most right-wing prime minister we’ve seen in our lifetimes? And in the last election a great many Canadians were so dissatisfied with his party’s record that they were prepared to vote, basically for whatever party had the best chance of removing him from power.
Whether or not strategic voting played a major role in Harper’s defeat, clearly the loss of the Conservative Party was one that perhaps ought to have had a humbling effect on those who are now vying to be the leader of the party. But based on what we’ve seen thus far in the Conservative leadership contest, who are the leading candidates and what grounds, if any, have you seen that they’ve learned any lessons from the drubbing that the Conservatives took in the 2015 election?
NORA LORETO: Yeah. I’ll start with the question about who are the front-running candidates. You just said off at the top of the show Kellie Leitch as being one of the top possible front-runners, and we must recognize that there are 14 candidates in this race. And it’s not a first-past-the-post election system. It’s actually going to require several rounds of voting. And we have about seven weeks between now and the actual convention where some of these candidates are likely to drop off and throw their support behind someone else.
The Conservatives also required that their winning candidate has support in ridings across Canada. So, you can look at who the media are saying are the popular candidates. That would be: Kevin O’Leary, who was on a reality television show in Canada on the public broadcaster, CBC. He’s probably not actually a front-runner, though, based on some recent shenanigans, which we will hopefully talk about.
There’s Maxime Bernier from Quebec. He’s to the right of many of the other candidates, running more on an economic libertarian platform than the racist platform that we see coming from Kellie Leitch — who is also trying to position herself as a front-runner. Although I don’t think by any metrics whether it’s support, confidence or a message that has broad support I don’t believe she’s probably in that front-running group.
When Conservative members are surveyed, Maxime Bernier and Kevin O’Leary come up at the top, but if we’re looking at the candidates you have broad support from every province, or from parliamentarians who are broadly spread out that might bring with them a riding, a set of ridings support or riding votes, that’s where you start to see more people who are middle of the pack; Andrew Sheer, Erin O’Toole, and possible Lisa Raitt.
Andrew Sheer, I think, is probably going to be emerging as one of the guys to beat as people start to jockey for that first, second and third position, because that ranked ballot will have a big role in determining who is going to be the leader. And Sheer is a social conservative, he’s known mostly to Canadians as the guy who was is most recently Speaker of the House, and has a right-wing platform, like all the rest of them.
To your second question: what evidence is there that the Conservatives have learned any lessons from 2015? I think that there are two camps emerging. There’s the camp that says we need to be more right wing, we need to be more extreme in our rhetoric, and that’s where you see Kellie Leitch. You also see Chris Alexander, who was the guy that pushed the barbaric cultural practices tip line, where you could call your neighbor and rat them out for some barbaric cultural practice that was code for racist social practice, I guess.
Then the other side, are folks like Lisa Raitt, and Michael Chong, who are saying, no, we actually lost the election because of that kind of rhetoric and we need to dial it back. We need to go to our roots.
What we’re really witnessing are the old fractures of the Progressive Conservative Party, which was socially liberal but a financially or fiscally conservative party, the Red Tory tradition in Canada, versus the hard right of Stephen Harper and of the Reform movement. And which one is going to win is still anyone’s guess; though I think we can pretty much say that it is unlikely that someone like Kellie Leitch is going to win.
And I think as the days advance, it’s less and less likely that Kevin O’Leary is going to be winning either.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Let’s talk a bit about the NDP leadership race. Many believe that the NDP lost the 2015 election because it allowed Justin Trudeau to position the Liberal Party as a more progressive party than the NDP. For example, the Liberals campaigned on a pledge to increase the top marginal tax rate, and they used deficit spending to boost the economy. But the NDP under Mulcair refused to advocate for an increase in taxes on the wealthy and remained adamant that his government would balance the budget.
Based on what you’ve seen thus far, do you see signs that the candidates for the NDP leadership role have learned any lessons from the NDP’s quite devastating loss in the 2015 election?
NORA LORETO: Yeah. Each one of the four NDP candidates are running on progressive platforms. They’re not hiding that. Which is, I think, signs that they’re trying to learn lessons from 2015. But there are other factors that I don’t think that the NDP has properly contended with.
Like their inability to run an 11-week campaign, where campaigns are normally more like 6 weeks, right? Like, we saw them just kind of hit the iceberg of their campaign, mid-campaign, just as the Liberals were growing in strength. And they were trying to put forward what they thought was going to be the rational and achievable position versus a Liberal Party that was promising everything and those promises got them elected. And, lo and behold, they’re not actually following through on those promises.
Now, we’ve only had about, well, a couple of weeks, really, with four candidates in that race. It’s likely that there will be other candidates joining the NDP leadership race, and the first debate was, from many accounts, somewhere between boring, or a debate that proves that New Democrats are looking to have a progressive vision. What kind of progressive vision is what remains to be seen.
The most right-wing kind of talk that’s coming from that leadership race right now is around the basic income. Which is one of these policies that sounds progressive, that could be progressive if it were implemented in certain contexts, or policies were implemented to be progressive to fight back against the austerity policies that every province and the federal government has implemented in Canada. And that’s a policy recommendation from Guy Caron, who looks like he will probably have much of Mulcair’s support behind him. That’s the Quebec MPs.
And then to kind of the left, you’ve got the Charlie Angus and Niki Ashton to the left of him, but it’s a lot of rhetoric. So, we’ll have to still wait and see what kind of policies these folks are going to be proposing. And certainly, their foreign affairs policies haven’t been all that articulated yet. But their election is not until October, so there’s still a lot of time for us to see where these candidates stand in this race.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, after the last NDP leadership debate, Canadian author, Yves Engler, penned an article in which he noted that there had been no questions at all about foreign policy. And he asked whether the current leadership candidates are afraid to talk about foreign policy in the NDP.
Do you think there’s some merit to that? And if so, what is the basis of this reluctance to address increasingly important foreign policy issues within the NDP?
NORA LORETO: It speaks to a crisis in general on the left about what our positions are in foreign conflict, right? The NDP had to be pushed to take an anti-war position in the early 2000s. It wasn’t as if this was a party that had anti-war positions built into its core, and was ready to go to battle — for lack of a better word — with the Liberals and Conservatives.
There was actually a concerted effort on the part of New Democrats who are anti-war, and many socialists who got involved in the party, with the expressed strategy to force the party to have an anti-war position. I think a lot of people forget that, because now a lot of people, certainly my generation who haven’t really been around convention, NDP convention, ever, or very often. It’s easy to forget that those were actually battles that had to be won, debates that had to be won, and that someone like Jack Layton, who is venerated now by New Democrats across their political spectrum, was someone who had to be pushed to take an anti-war position.
So, when looking at what the foreign policies are right now, I don’t think that they’re on the fly. You would get four responses about what Canada’s role should be, for example, in Syria that are coherent or that are implementable. And partly, that’s just because there is such a state of crisis on the left in Canada of thinking around these issues that there really isn’t the same anti-war movement currently. There are not, really, those social movement voices that helped you form or shift or push that debate.
So, you know, is that the fault of the candidates? Is this a fault of the party for not asking those questions? Is it the fault of the broader left? I think it’s a combination of all of these things.
One thing that I’m interested in seeing, is how these candidates respond to the question of the boycott divestment sanction campaign in support of Palestine, because that is the social movement that has got a lot of support behind it, and a lot of work has been done on it. I suspect that will be a place where we might start to see NDP candidates taking positions in favor of some sort of economic sanctions against Israel.
And that will only be because of the support and the work that activists on the ground have been doing over the past decade.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Right. Well, as you mentioned, these contests have a long way to go, and I hope we’ll have an opportunity to continue the discussion, as we get closer to judgment day for both the NDP and the Conservative candidates.
Thank you very much for joining us today, Nora.
NORA LORETO: Thank you.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.