Canada’s Political Landscape Undergoing Realignment?
Nora Loreto, author of “From Demonized to Organized,” talks about four important political shifts that took place in Canada in the past week and what this means for Canadian politics
Dimitri Lascari: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News. Is Canada’s political landscape being transformed before our very eyes? Within the past few weeks, four significant developments might signal a significant realignment of political forces in Canada. First, in Canada’s western most province of British Columbia, the NDP, a historically social democratic party, announced just yesterday an alliance with the BC Green party. This is the first time in Canadian history that the Greens and a social democratic party have teamed up to form a government at any level of government.
Second, immediately to the east of British Columbia, in the oil rich province of Alberta, the right wing Conservative Party, which long governed Alberta, and the right wing Wildrose Party, which has never held power in Alberta, have agreed to merge. Their obvious goal being to displace the Alberta NDP from power in the next provincial election.
Third, the federal Conservative Party, formally led by Stephen Harper, has just selected a new leader. The outcome was a major upset. Party faithful passed over older and more established candidates like Maxime Bernier, for the 38 year old Andrew Scheer, the former speaker of Canada’s parliament.
Finally, in a provincial by-election held in the province of Quebec last night, a popular leader of Quebec’s student movement, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, won a seat in Quebec’s National Assembly with a landslide victory in the Montreal riding of Gouin running under the banner of Quebec Solidaire, a small left wing sovereigntist party. Note, Nadeau-Dubois garnered 69% of the vote with none of the other 12 candidates garnering even 10% of the vote.
Now here to discuss these significant and interesting developments with us is Nora Loreto. Nora is an activist and freelance writer. She is the editor of the Canadian Association of Labor Media and the author of From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement. Thank you for joining us again Nora.
Nora Loreto: Thanks, Dimitri.
Dimitri Lascari: I’d like to start with the Conservative leadership race, Laura. When this race began few, if any, predicted that 38 year old Andrew Scheer would win. What do you think Scheer’s victory signifies? Do you think that the party’s rejection of the old guard points to a substantive shift in the policies that the Conservative Policy is likely to pursue in the future?
Nora Loreto: I actually think that the election of Scheer is the old guard maintaining its control, because Maxime Bernier, though he’s been around for a long time and though he’s even been campaigning to be leader for many, many years unofficially, he represented an extreme libertarian viewpoint within the party that was coupled with social progress. You wouldn’t hear the anti-LGBTQ community, anti-gay marriage rhetoric from someone like Maxime Bernier, and you’ll hear that from Andrew Scheer, but you will hear him talk about how we need to pretty much eliminate taxes on corporations, which is an extreme position in Canada.
I think what really happened in this race, first of all was that a lot of the pundits weren’t paying enough attention to the groundwork that Scheer had been doing. Scheer came out of the gate early with a lot of support that was peppered in ridings across Canada, which under the voting system for the Conservative party’s critical, because it’s not one member, one vote, it’s actually weighted based on ridings. Scheer is the same face as Stephen Harper. He’s a social conservative. He’s got five kids. He’s from Saskatchewan, but born in Ontario. That’s actually very similar to Stephen Harper, who’s from Ontario and governed elected in Alberta.
Really, as the preferential ballot situation continued to move through the night, we saw folks like Kellie Leitch got more votes than Lisa Raitt. Those were the only two women in the party. Lisa Raitt represents a more enlightened, more can we say left wing, I guess, conservatism. Kellie Leitch was abhorrent racist rhetoric and she did better than Lisa. Then Brad Trost, who no-one expected I don’t think to place as well as he did, he ended up in fourth place. Brad Trost is over the top in his social conservatism. Those votes, as they were knocked out of contention, those votes swung to Scheer. He only won with 50%, 50 point something like 65% of the vote.
Really what we’re seeing is the emergence of two extremes in the Conservative party. I think that’s where the new politics is. The extreme of Maxime Bernier getting so close to getting power, and the extreme of the social conservative, anti-women, anti-queer, anti-Islam wing of the party. How they’re going to govern remains to be seen, but these are the kinds of divides that we’ve seen in the Conservative Party and the Conservative movement for years coming from the reform of the Canadian Alliance Party to then the fusion of the Conservative Party, the decimation of the old Progressive Conservative Party.
Dimitri Lascari: Nora, let’s switch to the subject of Quebec. As I mentioned at the outset, former student movement leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois won in a landslide in the riding of Gouin in Montreal last night. The Quebec Solidaire, the party on whose behalf he ran, is arguably the most left leaning party having any representation in any legislature in Canada. It’s platform identifies with environmentalism, feminism, social justice, participatory democracy, passivism and alter-globalism. However, the party has only three seats in Quebec’s 125 seat National Assembly. I understand that Nadeau-Dubois is seen as having so much voter appeal that he was heavily recruited by parties other than Quebec Solidaire before the election. Do you think that his election is potentially a game changer for Quebec Solidaire?
Nora Loreto: It’s important to keep in mind some of the history of how Quebec Solidaire came to be. The student movement has always been a critical part of the party. In fact when the party was founded in 2006, student activists who had staged strikes in 1999 and even earlier were at the core of creating the party, which is why in higher education the demands are clear for education and this kind of thing. What Nadeau-Dubois represents is a coming of age of the student movement. The student movement of course was historic for many reasons, but it toppled the Liberal government of Jean Charest, but it didn’t have the political capacity to do much more than topple a government. After only 18 months in power, there was a snap election called and the Liberals got back into office.
Now what we’re going to see is we’ve got Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, he’s one of the spokespeople of Quebec Solidaire. He’s about to turn 26 years old. The other spokesperson is Manon Masse, who’s a militant lesbian activist from Montreal, who wears a mustache in her pictures. The combination of the two, it really is a game changer in Quebec politics, because we have lost a spot in Quebec politics where the Parti Quebecois represents a social democratic feeling. They have definitely veered to the right in the past couple of years. The new footing, a leader who is good in front of the camera and who can bring forward the demands of Quebecers, within the party, it’s clear that this is going to have a big impact.
Dimitri Lascari: Sorry, I just want to pause for a moment about the Parti Quebecois you mentioned, which historically had been social democratic more or less, but up until last year was actually led by right wing Canadian media mogul, Pierre Karl Peladeau. I understand there’s been talk, quite a bit of talk actually, in Quebec Solidaire about having some sort of an alliance with the much larger sovereigntist party, Parti Quebecois. Do you think that Solidaire could remain true to its principles and its left leaning orientation in an alliance with the Parti Quebecois?
Nora Loreto: The question of alliance has been the biggest question, I would say, the last couple of weeks. In a show of, I don’t know, I would say crass politicking, the Parti Quebecois didn’t run anyone against Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, so his victory is very impressive at almost 70% in a by-election that had pretty good turnout actually compared to other by-elections, 32%, but there was no Parti Quebecois candidate. You know, it’s hard to say that it was an outright landslide with them not there. The party had a leadership race where they elected Pierre Karl Peladeau, as you said. He [flinged 00:08:24] out and was replaced with Jean-Francois Lisee, who also represents the right flank of the Parti Quebecois. They used the question of sovereignty and independence to try and convince Quebecers that Quebec Solidaire, they’re either not really a sovereigntist party or they should join to the Parti Quebecois.
Now, Quebec Solidaire had its congress a couple of weeks ago and the membership was clear. No electoral pact with the Parti Quebecois. Now, we weren’t talking about fusing the parties. This was a strategic pact where riding by riding to defeat the Liberals that there might be a relationship created between the two parties, but members rejected that. I think that the most interesting example of the effect of Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, where Quebec Soliaire is right now within the population of Quebec and where people feel their political priorities might be turning, is in the unbelievable membership that happened when Gabriel announced that he was going to run. He made that announcement back in February or so and just a couple of weeks after that, within three weeks after that, more than 5,000 people joined the party. Now, this is a very small party so 5,000 people is an enormous jump in membership.
It remains to be seen the impact that he will continue to have, but now as someone in the National Assembly who will be able to directly confront the old politics, the politics of the Parti Quebecois, of neo-liberalism and certainly the politics of the Parti Liberal, the Liberal party with Philippe Couillard as Premier. It really is going to shake things up in this province. It’ll likely give a bit of a boost as well to the CAQ, the right wing CAQ, because they’re quite populist, and so you might see a bit of wrangling around populism. Will Quebec Solidaire remain true to its values? I think the rejection of the political entente with the Parti Quebecois is clear that that is the will of the membership of the party.
Dimitri Lascari: Speaking of shake ups, let’s move to the West and the province of Alberta, where very recently in the last few weeks the Conservative Party, which held power for a very long time in Alberta, until to the surprise of many it was displaced by the New Democratic Party in a provincial election a few years ago. It has announced a merger with the Wildrose Party. What do you think that merger is likely to mean in terms of the … Tell us about the Wildrose party, where it’s situated in terms of its policies and the political spectrum, and what the merger with the Conservative Party is likely to mean for substantive policies that the new party is going to pursue.
Nora Loreto: The Conservative Party in Alberta is the Progressive Conservative Party, so it’s one of these old fashioned parties that wants to see social progress, that doesn’t necessarily want to wish evil or ill upon people, although of course there’s elements of that, but that rule from the right. They have been in power in Alberta for more than 40 years. Similar to Ontario where the Progressive Conservatives ruled for 60 years. These are really old parties in these provinces that have deep, deep roots. Now, that creates a lot of disenfranchisement from a more libertarian, a more reactionary group of people who see the Progressive Conservatives as old politicians who are corrupt and all this kind of stuff. It’s out of that tradition that you see the Wildrose Party. Extreme right wing. Very rooted in religious social conservatism. From the outside it seems very strange that you would have these two parties battling it out in the way that they have, because obviously that splits the conservative vote.
As I talked earlier about Andrew Scheer, Maxime Bernier and what they represent within the federal Conservative Party, we now see Jason Kenney, who comes from the federal Conservative Party, who has experienced merging these very different conservative strains of thought into the Conservative Party of Canada and now be the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. It’s not too surprising that his big thing is to try and unite the right. Jason Kenney is probably a good guy to do it because he has all of the ultra right wing hatred for various kinds of people that you would expect a Wildrose member to have, but also has the cred and the political establishment of the Progressive Conservative Party behind him as well.
Pretty much no question that that’s what they’re planning to do. As the economy changes and as it becomes more and more clear that the tar sands are not economically viable and that new tar sands projects that are piped through oil across North America make less and less economic sense, the right wing is going to have to figure out something, because they’re not really going to be able to continue to go hard against the New Democrats on their oil policy. Especially considering the New Democrats have been quite friendly to oil and quite friendly to pipelines. As this plays out it’s taking some of these new anti-establishment parties’ politics that have been emerging and beating them back into a conservative establishment that can take back power in that province.
Dimitri Lascari: Immediately to the west of Alberta we’re seeing a different kind of political marriage in the province of British Columbia. The BC NDP, again historically leaning towards social democracy, and the BC Greens have agreed to cooperate with each other for the purpose of displacing the right wing Liberal Party and Premier Christy Clark from power. Coalition governments in Canada are rare and usually short lived. In this case, the stability of the arrangement between the NDP and the Greens seems particularly tenuous, because together they have 44 seats and the Liberals will hold the remaining 43 seats. It would only take the absence of one MP from a critical vote for the government potentially to fall.
Do you think that this arrangement can last and what do you think the alliance is most likely to accomplish for as long as it holds together?
Nora Loreto: Yeah. There’s interests both within the NDP and the Greens to make this work, and so right off the bat that’s obviously working in their favor. Voters voted against Christy Clark pretty clearly in terms of the popular vote being very, very close, but it does come out ahead with the Greens and the NDP together. I think that as long as they stick to the issues that they absolutely agree on, they should be able to weather at least a couple of years. Whether or not they actually hit the full four years is a whole other issue. I think that where they’re going to have a lot of issues are on economic policies. Economic policies that don’t have to do with the environment. There’s a bit of diverging opinions there, but it’s been pretty clear that those two parties will benefit from it and do support electoral reform, getting money out of politics, because BC has a big problem with that, and on a lot of environmental issues. You know, the Kinder Morgan Pipeline is pretty much going to be dead.
That’s really good news, I think, for British Columbians, and it’s really exciting to see another politics not as usual happening in this country. I think when you’ve got a leader, like John Horgan I find to be pretty boring and average in terms of a politician face, but to put himself out there with Andrew Weaver having this interesting new green orange beast of a left wing government, especially in the face of what Christy Clark has accomplished in the last number of years, and of course decades when we’re talking about the BC Liberals, I think it’s quite exciting. I think that it’ll inspire British Columbians, a lot of British Columbians, to take more interest in what’s happening at the political levels within the province.
I don’t know. Will the Liberals try every trick that they can to try and break the coalition? There’s no question. How well can they maintain internal unity? Which Green Party members will have what cabinet positions and how much power will they have? Those will be the critical questions that people are asking in the next couple of weeks.
Dimitri Lascari: I just want to conclude by focusing on one of the main planks of the parties that you referred to, electoral reform. There’s been a lot of discussion in Canada recently about proportional representation, but so far very little concrete action whether federally or provincially to move to a system of proportional representation. Broadly speaking, as you know Nora, in a proportional representation system legislative seats are allocated to parties more or less in proportion to the popular vote, whereas under the first pass the post system that currently prevails in Canada, a party can win a majority of seats with as little as 40% of the popular vote, and sometimes even less than that. Part of the problem in getting traction for proportional representation in this country has been some scaremongering around the instability of governments in a proportional representation system. If the BC NDP and the Greens succeed in adopting a system of proportional representation in BC, so people in Canada can actually see pro rep in action, how do you think that will impact the debate about proportional representation across the country?
Nora Loreto: There’s no question that people need to see these things in action. I actually think that that’s one thing that the Conservative leadership race really helped with, because they have a transferable vote system, or a ranked balance system rather. There was a lot of time spent on air trying to explain that to Canadians. I think in British Columbia we have to remind ourselves that they’ve had two referenda. Both referenda had more than 50% support. It was just that the BC Liberals had put that threshold at the 60% to create electoral reform. That’s a province where the education piece has been done, where they had a constituency assembly and where they should be able to relatively easily put into place a new system of voting. I think there’s no question that these things will cascade. We will see more confidence, more understanding of what this means, but I don’t think that Canadians oppose changing the voting system because they’re not sure that it works. I think that in most cases it’s been Liberals who have been very, very clever in how to manoeuvre themselves around having to put this to electorates in a serious way.
The 2007 referendum in Ontario was a failure because it was set up to be a failure, but let’s not forget that Prince Edward Island has recently passed a plebiscite in favor of electoral reform. The city of London, where you’re located Dimitri, has just also approved a ranked ballot system for their next mayoral election. As we start to see these examples increase, there’s no question that I think that Canadians will be more interested in that there will be a more exciting option than the current system that we have.
Then we have to also fight against the rhetoric that we often hear from Liberals that say, well, this is a voting system that privileges the extreme right where we’re going to start seeing neo-Nazi parties getting involved, or whatever. Where of course the more political options, you will see more extreme options and then the discussion becomes, well, how do we actually fight those ideas in the streets? How do we fight those ideas on the doorsteps of Canadians? Rather than trying to make sure that we have gatekeeping happening at all of our provincial and the federal legislatures where you can only get elected if you’re either red or you’re blue.
Dimitri Lascari: Well, this has been Dimitri Lascaris speaking to Nora Loreto, activist and writer, about the shifting political landscape in Canada. Thank you very much for joining us today Nora.
Nora Loreto: Thank you.
Dimitri Lascari: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.