Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New Politics Initiative at 10: Time to look forward

By Mel Watkins
November 30, 2011

Mel Watkins (left) and Cy Gonick at the
1969 NDP National Convention
There have been times in the past when there was a call for the NDP to move left: from the Waffle 40 plus years ago, to the New Politics Initiative in the more recent past. The times today, however, are different, perhaps radically so. Let us look forward rather than backward, uncertain as the exercise inherently is.

On the one hand, while unemployment and inequality are hardly new, these are truly tough times for far too many people. To paraphrase the great economist John Maynard Keynes, capitalism, never a thing of beauty, is no longer delivering the goods to most people.

Plus, compared even to 10 years ago, there is fresh evidence almost daily of the frightening consequences of climate change.

With a right-wing majority government, no longer progressive conservative or even simply conservative but neo-conservative and hard right, there is no relief in sight.

On the other hand, the NDP as the party of the left is for the first time in second place, while the third place Liberals are the weakest they have been in their entire history.

This is arguably the time for those on the left to support the NDP and to hold it, minimally, to the progressive politics of Jack Layton. The need is especially urgent at a time when many people, particularly younger people, have given up on electoral politics.

Canadians cared when Jack died, they cared when they occupied public spaces or supported those who did -- that being the most impressive example of a vibrant social movement -- and they must be given cause to keep caring. This must not be allowed to become an Obama moment of hopes betrayed.

It is essential that the NDP be receptive at all levels to the ideas and actions of the Occupy movement, and see its energy as something to be emulated.

Some things haven't changed. Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton ran for the presidency, his advisers insisting "it's the economy, stupid." It still is -- and more so. Harper knows it and that is how, pretending he had single-handedly created the conditions for "prosperity," he got his majority.

The NDP has always known how much the economy mattered -- for the 99 per cent -- but too often we have been afraid to say so, fearing that voters didn't see us as credible on running the economy. Or on managing the Canadian-American relationship which, given the utter interconnectedness of the Canadian economy with the larger American economy, is more or less the same thing.

Yet even Harper has been compelled to learn that managing the economy means stimulus packages in downturns. Now, as sluggishness and stagnation persist, the debate is about how much stimulus for how long. As I write, the case for more stimulus steadily grows in the face of increasing misery.

As to the Canadian-American relationship, Harper has been able to do so little in an intransigent and gridlocked Washington -- on border taxes and on pipelines -- that he has lost his ownership of this issue. There are crucially important openings here for the NDP.

Once the economy is in play as an electoral issue, what is needed is to broaden its meaning. Of course it's jobs. It so happens that a green economic strategy is job creating as well as lessening climate change.

Who gets the goods is a big economic issue -- for many of us the biggest of them all. That depends on the distribution of wealth and income, which must not be left to the heavy and highly visible hand of the market where CEOs determine their own incomes without respect to what's left for others.

The bottom line here is corporate power. The Harper agenda -- of tax holidays for the corporations, and more and more free-trade agreements which are charters of rights and freedoms for corporations -- is the agenda of big business.

This too, this corporate rule, must be changed. If anyone is running this world that seems sometimes out of control, it's the monster corporations and the result is not pretty. Social democracy must include economic democracy or little will really change.

There should be a halt to the process of selling off Crown corporations: a revival of the culture of public enterprise, notably in the energy sector, and a renewal of that culture within the CBC.

The alternative to corporate rule and corporate globalization is local production to serve local needs. There is enormous potential in food, and governments can facilitate this. Lessening long-distance trade in food would have the further advantage of lessening carbon emissions from transportation.

Then there's the matter of Canada's historic role as a producer and exporter of resources. To be well endowed with resources, as Canada is, is to have an obligation for stewardship, for developing these resources in the interest of Canadians and of the world. With the tar sands, we are being truly tested. The need to improve our performance, as Canadian citizens and global citizens, is urgent.

Restricting foreign ownership in finance has made possible the stability of the Canadian banking system relative to many others -- a fact that Harper does not admit and shows the folly of the neo-conservative advocacy of an open door everywhere. What's good enough for banking is good enough for communications and culture.

Whatever the merits of domestic ownership -- and they can be real with respect to employment generated by head offices -- when Canadian companies go abroad, as in mining, they must be effectively regulated to meet tough standards with respect to human rights and the environment abroad as well as at home.

There are lots of other issues which the other political parties neglect: full recognition of aboriginal rights, real aid to the poor of the world, the abolition of nuclear weapons, respect for universal human rights, less spending on prisons and more on repairing bridges and roads.

Then there is the special issue of Quebec, which is, for good reason, a constant of our history as a country, and where the NDP, unexpectedly, made its incredible breakthrough. There is now a new possibility of a federalist accommodation between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

Its happening depends on support across Canada, in every region, for the NDP as the only national, federal, party. If the NDP can carry Quebec, as it has, and hold it, then all is possible.

Let the left rally, revitalize the NDP at its base in the riding associations, strengthen its links with the social movements, and make the good things happen.

Mel Watkins is a Canadian political economist and activist. He is professor emeritus of economics and political science at the University of Toronto. He was a founder and co-leader with James Laxer of the Waffle and supported the New Politics Initiative

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