This week in Electionland – Through the Looking Glass edition

For some mood music, jump to the end of the article. CW: misogyny, violent lyrics, profanity. But also some damn good mashing up.

This was the week when I gave up on the election.

I’ll admit that even going in I was extremely skeptical. (See for instance my seven-part series on why voting isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and probably isn’t even a worthwhile exercise most of the time.) And granted, my patience was essentially gone by the end of last week. But keeping track of the literally absurd squabble over deficits that ate up several news cycles this week pushed me past my limits.

I tuned right out.

Which perhaps was the intention of most of the parties involved. Because while “the economy” may be a top priority for many voters, those same voters quite likely don’t want to spend more time than is strictly speaking necessary thinking about the specifics of the federal government’s budget. They just want to have secure jobs and decent incomes.

And besides, partisans are going to stand by their parties no matter what position they take. As the brilliantly-named “O-bots” have shown over the past seven years, loyal party members are happy to denounce a policy when in opposition and then whole-heartedly embrace that same policy when in power, and never mind how contorted the mental gymnastics involved are.

So, for instance, witness supporters of the NDP straining to reconcile themselves to Thomas Mulcair’s words of praise of Margaret Thatcher:

As a member of the National Assembly in Quebec under the Liberal government of Jean Charest, Mulcair credited the success of England’s economy under Thatcher’s Conservative Party to the “winds of liberty and liberalism” that “swept across the markets in England.”

Mulcair made the comments in April 2001 in the context of a parliamentary commission where he sought to discredit the interventionist tendencies of a separatist government led by Bernard Landry.

“A government should never pretend it can replace the private market. It does not work,” Mulcair said in 2001. “It didn’t work in England. Up until Thatcher’s time, that’s what they tried, the government stuck its nose everywhere.”

I haven’t had any occasion on this blog to vent the massive amount of vile dark disdain for Margaret Thatcher which lives still in my spleen, a hatred even I have a hard time explaining. I’ve never been to the UK and was like three years old when she left office. But the Iron Lady inspires in me nothing but unspeakable contempt. This is the woman who famously proclaimed that “There is no alternative” to neoliberal Western capitalism, who broke the back of British mining unions, who said that in her opinion there was no such thing as society and that we were merely a collection of individuals, who invaded the Falklands Islands just to drum up domestic political support, who grrr argghh I just get so friggin’ mad when I think too long about that lady. (I even wrote a song about it.)

It might have something to do with the fact that she was the most effective spokesperson for the “TINA” doctrine that ever lived, the brain to Reagan’s Hollywood smile and Mulroney’s whatever-it-was-he-had. (Pluck?)

Speaking of Mulroney, though he was succeeded by Kim Campbell, she didn’t last terribly long – she got drubbed by the Liberals in 1993 – and the Progressive Conservatives had to find themselves a new leader, who turned out to be…Jean Charest, later the “Liberal” premier of Quebec under whom Mulcair served as environment minister.

But I didn’t come here today to play Six Degrees of Maggie Thatcher. I came here today, I suppose, to marvel at the Opposite Day quality which this election has taken on. To see the leader of the federal NDP defending his past praise for one of the most reviled figureheads of unbridled capitalism in the last century…well, “absurd” doesn’t quite capture it, does it? But Mulcair stood by his guns, saying he’d merely been misunderstood:

On Wednesday, Mulcair defended his comments as an example of good public administration.

“There are certain things that work and others that don’t, and it’s not surprising that I’m in favour of the things that work,” Mulcair said during an afternoon campaign stop in Surrey, B.C., on Wednesday.

“My No. 1 priority is to get good services to the public. That hasn’t changed and that’s what that statement was about — making sure that the public gets the best services possible.”

OK but see that’s the thing. The way that Thatcher tried to get services to the “public” (which she by her own admission didn’t really believe existed) was through full-on privatization and the destruction of the then-relatively-strong unions and their bargaining power. She pursued an explicit course of class warfare against the proletariat. Her policies massively enriched Britain’s elite at the expense of the working class. To say, as Mulcair does, that his praise of Thatcher is a defence of “good public administration”, is to embrace fully a neoliberal point of view, an agenda of massive privatization and union-stomping, and an abandonment of the poor to their own lot. If Mulcair thinks that that “works”, then maybe he is, as the National Post speculated, a closet Tory. They certainly aren’t the only ones who think so:

Just before Mulcair won the NDP leadership in 2012, former party head Ed Broadbent went public in a last-ditch effort to prevent the bearded Quebecer from taking the helm. The reason? “I want the party to remain a left-of-centre party.”

And it’s not all appearances, either – it’s all over the NDP’s policy announcements this election.

Look no farther than Mulcair’s (extremely cynical) announcement this week that an NDP government would never, ever run a deficit, no matter what, for reals! Never mind that Stephen Harper made an identical promise in 2008, and then immediately proceeded to post seven (soon to be eight) consecutive deficits – like Harper, Mulcair knows that the impression is far more important than the reality of the situation.

And once we get into the issue of deficits, we’re truly Through the Looking Glass.

Much has been made of Stephen Harper’s seemingly incomprehensible decision to launch an early election knowing full well that testimony at the neverending Duffy trial would guarantee him two weeks of bad press and hard questions on the campaign trail. It seems like a massive unforced error, something he could have dodged simply by not putting himself in front of a podium and taking press question literally every single day.

But I wonder if Mulcair’s decision to firmly pledge that the NDP would be solidly in the black, come what may, might perhaps come to be seen as the biggest unforced error of the campaign.

Maybe that’s optimistic on my part.

And maybe it’s because I hate to agree with Justin Trudeau about anything, even the time of day. (Which is easier when he’s out West.) But despite the massive levels of cognitive dissonance, I actually found myself nodding along with a lot of what Trudeau had to say about deficit spending. Until I considered the source.

Trudeau was joined by former prime minister and finance minister Paul Martin for the second time this week and the elder Liberal statesman stole the spotlight. Martin, who balanced the country’s books in the 1990s as the Liberal finance minister, called Harper “the king of deficits.”

Martin’s fiery speech was aimed at buttressing Trudeau, who staked out fresh ground this week by saying he would run modest deficits to 2019 in order to pay for new infrastructure investments that he said are essential to spurring long-term economic growth.

The NDP and Conservatives have promised balanced budgets, prompting Martin to say: “That Tom Mulcair is now a student of Stephen Harper’s economy makes absolutely no sense.”

Mulcair, himself a former Quebec cabinet minister, fired back at the Liberals, describing Martin as “the king of austerity.”

Mulcair accused Martin of trimming social and health transfers to the provinces by almost one-quarter, while cutting employment insurance and housing spending.

The major problem here is: they’re both right.

Mulcair is 100% correct in labelling Martin the King of Austerity – and it’s a crown of thorns he ought to wear with shame. The 90s was a bad time to be a poor person in Canada, and Paul Martin is a major reason why.

But Martin also is absolutely correct to say that Mulcair’s economy policy “makes absolutely no sense.” In times of economic downturn – like, for instance, I don’t know, right now – deficit spending is the most responsible choice that a socially conscious government can make. And Martin doubled down on his comments a few days later:

“Where is the conscience of those who belong in the NDP? How can the NDP party — those who’ve worked it for all these years — stand for the fact that the party is now holding hands with the Conservatives and saying that our goal in the next mandate is to do absolutely nothing?”

It’s the fact that both of these politicians are taking the opposite position on deficit spending that one might expect which lends this whole spectacle a Bizarro-world quality. Martin’s legendary allergy to deficit spending quite simply doesn’t square with his scathing attack on the NDP – nor do the NDP’s supposedly Keynesian credentials jive with Mulcair’s balanced-budget pledge.

Harper’s contributions to this “debate” – and he’s been careful to mostly stay on the sidelines while his rivals attack each other – have only reinforced the Alice in Wonderland feeling. His main commentary on the whole affair has been that either of the major opposition parties will inevitably raise taxes, and that economy-minded voters are far better off sticking with a Conservative government with a proven track record – a statement which is entirely undercut by the simple fact that his government has run seven (soon to be eight) consecutive deficits and massively run up the federal debt.

His party’s track record on the economy is so dire that, just today, loyal lapdog Jason Kenney went on the CBC to desperately try to redefine the word “recession” days before the release of second-quarter data that almost certainly show the economy is indeed in recession for the second time since Harper became Prime Minister.

And yet, the Conservatives are trying to sell themselves as the safe and reliable choice, economically speaking.

In other words, what each party leader is saying and what their party has a record of doing are completely contradictory.

Which I suppose just goes to show that people will say anything to get elected. And we knew that to be true already. Obviously none of these turkeys is to be trusted on anything that they promise.

But it’s striking that, of the major parties, the Liberals seem to be the most “‘left-wing'” of the three – and note the scare-quotes, which I’ve doubled to make sure they’re taken seriously.

Equally striking is the fact that, if the polls are to be believed (and there’s numerous examples showing why they ought not to be), the NDP are strengthening their lead and the Conservatives are fading fast.

(You heard it here first – by the end of September the NDP are going to be running attack ads against the Liberals, rather than their current anti-Con fare.)

In short, what we’re looking at is an election which, at least in the public’s eye, could lead to a major redefinition of how the Big Three Parties are understood, something on the scale of 1993.

But it’s hard to care.

Because it seems that no matter what we get, we’re not going to get much. The same old cynical opportunistic politicians who treat campaign promises like marketers treat slogans – calculated aspirational statements designed to produce favourable reactions among a substantial enough segment of the public to gain market share votes. The same old neoliberalism – whether it’s embraced,  la Harper, or carefully talked around, like Mulcair does, or imagined away, as with Trudeau, who has allowed Paul Martin of all people to act as his proxy as he tries to position himself as the progressive option.

When Stephen Harper is the most honest-looking one of the bunch, I think it’s time for despair.



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