Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Left-wing rhetoric, right-wing policy

When I was a lefty American still trying to make a life in the U.S., one of the things that used to frustrate me no end was the way Democrats always use right-wing rhetoric in an attempt to sell centrist policies to the American public. John Kerry, for example, in his speech accepting the nomination for the presidency, felt compelled to remind people that he had "broken with many in his own party to vote for a balanced budget" and that the U.S. was "a nation at war--a global war on terror against an enemy unlike any they have ever known before." Even now, the party website talks about "fair immigration reform that keeps our borders secure" and reminds would-be voters of the fact that they "led the fight to create the Department of Homeland Security."

Contrast this pattern with some recent quotes from prominent Canadian Conservatives:

Linguistic duality is a core value in Canadian society, and the government is committed to ensuring that both the letter and the spirit of the Official Languages Act are respected.
--Josée Verner, Minister for the Francophonie, May 11th Question Period
The recent budget of the Minister of Finance made major new investments into public transport and also into incentives for those who use public transport, as well as significant investments into renewable fuels. This is not an entire plan, but these are important actions.
--Stephen Harper, Prime Minister, May 15th Question Period
We want to work with older workers. We want to get them to stay on the job. We want them to get new jobs. That, of course, is because they are what makes us competitive. They are what makes us productive.
--Diane Finley, Minister for Human Resources, May 18th Question Period
and my personal favourite:
I am very pleased to announce $1.5 billion in additional spending for this year. Today we announced the enhanced spring credit advance program that will double the amount of maximum interest free loans to $100,000 per farmer. We will allow them to repay that until September 2007. We are changing the AMPA program to include more agricultural sectors to get access to the program. We are addressing the failures of the previous Liberal CAIS program by adjusting the inventory valuations back to 2003, 2004 and 2005. We are putting $950 million today into farmers' hands.
--Chuck Strahl, Minister of Agriculture, May 18th Question Period
I'm sure I don't even need to point out that this is the exact reverse of the situation in the U.S.: the Conservatives are using left-wing rhetoric in an attempt to sell centrist policies to the Canadian public. Canadian lefty Murray Dobbin foresaw this in his post-election column in the Tyee, in which he recognized that "Stephen Harper only won, and barely won, because he pretended to be well farther to the left than he actually is. He had to. Otherwise, he would have been relegated to the dustbin of political history and he knew it."

Now, the good news in this is that it means that Canadians aren't forced to listen to Stephen Harper drone on about how "the values for which the United States stands are the values for which Canada stands," which Harper-clone Prime Minister John Howard of Australia said in his recent speech to a joint session of Parliament. If you can't imagine a Canadian Tory saying something like that, well, it sure ain't because they don't wish they could. Isn't it kind of delightful to think about our Tories choking on words like "pleased to announce one point five billion in additional spending" and "significant investments into renewable fuels" while only the Aussies get to talk about fun things like "spreading democracy," "individual liberty," and "free enterprise"? It sure makes me feel better.

The bad news, of course, is that the little rhetorical trick seems to be working a lot better for the Canadian Conservatives than it's ever worked for the American Democrats. Ipsos-Reid polling numbers released today have Harper in "majority government territory," which means that the voters are swallowing his faux lefty talk whole. And I have to wonder: is this tactic working so nicely for voters because it's so comfortably familiar?

10 comments:

Michel Fortin said...

Clever observation. I think that the day they stop doing that, or the day Canadians start realizing that, they will fall in the pools.

It seems these days that they are giving up on Ontario and trying to seduce us Quebekers; but I think that strategy could backslash. What they got right about us is that while we Quebekers are more on the left, we mostly want to see our (provincial) government in charge of social programs. So when the conservatives said they would fix the fiscal imbalance to give more money to Quebec, it sold well.

Stephen Harper will surly try to play that card again on the next election, but I wonder what they will promise once they have fixed the only thing we care about. Quebekers do love the Kyoto protocol, do not like Bush and surly would prefer not going to Afganistan. Once we feel the fiscal imbalance problem is solved, they won't have much more to sell us, it seems.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Michel,

I know the conventional wisdom is that Quebecers are left-wing, but I wonder sometimes if it's just that Gilles Duceppe is left-wing. Sometimes it seems to me that the left-right axis is almost irrelevant in Quebec, and people make their votes dependent on other issues that are more important to Quebecers. Although the formation of the new left-wing sovereigntist party would speak against that, I suppose. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Great post. I have to say, I'd rather live in a place where the right has to pretend than a place where the left has to pretend!

tom rapper said...

michel--

if the quebecois feel like the conservatives have "fixed the fiscal imbalance", aren't they going to be more likely to vote for them next time? if nothing else, then out of gratitude for doing what the liberals couldn't manage for thirteen years?

Trevor J. said...

It's interesting, though - I don't think Howard would be silly enough to wax quite so rhapsodic about Australia's wonderful client-state relationship with the US if he were speechifying in a similar manner back home, because there are just as many Australians disgusted with that kind of crap as there would be Canadians if Harper were to take a similar tack (which, as you hint, we all know he longs to). Guess all that attention goes to Howard's head when he's off schmoozing in foreign parts.

By the way, it's just as likely that Harper learned his start-left-then-veer-right skills from Howard as from anyone else: Harper apparently considers him something of a mentor & role model (Howard was surprise victor a decade ago in similar circumstances, likewise running on a platform that soft-pedalled his party's hard-right values; he hasn't been out of office since), to the extent that Harper asked for and was dispatched a key advisor from Howard's party in the runup to the election. So perhaps he's even more of a cautionary example than you might think.

(I'll give Howard credit for knowing one thing, though: only if he harboured a secret desire to end his career prematurely on account of being laughed out of office would he dare end a speech with "God bless Australia". So what's up with you guys? I would've thought Harper's ludicrously inappropriate "God bless Canada" would be provocation enough to see Canadians - traditionally disinclined as they are to put up with immodest, attention-seeking behaviour - rise up as one, storm 24 Sussex, and throw the bum out on the street. What gives?)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Trevor,

I don't know--the link I provided to the speech is from your own PM's website. It's not as if he's hiding it. Maybe Howard had to start off his reign with left-wing rhetoric to sell his policies, but it's clear he's gotten much bolder than Harper is allowed to be at this point. (Though give him time, and a majority government, and that will almost certainly change.)

And although I agree that "God Bless Canada" sounds utterly ridiculous, Harper's been ending his speeches that way for years. It's nothing new, and it certainly didn't go the way of his "Alberta firewall" comments, so he clearly doesn't regard it as the sort of right-wing rhetoric he has to do away with to win. There certainly are those who have been pissed off about it, though.

Michel Fortin said...

Quebeckers are on the left for international issues, more on the right for internal issues when it concern the federal government and on the left at the provincial level. I think this explains why the Bloc is so strong: no-one else is better placed on the right-left international-national plane. Some times I wonder if the Green party platform isn't the best to rival the Bloc in Quebec; too bad they're not taking us very seriously.

On the provincial front, the problem is that the Parti Québécois in the last few years has shifted to the right (mainly when Bouchard was in place), making it harder to distinguish it from the Liberals (and don't fool yourself: Quebec's Liberals are on the right of the political spectrum). People who were seeking an alternative only had the ADQ (another right party) to turn to. Indeed, if Quebec Solidaire can get enough media attention during the next election campaign, I think it could have a noticeable effect on the outcome. It could help reelect the Liberals for one thing, but it would definitively put a true left party on the map here in Québec.

Maybe I was speaking up my own wish, but while most people are happy here with the last federal budget (at least for how the money got distributed to the provinces), I'm not sure it will translate into much more votes at the next election if people do not think Quebec can get more from the Conservatives, or if people believe the Liberals will reverse the situation to what it was before. Don't forget that there are still a lot of issues on which Quebeckers strongly disagree with Harper, and I'm sure the Bloc and the Liberals will be there this time to remind us.

Another thing to consider is that the next election here in Québec (which could happen as soon as autumn 2006) could completely change the political situation: it could lead to a new referendum, it could lead our low-approbation-rate prime minister to try to associate himself with Harper as a way to win some votes; it could add new voices from a left party in our parlement... everything could change before the next federal election. That's why I think the current pool results are, for the most part, meaningless.

Enough said, I'm going to bed now.

Candace said...

"Linguistic duality is a core value in Canadian society, and the government is committed to ensuring that both the letter and the spirit of the Official Languages Act are respected.
--Josée Verner, Minister for the Francophonie, May 11th Question Period"

Bilingualism has been around too long to do anything about it, so few, if any, CPC supporters choked on that. Well, okay, my father did, but he's 75 and makes me look like a liberal. Hell, he makes Archie Bunker look like a liberal (almost).

"The recent budget of the Minister of Finance made major new investments into public transport and also into incentives for those who use public transport, as well as significant investments into renewable fuels. This is not an entire plan, but these are important actions.
--Stephen Harper, Prime Minister, May 15th Question Period"

The environment is important to CPC supporters, believe it or not, so I doubt Harper or his supporters choked a whole lot on that. We just don't like the idea of buying useless factories in Russia instead of cleaning up our own back yard.

"We want to work with older workers. We want to get them to stay on the job. We want them to get new jobs. That, of course, is because they are what makes us competitive. They are what makes us productive.
--Diane Finley, Minister for Human Resources, May 18th Question Period"

Why would that bother anyone, other than perhaps the NDP because of labour laws being changed? With the upcoming employment crunch due to retiring baby boomers, we need all the productive employees we can get.

"I am very pleased to announce $1.5 billion in additional spending for this year. Today we announced the enhanced spring credit advance program that will double the amount of maximum interest free loans to $100,000 per farmer. We will allow them to repay that until September 2007. We are changing the AMPA program to include more agricultural sectors to get access to the program. We are addressing the failures of the previous Liberal CAIS program by adjusting the inventory valuations back to 2003, 2004 and 2005. We are putting $950 million today into farmers' hands.
--Chuck Strahl, Minister of Agriculture, May 18th Question Period"

Again, why would this bother CPC supporters? Let's not forget the infamous "megacity" vs "rural" vote, after all.

You seem to forget that Canadian conservatives (at least the political versions) are to the left of US Democrats on most issues. This may change over time if Harper manages to pull a John Howard, but we will likely always be left of them on a number of issues. SSM is an example - the issue is the word marriage, not the union. The CPC wanted a similar law to what was passed in the UK, which seems to have worked quite well for Elton John et al. No one in the US seems to be suggesting even that, at least to my knowledge (I'm not real hung up about it so haven't followed the issue globally other than headlines).

Yes, there are rabid right wingers out there, just as there are rabid way-left wingers that think Jack doesn't do/say/oppose enough, but the majority are "right of centre" vs hard right, IMHO.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Candace,

This is a post about rhetoric, not about policy. I have no doubt that these people, at least most of them, actually believe in the policies they're espousing, just as the Democrats in the U.S. believe in the policies they're espousing. But the rhetoric the Conservatives are using to sell those policies to the Canadian public is not right-wing. That doesn't change the policy at all; it just means the policy can feel more left-wing than it is because of the words they use to describe it.

I mean, take the agricultural policy. If identical policies were proposed in the U.S. by a Republican (or even a Democrat!), there's no way anybody would talk about it by using the words "$1.5 billion in additional spending for this year. " That would be the kiss of death! Hell, before I came to Canada, I'd never heard a single politician say anything like "yay more spending!" Does this mean that no American politicians believe in increasing spending? Hardly. It just means that the U.S. is a country where "additional spending" is always associated with recklessness, whether it's true or not, so you never utter those words if you want to be reelected. By contrast, Canadians who want to make these centrist policies palatable to the progressive majority find that playing up rhetoric like "yay additional spending" and playing down rhetoric (like John Howard's) that would be the kiss of death in Canada.

Again, if you'll notice, I'm saying that the U.S. Democrats and the Canadian Conservatives are actually both trying to sell similarly centrist policies, so I certainly haven't "forgotten" where the Conservatives currently are on the world spectrum. But the rhetoric they each have to use to do so says a lot about the countries they each live and work in, and a lot about their election strategies. And what I meant by imagining them "choking back" their words is that I would bet good money that, say, the Minister of Agriculture wishes he could sell his new policy with rhetoric that doesn't make him sound like a guy who thinks government spending is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

And I know you can't stand the Liberals, Candace, but you have to admit that "pretend to be more left-wing than you are" is a page straight out of their handbook.

Candace said...

Hey, if taking a page out of the Liberal handbook keeps getting the conservatives elected, I'm all for it.

And point taken re: rhetoric