Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Some thoughts on Pat Martin's rephrasing

How about that? Just when I was starting to get uncomfortable with how suspicious it was that the CanWest story on Pat Martin had contained an awful lot of paraphrase of what Martin had "said" and surprisingly few direct quotations, Martin comes out and issues a clarification:

Yesterday I spoke with a reporter from the Winnipeg Free Press. It was reported I favour a merger of the New Democratic and Liberal parties. I do not. I wish to take this opportunity to clarify my remarks and clear up any misunderstanding.

I didn’t suggest that New Democrats should merge with the Liberal Party. I believe that progressives across Canada should unite behind a strong vehicle for change and demand a better government. That vehicle for change is the New Democratic Party.

That is why I have run in the past four elections for the New Democrats and intend to run for the New Democrats in the next election — whenever that may be. We need to defend the values that we believe in and I believe that under Jack’s leadership the NDP has great opportunity to grow even further.

I can hear the cynical out there scream ‘backtrack’ already. But, let me assure you. As the New Democrat MP who holds the seat once held by Stanley Knowles and J.S. Woodsworth, a pioneer of this great country and my party, my commitment to social democracy and the NDP has never been greater.

Ordinary Canadians need us to fight for them in Ottawa — to fight for their values, to fight against government corruption, to fight against corporate elites who would turn our country into their own playground.

This is the NDP that rewrote a federal budget — that cancelled Liberal corporate tax cuts to invest in education, housing and the environment. This is the NDP that’s working to rewrite the Conservatives’ lame Clean Air Act to produce environmental legislation with teeth.

This is the NDP that has more than doubled its caucus and tripled its popular vote in the last two elections, and let me assure you again: we’re just getting started.
Some will insist that this is nothing but backtracking, but I can definitely buy that this is a rephrasing of what Martin actually said to the reporter, minus a few key points. You know: Everybody should get behind the NDP and form a new big-tent party of the left, yaddayadda jameyheathcakes. And after that, he would have said the part that was paraphrased by the goons at CanWest, but which got left out of the officially endorsed rephrasing, which probably sounded something like And if that doesn't work out, then the left is in big trouble because we're splintered. Sure, I buy that he said that.

Thing is, I still disagree with him.

As I said after the last election:

Think about what it would take for [this] scenario to come true in Canada. The Liberals would collapse completely and be unable to bounce back from their internal rifts and their recent defeat. The NDP, noting the gaping hole to their right, would drift toward the centre. They'd start choosing centrist candidates--maybe even some wayward Liberals abandoning the sinking ship--and moving away from social democratic policies in their platform. After a decade or two of this, they'd be able to win over even the most centrist of centre-left voters and start occupying the territory currently staked out by the Liberals. With no party to their left, they'd have a lock on the entire centre-left and be able to vault themselves into an easy victory. Anglophone Canada would have a neat little two-party system once again.

I'm sorry, but don't want to be a part of that NDP. Heck, if I did want that, I'd join the Liberals now and skip all the steps in the middle--it would be a heck of a lot simpler, and at least there would still be a left-wing party in this country. The solution to the current problems among Canada's centre-left isn't replacing one natural governing party with another--it's electoral reform. I want to see an NDP that represents the 18% of Canadians who vote for them (or 20%, or 22%, or whatever it ended up being under a system where people actually voted the way they wanted to vote) and does it well. I want them to have precisely the amount of power the voters have given them, no more and no less. And most of all, I want an NDP that can play the role of representing left-wing voters in a parliament that requires compromise on all sides.
There's a lot that frustrates me about Canadian politics, but if I could name one thing that frustrates me most of all, it's that nobody here seems to realize just how ridiculous they sound to the rest of the world when they start going on about the lure of big-tent parties. The notion that a party needs to get (or be aiming at getting) 33% or more of the vote in order to justify its existence is such complete nonsense that I don't even know where to begin. In pretty much all the countries of the world with multiparty systems, genuinely small parties--I'm talking parties that regularly get no more than ten percent of the vote--play a role by forcing all the parties to debate their policy ideas during elections and in Parliament, by taking part in all-party committees, and even by forming part of the government when coalition conditions are right. A midsize party like the NDP can do all that and more. All we have to do is open our eyes and recognize that this country has a multiparty system--not a two-party system with a couple of temporary outliers, but a genuine, colourful multiparty system that's getting more colourful all the time. And then start acting like it.

[Update: More detail from John Ivison. Martin was definitely taken out of context and poorly paraphrased. I do still disgree with him, but this new version sounds a lot more like the Martin we know.]


Pink said...

Ok I can't believe I'm going to defend Pat Martin, but here goes...

If I read you right, you don't believe in mergers or the elimination of any political parties. Fair enough - you have stated that often.

But Martin didn't actually say "Everybody should get behind the NDP and form a new big-tent party of the left" he said "I believe that progressives across Canada should unite behind a strong vehicle for change and demand a better government. That vehicle for change is the New Democratic Party."

There is a world of difference between those two statements. There are some progressives who support the Liberals. But the Liberals are also the party of Tom Wappell, Laurence Decore and many others who are pretty right of centre. Wanting to unite progressives and distroy the Liberal party are two different things.

You work for the NDP and try to win them new support in elections - so presumably you don't want the NDP to remain static. I don't think Pat Martin or Jack Layton or any NDPer should be given a hard time for wanting to grow their party. If you believe in a party, and work for it, you want it to have more influence. And in any political system, more votes and more seats is more influence.

Until we have PR, I don't accept that we can have influence in small numbers. I don't know when you came to Canada, but I remember the grim years when the NDP had nine seats in Parliament and had no influence. It wasn't much better under Alexa McDonough. In the last few elections, the NDP has gained a lot of ground and Layton has been able to play that into some good changes.

Anyway, I think you and Pat Martin are closer than you think.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Fair enough--there is a difference between how I've portrayed Martin's statement and what he seems to have actually said. Perhaps I'm as guilty of bad paraphrase as CanWest, though at least I have an excuse--I don't actually have access to the original quote. However, I do think my overall point stands. If we change the political culture to one that accepts temporary coalition governments, there is simply no need to do contortions in order to crowd out parties or "unite progressives." That very idea would go the way of the dodobird.

Sane political cultures do not demand that parties deliberately set out to "grow" themselves. Sane political cultures ask parties to present their ideas to the voters, and then the voters get to decide whether they like those ideas when they go to the ballot box. Sometimes parties grow, and sometimes they shrink, but that has to do with whether or not their policies are any good, not with their political shrewdness and opportunism. In Canada, we do not have a sane political culture, and this fundamental problem is exacerbated by the fact that we have a multiparty political system trying to fit into a voting system designed for only two parties. This has to end, and soon.

The solution isn't one party "growing" another out of existence. It's changing the culture so that the parties can coexist and the voters can finally pay attention to the issues instead of who they need to "grow."

And speaking as a New Democrat now instead of as an observer of political culture, the immediate problem with this attitude for the NDP is that it may well be the case that the party doesn't grow any more in the next election. If we've been saying all along that we're going to "make a big breakthrough," and that doesn't happen, then the cries for the NDP to disband will be loud and fierce. And they'll be as wrong then as they are now, but if we've bought into the whole Canadian "you have to be able to grow your party in order to be worth anything" nonsense," then how the heck do we respond to those cries then?

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Oh, and one more thing about this:

Until we have PR, I don't accept that we can have influence in small numbers.

I'm sorry, but you're just wrong about this. Given the way the Liberals run from the left and govern from the right, the mere existence of the NDP and the fact that they get to sit in Parliament and ask the government questions is already a form of influence and a way to represent their voters' ideas. No, of course it's not the kind of influence the party has while holding the balance of power in a minority parliament, but to someone who spent most of her life under a two-party system, it's already a lot.

Canadian-born Canadians take way too much for granted in this respect. If I have to choose between a scenario where the NDP stays a midsize leftist party and one in which they grow, take over the parts of the political spectrum currently held by the Liberals, and then emerge as a big-tent centrist party with no one to the left of them to hold their feet to the fire, then I choose the former, thankyouverymuch.

Purple Library Guy said...

One inflection I'd like to put on all this is that if I'm in a political party and I believe in its ideology, then I don't really want to just have an influence, I want that ideology to be the way government is done, the way society runs. So I'm going to want to expand my party.
It is ultimately pointless to expand a party by modifying its message, because then even if you win you don't get what you were trying for. But that doesn't mean expansion isn't a goal and can't happen in a useful way.
The Neocons figured that out decades ago--that the way to get what you want is not to change to embrace the majority, but to get people to agree with your ideas until the majority are with you. Of course they achieve that largely by relentless repetition of lies and systematic defamation and persecution of public figures who contradict them. But the basic idea is sound.

Yes, the NDP should try to expand. It should try to expand by persuading people to its beliefs and philosophy. There's nothing wrong with that, and political parties try to do that everywhere. There's no reason to accept the notion that people are static and most will never agree with you.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

purple library guy,

Oh, I'd be just fine with the NDP trying to persuade tonnes of people to embrace their ideas. I don't believe it can happen before the next election, though. And if we're talking about turning into a true big-tent party, I don't believe that can happen without sacrificing a lot of the ideas. A lot of New Democrats seem to think that as long as the centre-left united under the NDP label, that it'd somehow manage to be just like the current NDP, only big. I don't believe that for a minute.

The thing is, there is a model for working together with other parties without "uniting," and it's already been highly successful in most of the democracies of the world. This is the model we need to embrace--it's the best way forward, for all of us. It's incredibly important that we not buy into the notion that if we don't manage to transform ourselves into a big-tent party, that something is wrong and we need to disband. A party that consistently gets between fourteen and eighteen percent of the vote just isn't that small, and while it hasn't always been able to exert direct influence, the long-term, big-picture relevance of the NDP is undeniable.

It all comes down to what I said back here, really.

Purple Library Guy said...

Well, I don't disagree with you.
For that matter, when I made my post I didn't really think you disagreed with me. But I thought it was important to mention specifically because the left in Canada, especially of late decades, and for that matter the Democrats in the US, have tended to be very fatalistic in this way, where the debate tends to be very much framed as "ideological purity VS growth". The Democrats decisively dropped the ideological purity and found that, standing for nothing, nobody really supported them, and they had little with which to oppose the Repugs, who did stand for something (albeit something evil)and busily persuaded people to believe in it.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


That's a good analogy. And agreed.

Anonymous said...

LPG, i'd be more careful about your framing. if you accept at any real level that "if I'm in a political party and I believe in its ideology, then I don't really want to just have an influence, I want that ideology to be the way government is done, the way society runs," then you might find yourself bordering on a mentality that has lost the ability to attain or retain any actual pluralism in political systems. the very idea that the raison d'etre of party politics is total domination of the political arena puts you in something other than a play-nice parliamentary democracy, that's for sure. in fact, it seems more likely that this whole "big tent" approach to cope with a "two party system" is just another example of political malapropism: the US has the big tent, two party system; canada has, as pragmatist says, a multiparty system that's growing nicely. ignoring substantial institutional and cultural differences like that is falling down the rabbit hole - made worse if it becomes a collective hallucination that leads to strategic voting and disingenuous policy platforms. besides, the so-called big tents in the US would never be big enough for anything like the NDP and one need only mention the Green Party to a Democrat in the US and it’s pretty clear they’re about as welcome in the circus there as Ralph Nader.