Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An open response to Chantal Hébert

The other day, I went to go see Chantal Hébert speak at the University of Alberta. It was a terrific hour and a half; she was as insightful as ever and quite funny in a very human way. But when she started going on again about how another Conservative government should trigger talks about uniting the Liberals and the NDP in happy harmony, I had to challenge that in the question period. The response was predictable: the NDP is in a "sorry state" because they've never formed a federal government, and they have to give up their "holy war on the Liberals" because they're not going to kill them off no matter what Jack Layton thinks. And since we're not going to have proportional representation anytime soon, the NDP should stand aside and let the Liberals kill them off.

If it had been just her and me in the room, there are so many ways I would have wanted to respond to that. I would have talked to her about what it's really like to live under a two-party system where only a tiny fraction of the political spectrum gets represented. I would have made her a list of all the ways the NDP has influenced politics in this country without ever seeing power on the federal level, some of which have been extremely profound (I mean, health care springs to mind just immediately). I would have brought up how the NDP represents between fifteen and twenty percent of the Canadian people, and how no one in, say, Germany would even think to say that the Greens (at 8%) or the Free Democrats (at 10%) are in a "sorry state" and should give up the ghost. I would have detailed how it was the feeling of disenfranchisement resulting from choosing between a centre-right and a right-wing party too many times that drove me to come to Canada in the first place, and how if too many people like her make my beloved Canadian political diversity go away, I'm up and moving to New Zealand. But the next guy with his hand up was shooting daggers at me with his eyes, so I just agreed with her that the NDP should quit trying to kill off the Liberals, and shut up.

Now, I've written this post one too many times for even my comfort, so I won't go on and on. But Blogging Horse made a terrific point a couple of weeks back that I think deserves a little bit more attention: the fact that the entire reason political parties exist is to "aggregate interests." Big-tent parties are by necessity unable to actually aggregate all of the interests of their membership (or even all of the interests of the mainstream of their membership!) due to those interests being so broad, which means that they aren't serving the sole purpose of political parties. BH used that point to tweak the Liberals, but I'd argue that it applies equally to the Conservatives these days. (Ask any Canadian right-winger whether they actually feel represented by the current government's policies. I suspect they'll either start ranting or give you a sad look and talk about how there's no other choice.)

No, fewer parties isn't the answer. And that would be true no matter which side were to end up victorious in the great battle to gain sole control over centre-left voters.

Realistically, I suspect there's no reasoning with Hébert on this one. She's enough of a product of the political culture she grew up in that she's not going to be giving up on the prediction that continued Conservative governments will force an amalgamation of left-wing and centre-left parties. My prediction, though, is that continued minority governments (of whichever colour) will eventually force the existing parties to learn to work together in true multiparty coalition governments in Parliament, after the voters get their pick among a series of real choices.

It's going to happen.

With or without electoral reform.

(Like it or not.)


West End Bound said...

I would have detailed how it was the feeling of disenfranchisement resulting from choosing between a centre-right and a right-wing party too many times that drove me to come to Canada in the first place

We're with you there, IP!

Not so sure about that moving to New Zealand thing, though. One immigration at a time is enough for now . . . . :-)

Québécoise ambulante said...

I happened to be at that talk, and I was surprised to hear just how fast she dismissed the benefits of proportional representation because "it will not be happening anytime soon." If someone that informed, as articulate and influencial as she is cannot get out of the "the political culture she grew up in", what hope is there, IP?

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Actually, what really gets me about this is that her solution is the ide that since it won't be happening anytime soon, we'd better do something far less politically healthy that would remove the conditions that are making proportional representation necessary. It's like, oh, I don't know: being really really hungry for this nutritionally balanced meal that your mom is making, but she tells you "sorry, it won't be done for another four hours. so here, how about you eat this grocery bag full of candy instead?"

As for hope, well, I admit to being a bit more hopeless about electoral reform than I was before the Ontario referendum. But I still think it's quite possible. And more relevantly to this post, I think that coalitions are coming whether electoral reform is anytime soon or not.

Anonymous said...

"And more relevantly to this post, I think that coalitions are coming whether electoral reform is anytime soon or not."


I hope that you're correct in your above assertion. I'm not so sure that I agree, for precisely the reasons I give to folks who trumpet the "why doesn't the NDP join with the Liberals and Greens to form a progressive coalition to defeat the Conservatives?"

The structural antagonisms built into our first-passed-the-post system are too pronounced to allow for such things. All the in-built incentives within FPP force parties to compete with one another. To do otherwise is to die.

But I wholeheartedly agree with everything else in your post. What really gets under my skin the most is the assumption, sometimes spoken, sometimes not, that it is the obligation of the NDP to roll over and die. You and I come from a country where there is no NDP, no mainstream left vehicle through which to bring pressure from the left onto the so-called "big tent" parties. We know all too well what politics is like in the absence of such pressure.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


You misunderstand. I'm not talking about "coalitions" in the sense of making an agreement to stop competing--when campaign time rolls around, they'll all do their own thing. I'm talking about coalition governments, i.e., members of multiple parties in Cabinet, formal agreements, etc. It's been done in Canada before, actually, and if more informal agreements have stemmed the tide of constant antagonism in the past, there's no reason why a coalition government wouldn't.

My point is that this is coming because it is necessary in order to bring any semblance of long-term stability to parliament. Because whether Hébert likes it or not, it's a lot more likely than the NDP rolling over and dying, because people are showing no signs of stopping voting for them. (Ditto the Liberals. Ditto the Greens.)

Jay said...

Wow. Chantal Hebert finally gets it right.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


"Finally"? This is nothing new for Hébert--are you sure you actually read her?

And she certainly hasn't been right about it yet, so I'd watch what you assume if I were you...

Simon said...

IP, at the moment, the more important point for the continued existeence of a strong NDP is that the Canadian population shows no opposition to the prospect of a continued series of minority governments. People are quite happy with a divided parliament. Dare I say it, they actually seem to like it.

L-girl said...

Excellent post, thanks IP.

I also really like Hebert, but this seems to be a blind spot for her. I'd pay good money to see you two debate this, in person or in print.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


The people like it, but that's only because they don't realize that coalition governments would give them the same benefits with more stability. And the politicians hate it!


In writing, please! I'm no good at all at this sort of thing in person.

janfromthebruce said...

Hebert is a liberal, and a right leaning one at that, so she advocates for the NDP falling on their sword, to ensure that the liberal party survives.
She is part of the 'problem' with the MSM, as she continually attacks the NDP, any chance she gets, and never has a nice word for our party.
She seems, like so many other older baby boomers, stuck in the time warp of the Trudeau era, where libs actually stood for something, beyond power, and could be discernable from conservatives.

She has lost sight of what politician stands for - the art of the possible.

This is how I see the lib party of today: they dress themselves up at the visible and vocal margins with left/progressive spokespeople (Axeworthy comes to mind here)but the ones who really rule and run the party apparatus/policy are very much right of centre and remain in the shadows but in control.
Hence, continual election campaigns and strategies to position themselves "progressive" but once elected, just never get around to implementing those "progressive policies", except those that cost little and give them media mileage.

Going to events like this, where one does not necessarily get a rebuttal, means they get to set the frame. However, IP, next time out, knowing how the speaker is going to respond to your question, means having "at the ready" a quick whitty response.
So for example, you could have quickly rebutted a 30 second rebuttal, like: thank goodness the precursor to the NDP/ccf was there in the 60s or we would never had national health care, as the liberals were just not that progressive just like now! (endgame)

catherine said...

It seems that Chantal Hebert was talking about the current situation which is with a united right under the CPC, so I doubt she would consider an argument from the '60s (about the NDP/CCF and national health care) to be a rebuttal.