Sunday, January 26, 2014

B.C. Needs a More Centrist NDP

“B.C. doesn’t need two Liberal parties.” With those words,  B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix  made the announcement last September 23 that he was going to hold the reins of the party leadership until a leadership vote could be taken “by mid-2014 at the latest.” This was in stark contrast to the calls by Ian Waddell, Bill Tieleman, Michael Byers and others for a much longer and more wide–open contest that would  stimulate party renewal and give every competent candidate a fair shot.   Dix’s initial insistence on a shorter time frame, with himself in control in the meantime, along with a thinly veiled swipe at the more centrist and business friendly candidates (Gregor Robertson?) invited some observers –myself included—to speculate that Dix  was perhaps allowing his own biases to influence the process too much. It was difficult to resist such speculation as long as his longtime friend and colleague John Horgan was the frontrunner to replace him.           

I am happy to report that the situation has changed somewhat. Last month the date for the leadership vote was set for September, which will mean that nearly a full year will have been allowed for the leadership race  to unfold.  Mr. Horgan decided not to run, saying more fresh blood was needed (evidently not an endorsement of Mike Farnworth). Mr. Dix still points to members of his caucus as the best people to replace him, but to be fair,  several are strong candidates and they do represent  a fairly wide range of backgrounds and viewpoints. The new schedule  is still awkward for the federal MPs (who must choose whether to fight the 2015 election) and the mayors of Vancouver and Victoria( who need to complete their terms of office) but is more reasonable than it first appeared.  It also gives us more time to reflect on Dix’s comment that “B.C. doesn’t need two Liberal parties.”

The statement assumes, first of all, that the B.C. Liberal Party is a liberal party.  Is it a liberal party in the same sense that Gordon Gibson and David Anderson used to imply that it was—a distinctly centrist alternative to either the NDP on the left or the Socreds/Conservatives on the right? Remember that until the early 1990s Gordon Campbell was clearly grooming himself to be a future Social Credit premier. With the sudden collapse of  Social Credit in the 1991 election, Campbell turned his attention to a takeover of the Liberal Party, openly saying that labels didn’t matter very much, openly speaking of Bill Bennett as one of his role models. He succeeded in taking over the party in 1993, bringing many former Socred supporters on board with him. Swingeing 20% across-the-board tax cuts, and attempts to shift revenue from progressive taxation onto carbon and sales taxes, were hallmarks of his time in office, even if he did change direction on environmental and First Nations policies when he needed to. The current premier ran the last provincial election with none other than Brad Bennett at her side as  a special advisor, running a classic Socred-style campaign that preyed on the economic fears of marginal voters. When she lost her seat in Point Grey, she was welcomed with open arms  by the Bennetts in their traditional Social Credit  Kelowna stronghold. She hopes Liquid Natural Gas will help her to avoid difficult decisions, and help to obscure her bad ones, while trying to frighten voters away from " the socialists". Is that what a Liberal is?

In two –party systems everywhere, both parties compete for the centre vote; those that do so from the left typically have a distinctly different set of priorities and base of support from those that do so from the right. For the NDP to  concede the centre  to the Liberals is to consign itself to Opposition most of the time, and to rely only on split votes and occasional government collapse in order to win by default.  And with the decline of the blue collar constituency as a proportion of the electorate, New Democrats cannot assume that history is on their side, as they often did in the mid-twentieth century. In this century, at least, it is in the interest of both the NDP and the public as a whole that it strive to represent a true majority of the electorate.  That means bridging urban and rural, business and labour, green as well “development” oriented voters —better than the Liberals have.  If that means "moving to the centre,"  then so be it--especially if  B.C. 's so-called Liberal Party continues to leave the NDP so much room to manoeuvre in the middle of the political spectrum.

How Good Have the Conservatives Actually Been for Canadian Consumers?

While the Harper government's degradation of Canadian democracy has been scary, I find its economic policies to be by far the most disappointing aspect of its record. This fact was underscored for me last fall when I attended a conference of academics in Banff, Alberta. I happened to be seated at the same table as an economist from the University of  Calgary, and we got into a discussion of the so-called "Economic Action Plan". (The economist in question mentioned that Stephen Harper had been one of his students and that he had even been one of Harper's examiners for his Master's Thesis. While Harper succeeded in demonstrating the basic competence needed for the degree, it was plain that this was the work of a future politician, not a future economist. )  Even at the university with the reputation of being the most conservative in Canada, and Harper’s alma mater to boot, there was little to cheer about.

A major point of  conversation was the government’s belated discovery of “consumer interest” after some political polling revealed a warm voter response to  Communications Minister James Moore’s plan to have “more competition” in the telecom industry by allowing American corporate giant Verizon into Canada.  There are, it was pointed out to me, a couple of big problems with this. First, I was referred to a study by another economist  named Jeff Church at Calgary’s Institute of Public Policy, which indicated that lack of competition was not a problem , that three is the standard number of  local wireless providers  and the rate of return in the Canadian industry is actually fairly normal.  In fact, allowing Verizon in could conceivably threaten the competitiveness of the industry in the long run.  Second, if the government wished to have a genuine “Consumers First” orientation, it would have to not rush into trade policies that will have the effect of increasing the cost of clothing and sporting goods coming from 72 Less Developed Countries. It also would also have to not rush into the  Canada-EU trade deal, which will have the effect of raising drug prices by at least $1 billion per year. 

Of course, economists are also keenly aware that the biggest single source of  Canada’s relatively healthy performance during and after the financial crisis  was not any conservative policy since 2006, but rather our avoidance of conservative policies before 2006. In the first Conservative budget in May of that year, Jim Flaherty tipped his hand: "These changes [i.e. sub prime and 40-year mortgages] will result in greater choice and innovation in the market for mortgage insurance, benefiting consumers and promoting home ownership," Mr. Flaherty said. Luckily, he only got us ankle-deep in financial deregulation by the time the crisis hit, and the looser mortgage rules were subsequently reversed. But, we may well ask, how deeply in trouble would we have been if the Conservatives had been enjoying a majority government since, say, 2004? Canada's consumers should be grateful that we never had to learn the answer to that question.

Monday, January 13, 2014

History Lessons - The Commonwealth Fund

The Following link provides a pertinent perspective on Obamacare and the ridiculous treatment it has been receiving from right-wing media in the United States (and, I am sorry to say, in Canada as well).

History Lessons - The Commonwealth Fund