Monday, November 21, 2016

Canadian Progressives Recognize an Old Problem, and See a New Fix

{An edited version of this article appeared in the Edmonton Journal on November 21, 2016 ; below is the longer unedited version}

Mark Crawford teaches Canadian Government and Democratic Theory at Athabasca University. He was also employed for five years as a public servant both federally and provincially in the areas of trade and labour policy.

As surely as the receding tide slowly unveils a submerged coastline, the current juncture in Canadian public affairs is revealing a long familiar pattern, almost as old as Canada itself: the gradual de-radicalization of a Liberal election platform.

Seasoned progressives saw it coming, of course. Assigning wily veteran John McCallum the task of walking back promises on the timing of Syrian refugee settlement and on Temporary Foreign Workers was just the first, and most deliberate, step. Now, they brace themselves for the release of the Report of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE). The prime minister’s vow to make 2015 “the last first-past-the -post election in Canadian history” never sounded convincing, unless he were saddled with  a minority government and therefore had to keep this promise as a condition of remaining in power. Any sincere preference on the prime minister’s part was premised upon the possibility of a majoritarian ranked ballot, or Alternative Vote system being adopted, not any form of proportional representation, with the power-sharing coalitions that they would almost certainly entail.

The biggest obstacle in this regard may not be cynical self-serving calculation as much as sincere self-delusion. Many politicians simply refuse to believe the (counter-intuitive) truth that they would generally make better decisions if they were more constrained by the need to maintain support by representatives of an actual  majority. This belief that greater discretion or agency on the part of the political executive equals better policy is contradicted by both the most serious cross-national research and the Liberals’ own sterling record of productive, activist minority governments. Yet it remains the unreflective default position of most political leaders in this country.

No doubt Justin Trudeau and Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland are convinced that their dramatic rescue of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU would have been impossible if the Liberals had been forced to work with coalition partners. Leaving aside the logical possibility of forming a true majoritarian coalition with the Conservatives around this and other economic issues--a last-ditch  resort to be sure--it should be remembered that enlightened Greens and New Democrats are not simply “protectionists”.  Many would love to see genuine reciprocal exchange of goods and services, instead of governments holding market access hostage in return for enhanced rights of corporations to sue governments for such “regulatory takings” as public auto insurance, environmental laws and low-priced generic drugs. When strong resistance to investor-state provisions arose in Germany, France, Belgium and elsewhere, and the EU’s bargaining position on behalf of its pharmaceutical giants weakened after the Brexit vote, a window of opportunity opened to negotiate a genuine free trade deal that would benefit all consumers, not just consumers of beef and autos at the expense of consumers of medicines and public goods. Inserting some new language  about health and the environment for investment lawyers to argue about in secretive trade tribunals didn’t turn CETA into a “progressive trade agreement,” any more than labour or environmental side deals and  a so-called Social Services Reservation turned NAFTA into one. It is even more doubtful that Ottawa’s offer to “re-negotiate” NAFTA with President-Elect Trump will do anything to curtail Chapter 11.

And what about the Liberals’ ambitious new infrastructure plan, which hopes to leverage billions in new private investment dollars by expanding the categories of P3s to include equity investment-in-exchange for “negotiated returns”? If “negotiated return” sounds like something that is both sheltered from competition and legally guaranteed (i.e. litigable), then you probably already have a hint of what some of the problems will be--especially in the context of myriad international investment treaties. Yet there is a considerable body of scholarship in economics departments and schools of public management across the country that is critical of P3s (what  the late urban thinker Jane Jacobs called “monstrous hybrids”); a progressive coalition would draw upon that knowledge and exercise greater caution and discretion in awarding public contracts on this basis.

The Liberals now look set to side with the Conservatives on both of the most critical structural issues currently facing our democracy: the persistence of an unfair voting system and the scope of corporations’ rights to privately challenge public policy.  So while Mr. Trudeau may be understandably loathe to make New Democrats and Greens seem more relevant and influential in Parliament by making all of their votes count, he should also realize that, if he doesn’t, he will probably make them more relevant and influential anyway:  by ceding to them the mantle of authentic progressive politics.

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