Jack Layton’s letter to Canadians upon his death in 2011 was more than a deeply inspiring appeal to the better angels of our nature. It reinforced the enduring vitality and necessity of our common fundamental Canadian values of being a “loving, hopeful and optimistic” people. Jack not only sent us all a heartfelt and powerful message, but also gave us pause to think about ourselves, our country, and indeed, our identity as Canadians. Perhaps we needed to be reminded that Canada has always been, and forever will be, “one of the hopes of the world.” Jack’s words belong to all of us.
It’s high time we revisit and reflect again upon Jack’s message, but on our own “hopeful and optimistic” terms — and certainly not in the context of a partisan spat. But that’s what happened when, in a victory speech the evening of the November 25 by-elections, Justin Trudeau declared that “the NDP is no longer the hopeful, optimistic party of Jack Layton” and that it was “the Liberal party tonight that proved hope is stronger than fear.” The criticism was swift, with an incensed Thomas Mulcair countering (speaking Mr. Trudeau’s name twice!), “That Justin Trudeau would use Jack Layton’s dying words as a political tool says everything that needs to be said about Justin Trudeau’s judgment and character.” It was now personal, having less to do with Jack’s words themselves, and more about decency and the ethics of rhetoric in political warfare. Whether Mr. Trudeau’s words were in fact an ill-advised yet fair criticism of the NDP, or merely in poor taste, and the appropriateness of Mr. Mulcair’s reaction, are not of concern here. Suffice it to say that this tiff gave political pundits and journalists not just red meat but prime Kobe beef to gnaw on for at least one news cycle. Ultimately, it was Mr. Layton’s widow, MP Olivia Chow, who stepped in to remind us that we needed to focus on “the real problem, which is Stephen Harper’s government.”
The dust having settled on this fracas, the underlying meaning of the collective reaction of alarm on all sides tells us a lot about the current state of Canadian politics, especially when considered in the context of Jack’s words. In a Facebook post reflecting on Mr. Layton’s funeral, Michael Ignatieff mused that the “words we care about — generosity, justice, hope” don’t belong to any one party, and that “these values are bigger than all of us, bigger than our divisions and our arguments.” This statement was eerily prescient of the recent fuss, and all of this taken together should compel each of us — especially our politicians — to think about who we really are, and what we really want, as Canadians. The parties have “fought each other over the years,” Mr. Ignatieff reminded us, “but now sitting together in the same hall, isn’t it obvious how much we have in common?”
This line concisely reflects the sentiments of Canadian voters that we’ve been seeing online, be it through our interactions with them in social media, or in poring over comments sections of political articles: the recurring tropes are stop fighting and start cooperating. So many Canadians are tired of partisan squabbling between the Liberals and the New Democrats, and are imploring them to cooperate in some way. This sentiment has undoubtedly become more acute since the 2011 election, in which Stephen Harper and his Conservatives formed a majority government with only 39.6% of the popular vote. Movements in support of electoral cooperation between the parties (with varying ideas of what should happen after the 2015 election) are chugging along well. We support their endeavours (even though the Libdemo Movement’s post-election ideas differ somewhat) because what we all share is a desire for the Liberal Party and the NDP, together with the Green Party, to come to the table and start talking about how they can work together. But we’re not holding our breath.
Indeed, given the current political climate and recent polling, it’s unlikely that we’re going to see olive branches extended from any quarter. Messrs. Mulcair and Trudeau are clearly itching to fight an election against both Stephen Harper and each other, and we hope that the imperative to unseat Harper and his Conservative government will be met. But the related imperative, as expressed by so many Canadians, of an end to partisan bickering and an embrace of constructive cooperation, will remain — and it, too, must be met. Are the Grits and Dippers up to the challenge of putting partisanship aside to sincerely pursue their constitutional ethic to represent their constituents and work in the best interest of Canadians? (Green Party leader Elizabeth May has already signaled her willingness to participate in electoral cooperation, and we include the Green Party in our proposals for cooperation and unification because of its strong stance on environmental issues.) And can they make and keep a promise that this cooperation be accountable to the public? Can they rise above their divisions and arguments to tackle the issues that matter most to everyday Canadians?
We think they can. The Libdemo Movement advocates for policy cooperation between the Liberal Party, the NDP, and the Green Party, made through an open agreement — even if the first two end up as the Government and Official Opposition after 2015. We believe that the success of such a cooperation could lead to progressive unification down the road — an idea we also promote as a sensible and pragmatic outcome of cooperation together with the consolidation of the progressive vote that will result from demographic momentum.
For now, our priority is to gather and build public support for inter-party policy cooperation, in order to clearly demonstrate Canadians’ desire for collaborative and progressive solutions to our most pressing issues — especially when it comes to undoing the damage wrought by Stephen Harper and his Conservatives on far too many fronts. This cooperation must also include an unequivocal return to evidence-based policymaking and ending Harper’s “war on science.” After all, the results of scientific research (in both the physical and social sciences) don’t belong to any particular party.
To be clear, the kind of agreement we propose is not for a coalition government (which we could see anyway depending on the results of 2015), but would restricted to policymaking. Unlike a coalition government, policy cooperation would entail neither one party’s extracting concessions from another in exchange for support in Parliament, nor forced and contentious compromise. These would defeat the purpose of, and indeed violate, the spirit of cooperation and consensus.
How this would work would ultimately be up to the parties, if they are indeed able of setting aside partisanship and ideology to work together pragmatically on crucial issues about which their policies already overlap. Where we differ somewhat from other advocacy groups in our vision for inter-party cooperation is that we believe this agreement should be made in writing, not just agreed to in passing as a positive-sounding sound bite, then never heard of again. Moreover, cooperative policymaking must be transparent and accountable to Canadians. Wouldn’t it be great to see the leaders (or delegates) of the three parties sitting down at a table, before the news media, smiling, and signing a document pledging to do what Canadians are increasingly calling for: to work together, for real this time? Canadians really mean it — and the parties owe it to us to really mean it too.
Whether this happens is not just up to them — it’s up to you first. The parties will only consider this kind of proposal seriously and sincerely if they see significant and unified public support for it. They need to see that Canadians, regardless of party preference, are above all concerned with their getting things done, free of the self-imposed restraints of partisanship and ideology. They need to understand that their expressing some measure of support for cooperation before the 2015 election need not be seen as a weakness by voters (partisans are another matter) but instead as a positive point of their platforms, and a measure of each leader’s and each party’s character and commitment to progress for Canada above all else.
We need your help in this endeavour. Help us keep gathering support by spreading the message: follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and retweet and like our posts. (You can start by liking and/or tweeting this column!) Subscribe to our email list. Check out our website to find out more about us, what we’ve been working on, the initiatives we’re planning, and how you get involved. Make a donation so we can stay in business working on initiatives to promote the important cause of inter-party cooperation. If we’re going to ask the parties to be bold and make a commitment to progress, we have to be bold and committed in our efforts as well.
In the end, the fuss over Mr. Trudeau’s use of Jack’s words can be viewed positively, for it demonstrates that both leaders and both parties believe in these same values and hopes, and share a commitment to put these into action. And so, Messrs. Trudeau and Mulcair, together with Ms. May, you have a chance to be bold and walk the walk, and we believe you can do it. We’ve got your backs. Let’s do what Jack asked: be hopeful and optimistic, and we’ll change Canada — together.
Peter Nicoll is a political sociologist with the Libdemo Movement.
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