The failure of Canada's New Left

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Don't let the pundits fool you, Canadian federal politics has always been a coin flip. Ever since the first federal election in 1867-- when 268,000 voters decided between John A. MacDonald's Conservatives and George Brown's Liberals-- Canada has faced a two-horse race. One hundred-thirty-one years and 39 elections later, the choice is still the same, albeit a bit more complicated.

Political discourse in Canada has largely been a choice between the "right" and the "left," for the most part referring to the amount of government involvement in the economy. In recent years, perhaps due to the development of the oilsands and the involvement of more young voters, the discussion has shifted from the economy to the environment.

At least, it has for Canada's "New Left."

A lot has been written in the past several weeks about the rise of the Green Party in the last decade and it must be noted that their increasing electoral support roughly corresponds with polls reflecting voter interest in the environment. Over the same period, the Liberals and the New Democrats have increasingly made the environment a key issue, culminating with Stephane Dion's much lauded-- and much criticized-- "Green Shift," unveiled in June.

The environment is important, especially in this election. CBC's D. Simon Jackson, in a column cleverly titled "It's the environment, stupid," parroted other pundits while declaring this Canada's first environmental election. A Dominion Institute poll this week declared 27 per cent of young voters think it's the single biggest issue, edging out education. Canada's left-wing parties, concerned with balancing the environment with the economy to various degrees, have seen Canadian voters flock to them in the past decade-- growing from 48 per cent in 1993 to a combined 52 per cent in 2006. So why doesn't Canada have an environmentally-focused government?

The answer lies in public perception. For roughly their entire history, the Conservative Party (in its various incarnations) has trumpeted the need for economic security and not much else. In a time where Canada's biggest economic partner, the United States, is embroiled in housing market collapses, bank bailouts and the news media shouting "recession" at every turn, it's not hard to imagine Canadians finally listening to a unified voice on the subject.

On the other hand, the three parties concerned with the environment-- the "New Left"-- spend nearly as much time squabbling with each other as they do advocating for clean air and water. Even members of Stephane Dion's own Liberal party criticized his "Green Shift" and labeled it poorly thought-out and infeasible. At a time when the vote for the now-united right has stalled out at around 36 per cent of Canadians, the Conservatives are able to form government because of the pettiness of the left, while the environment continues to be an afterthought.

In a way, the situation is reminiscent of John A. MacDonald's National Policy, aimed at creating a national railway system. MacDonald was forced to leave office in 1873 due to a bribery scandal, but came back to power five years later and was able to finish the job because his Conservatives played up uncertain economic conditions. The toll taken on the environment, First Nations people and Chinese migrant workers were largely forgotten due to the economic importance of the railway. The same brand of ignorant pragmatism is seemingly at play today-- while it's extremely unfortunate that developing the tarsands is wreaking havoc on the environment, the current incarnation of the Conservatives are able to stay in power because they're much more effective at selling the importance of the economy than the "New Left" is selling the environment.

Right-wing supporters in Canada spent the aftermath of the Brian Mulroney years whining about how their voices weren't being heard in economic matters because their voice was fractured. The gradual uniting of the right-wing parties quieted their concerns, allowing them to form government. Until Canada's "New Left" can develop a unified voice, the environment will continue to be ignored.