Sunday, 17 April 2011

Liberal and Conservative narratives

A digression from my usual anti-Harper focus, to talk about the Liberals:

Someone on MetaFilter asked: why should people vote for a Liberal government, rather than against a Conservative one?

Politics is about ideas as well as interests. The Liberals are pushing two ideas, one negative, one positive. Similarly, the Conservatives are pushing two ideas as well.

1. The negative Liberal narrative, of course, is that Harper is "out of touch and out of control"--that his priorities (fighter jets, jails, corporate tax cuts) are all wrong, and that he's willing to destroy anyone who stands in his way. That's why we're having the election: Harper's too contemptuous of everyone else to be able to work with any of the other parties. You can't trust him with a majority, especially when it comes to health care.

The positive narrative is the set of policies proposed in the Liberal platform during the first week of the campaign, the so-called Family Pack, which I'd summarize as "helping families who feel squeezed": by the cost of post-secondary education (hence the Learning Passport), by the cost of child care (hence the Early Childhood Learning fund to create more child care spaces), by the need to look after elderly relatives, by inadequate savings for retirement. As the Liberals have done since 1993, they've included cost estimates in their platform, showing where the money is going to come from (primarily from cancelling the most recent corporate tax cuts), to make their promises more credible.

The underlying idea is that Liberals have a different set of priorities from the Conservatives: they think families are more important than corporate tax cuts. Bruce Anderson describes it as the "chicken in every pot" tradition: the idea that government should ensure that prosperity is broadly shared. It's not difficult to have a society where the rich live in extravagant luxury; see any ancient empire or modern Third World country. It's far more difficult to make prosperity--employment, housing, education, health care--available to nearly everyone.

The Liberal platform got a fair amount of media coverage during the first week of the campaign, but it seems like people hadn't really tuned in yet. I'm not sure you can fault the Liberals for this, though. I'm pretty sure Ignatieff's been talking about the Family Pack at every Liberal rally and event since then, but of course it's no longer new, and therefore no longer news.

At this point we're in the "ground war", where candidates and volunteers from every party are knocking on doors and talking to people, and of course undecided voters are talking to their friends and family. (And these days, people are passing around information through Facebook and other social media--like this blog.) So people are still hearing about the Liberal platform, but it's below the media's radar. At the media level, the last two weeks of the campaign are going to be about damage control.

2. The negative Conservative narrative: the opposition parties are a threat to Canada's political stability, bringing down the government and attacking the Conservatives only to further their own ambitions. You can't trust Michael Ignatieff and his coalition. If Harper doesn't get a majority, there'll be chaos. "King or Chaos!"

The positive Conservative narrative: that the Conservative record shows they've provided sound economic management. Canada was the last into recession and the first out. On unemployment, we're doing a lot better than the US. There's a deficit now because of the recession, but if you give them a majority, the Conservatives will cut it faster than anyone else. Once they've balanced the budget, they'll put more money in your pocket, through income-splitting and TFSA expansion.

(The actual record is that when Harper took over in 2006, the Liberals had run surpluses for 10 years: they left a $13 billion surplus. Harper quickly dug us a new hole, a $10-20 billion structural deficit, before the recession even hit. Today, of course, we have a $50 billion deficit.)

3. One advantage Harper has is that by taking over the Progressive Conservatives, he no longer has to worry about vote-splitting on the right, whereas--outside Quebec--his opposition will be split between the Liberals, NDP, and Green Party.

The Liberal platform appears to be aiming for the centre-left, rather than the centre-right. For the Liberals, that has a couple advantages: they want to solidify the anti-Conservative vote behind them, and if they end up with a minority relying on NDP support, it'll be easier for the NDP to do so on a centre-left platform.

The Liberals and NDP have a common interest in opposing the Conservatives. They also have conflicting interests because there's a number of Liberal-NDP ridings, but for the most part they appear to be directing their fire at the Conservatives rather than each other; they know they may well end up working with each other.

After getting burned in 2008 with the carbon tax shift, the Liberals haven't tried to appeal to the Green vote by promising action on climate change. Their platform does include a commitment to cap-and-trade, but the Conservatives had already committed to cap-and-trade themselves. (That hasn't stopped the Conservatives from attacking it as "dangerous" and "un-Canadian".)

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