Behind Rise of Canada's Social Democrats
New Democratic Party's success reflects voter worries over safety net
HEATHER KENDRICK'S moment of decision came Oct. 17 in a Vancouver, British Columbia, polling booth. A longtime conservative voter, the mother and homemaker reached out and pulled the Liberal Party lever instead."I just couldn't bring myself around to voting for them, and the Liberals were an alternative," she said in a phone interview. Mrs. Kendrick's decision to turn her back on the scandal-wracked Social Credit Party - a shift mirrored thousands of times that day across British Columbia - helped split the conservative vote and swept the social democrat New Democratic Party (NDP) to power for only the second time in four decades. It was a turning point for the province, and for Canada, analysts say. "In the year of the collapse of the communist system, we're finding here in Canada that people aren't buying [our own system of government] at all," says Leo Panitch, a political scientist at Toronto's York University. "They're saying provincial and federal governments aren't sufficiently democratic. What the NDP promises is a more dynamic government that is more open and caring." British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario all now have NDP governments. Control of these provinces - with more than half of Canada's 26 million people - has given the party the clout both to influence the debate on constitutional reform and to push for amendments to the 1989 United States-Canada Free Trade pact. At the federal level, the party holds just 43 of 295 seats in Parliament, but it could gain seats in the next election. Pollsters say that beyond an anti-incumbent mood, the recent NDP surge was caused by Canadians' worries about the future.
'Pessimistic mood' "In 14 years of national polling I've never seen Canadians in such a pessimistic mood," says Donna Dasko, vice president of Toronto-based Environics Research Group, an independent national polling firm. "It's the unity question with Quebec [which may secede], the economy, and a reaction to policies ... which people associate with high deficits and cuts to the social safety net." Such concerns have caused a fundamental change in Canadians' thinking that is shaking politics, some observers say. m calling it an awakening social democratic consciousness in the country," says Elaine Bernard, executive director of Harvard University's trade union program and past president of the NDP in British Columbia. Canadians, she says, are rediscovering social democratic values largely because of job losses under the 1989 US-Canada Free Trade Agreement, and because of pressure to cut social programs - especially health care. Canadians see their generous health-care system - which is often admired by US analysts - as a defining difference between Canada and the US. "That's where Canadians draw the line in the sand," Ms. Dasko says. "They're determined to maintain it even if they can't expand it anymore." And efforts to shrink the social safety net may have become a political liability for conservatives. "There is a very strong reaction against the results of the neo-conservative agenda," says Audrey McLaughlin, leader of the federal NDP. "It's the the tax system which most people feel is unfair. It includes such things as the trade deal with the United States and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been lost and won't return - and the diminution of our [social] programs." Others flatly disagree, not only on what the NDP's rise in the provinces means, but what it portends for Canada's future. James Gillies, a former Progressive Conservative Party adviser, now a professor of policy at York University, says the NDP sweep does reflect "enormous disillusionment in government." But he disagrees that the NDP rise reflects a rejection of conservative policies, saying: "It would not have mattered who was in power, they would have been dumped. If the NDP had been in power, it would have been kicked out. People are fed up." Former Liberal Ontario Premier David Peterson, defeated by the NDP's Bob Rae, also rejects the "social awakening" idea. "I do not believe the analysis that this is the start of some great social democratic wave," he says. Both Mr. Peterson and Mr. Gillies say that despite the rollback of conservative provincial governments, they have left a legacy of tax restraint and fiscal responsibility the NDP must adopt. The real reason for the NDP's appeal, they say, has more to do with the party shifting to the right and giving up some social goals. In Ontario, for example, Mr. Rae's government backed off a minimum corporate tax and public auto insurance, concentrating instead on balancing the budget. Ontario's NDP is, however, pushing hard to place in the new constitution a social charter that enshrines the right to health care, welfare, and education. An October poll for the Toronto Star and CTV showed 85 percent of Canadian support such a measure.
Canada's 'regionalization' But even on this fundamental issue, the NDP is not able to speak with one voice. Saskatchewan's Roy Romanow and Michael Harcourt, the new NDP premier in British Columbia, have so far refused to support the social charter - and disagree with Rae on many other points. The internal NDP disagreement, Peterson says, is an example of a broader trend toward the regionalization of Canadian politics - exemplified by the new Reform Party in the West and Bloc Qucois in Quebec. "What's happening now is you're seeing a crack," he says. "You're seeing regionally based parties that have large followings that don't want to build a base in any other part of the country." Ms. McLaughlin and others concur, saying that Canada is in a crucial period of redefining its societal goals, as well as political structure. This, Ms. Bernard says, is why "these elections [in British Columbia and Saskatchewan] are more than just switching the drivers in the same car. It's about reconsidering the road."