With media pundits and political junkies confidently foretelling the results of the October federal election, it may be considered presumptuous for a mere blogger like me to even speculate on the outcome.
I am not, however, a complete political neophyte. Perhaps a brief account of my career in politics may help bolster my credentials as a soothsayer.
I became the country’s first provincial leader of the NDP in 1959. That was in Newfoundland, three years before the founding of the national New Democratic Party; but, by naming our new provincial party the Newfoundland Democratic Party, we could use the same three initials. I subsequently campaigned as an NDP candidate in two provincial and two federal elections, coming within 250 votes of winning the second time I ran in the provincial riding of Corner Brook West.
If I merit even a footnote in the history books, it would be for the distinction of preceding Tommy Douglas as the country’s first “NDP” leader.
I actually received a compliment on that account from none other than Pierre Elliot Trudeau. In his book Federalism and the French Canadians, published in 1968, he chided socialists in Quebec for failing to follow my 1959 example.
He wrote that their concern about avoiding ‘nationalistic deviationism’ “obviously went too far when it precluded the Quebec left from exploiting the same type of elementary opportunity as that which permitted the launching by Mr. Ed Finn of a new party in Newfoundland, even though the new party had not yet fired the starting gun.”
He gave me too much credit, since that feat came from a combined effort by progressives and union activists in the province, not from a solo exercise by me.
In any event, the Newfoundland NDP officially affiliated with the federal NDP at its founding convention in 1962 in Ottawa, where our delegation was warmly welcomed by its eminent first leader, Tommy Douglas. Tommy and I became good friends. He later joined me in a speaking tour of Newfoundland, and I reciprocated by joining him in a speaking tour of his home province of Saskatchewan.
The birth of Medicare
Tommy is especially renowned today as the “Father of Medicare.” He introduced the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act in the provincial legislature in 1961, and shepherded it through its early stages. After resigning to become leader of the federal NDP, he felt safe in leaving the bill’s future in the hands of his successor as premier, Woodrow Lloyd.
Its passage, however, ignited a firestorm of opposition that raged for months. It was so fierce and defamatory that Premier Lloyd delayed the Act’s implementation from April 1, 1962 to July 1. But the delay only intensified the fury of its opponents, who launched a vituperative propaganda campaign financed by the Chamber of Commerce, Liberal and Conservative MLAs, the Canadian Medical Association, and about 600 of the province’s 900 doctors.
I was plunged into this maelstrom when the Canadian Labour Congress, my employer at the time, and Tommy himself asked me to hop on a plane to Regina as fast I could. They thought my experience as a journalist would help counter the vicious wave of anti-Medicare denigration that was sweeping the province.
As soon as I arrived in Regina, I saw how terribly one-sided the public relations battle had become. The well-funded foes of public health care had full access to the commercial media in perpetrating their fear-and-scare tactics. It was almost impossible to get the favourable side of the Medicare debate covered by the province’s press and broadcast outlets. The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix had even refused to publish pro-Medicare letters to the editor.
It wasn’t that the provincial unions and progressives were lacking in their efforts to counter the anti-Medicare onslaught. On the contrary, they were successful in helping pro-Medicare citizens’ groups set up a strong Citizens for a Free Press brigade. Its members fought valiantly to persuade the media to stop violating the basic precepts of fair and honest journalism.
Still, I felt that an ad hoc pro-Medicare publication was also needed, and provincial Federation of Labour president Walter Smishek agreed with me. We quickly launched our own tabloid paper, The Public Voice, which was widely distributed door to door across the province by union members, and by members of the many Medical Care Committees that had been set up.
The Public Voice clearly explained the public health care bill, stressed its obvious advantages over private health care, and effectively debunked the lies and distorted claims being disseminated by opposing doctors and their political and business allies.
I don’t want to exaggerate the role this tabloid played in the eventual collapse of the anti-Medicare forces and the passage of the historic first public health care program in Canada. But I do think it helped turn the tide in favour of public health care and toward the eventual spread of public physician and hospital care across the country.
Tommy’s hopes dashed
My reminiscences about the birth of Medicare 57 years ago may seem irrelevant to the outcome of the upcoming federal election, but in fact it has a great deal of relevance.
Why? Because Tommy Douglas was not satisfied with a breakthrough in public health care that was confined to the services of doctors and hospitals. He anticipated that prescribed drugs, dental and vision care, and all other components of a comprehensive health care system would be added within the next 10 years or so, to match the complete coverage already prevalent in almost all other developed countries.
Instead, to the shame of Canada’s subsequent political leaders, both federal and provincial, and sadly including the NDP, our health care system remains inexcusably incomplete. Not even one of the provinces later governed by the NDP – in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Alberta – ventured to emulate Tommy’s historic initiative.
The federal Liberal government has belatedly promised to implement some form of national prescription drug coverage, but is suspiciously vague about timing and details. Given Justin Trudeau’s tendency to break previous major pre-election promises, there’s no guarantee he won’t scuttle this one, too, if his naïve fans give him enough votes to win re-election.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the federal NDP, has also unveiled a pre-election health care plan, this one offering much more extensive coverage. His promise to publicly fund universal vision, dental, hearing, and mental health care, as well as pharmaceutical drugs, would certainly raise Canada’s health care system to the all-inclusive level already enjoyed by the citizens of other developed nations.
Regrettably, however, the NDP has sustained such a steep drop in voters’ support over the past decade that its prospect of forming the next government in October has to be rated at absolute zero. And the worst aspect of this decline is that much of it was self-inflicted. The party abandoned or diluted many of the progressive principles and practices that its founders in the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation) had enthusiastically embraced at its founding convention in 1933, even going so far as to purge the word “socialism” from its political vocabulary.
Its leaders came to believe that the party’s prospects could best be enhanced by moderating its policies and moving from the left to the mercurial centre. They evidently forgot that this territory is where the Liberals have been deeply entrenched for decades. It was a disastrous miscalculation that in 2015 prodded many thousands of usually staunch NDP supporters to switch their votes to the Trudeau Liberals.
It may be that many of these previous NDP voters will be so disillusioned by Trudeau’s broken pledges and by his abominable misconduct in the SNC-Lavelin affair, that they will return to the NDP fold in October. But I don’t think so. I think many thousands – maybe even the majority of them — will instead decide to transfer their votes to the Green Party, as I intend to do.
The case for going Green
And that, at last, brings us to the crux of this pre-election colloquy, which is to consider the compelling reasons for voting Green on October 21.
- The soaring frequency and intensity of tornadoes, hurricanes, forest fires, floods, droughts, and other destructive weather events starkly expose the folly of further neglecting the ominous threat of climate change.
- Climatologists have warned world governments they have only another 15 years at most to stop global warming from rising to a catastrophic level that could devastate and even destroy human civilization.
- Of all the federal political parties in Canada, only the Green Party, since its inception in 1983, has steadfastly targeted global warming as the pre-eminent issue that all governments should prioritize. The other parties put it further down their priority list until recently, when the noticeably sharp rise in public concern about climate change finally impelled them to raise it to at least the election promise level. Even the Liberals’ skimpy carbon tax lacks the requisite urgency, falling far short of the level that Canada pledged to attain at the UN’s Paris climate conference.
- More and more young Canadians have come to be alarmed by the frightful extent that global warming – and the older generation’s inaction and apathy – now pose to their future security. They are joining the ranks of the climate activists, and many of voting age will be casting their first ballots for the Greens in October.
- Support for the Green Party led by Elizabeth May has surged over the past few years, now surpassing the NDP. With 17 elected members provincially and federally, holding the balance of power in British Columbia, forming the opposition in P.E.I., and gaining party status in New Brunswick, the Greens are on the march.
Many Canadians, however, although favouring the Green Party’s valiant efforts, may be reluctant to vote for a minority party that has no chance of forming the government. They may regard it as a wasted vote. They should keep in mind, however, that even the election of another six or seven Green MPs will serve to send a strong message to the other parties that failing to take climate change seriously is now a politically incorrect blunder.
Even more crucial is the likelihood that neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives will win a majority in this election. The Liberals will certainly lose a lot of seats, and many of its erstwhile supporters may decide to “go Green” instead of voting for the struggling NDP or the right-wing Tories.
That could result in a Liberal minority government, with the Greens holding the balance of power, as they have been doing provincially in B.C for the past few years. Such an outcome would surely enable the Greens to prevent Trudeau from repeating the breaches of propriety that marred his first four years in office. It would also ensure that in his second term the environment will receive the exemplary treatment that the climate crisis so urgently demands.
The Greens are not a one-issue party, as they have sometimes been unfairly painted. In a minority government where they can exert strong pressure on a re-elected Liberal party, they can confidently be expected to press for the same expansion of public health care as the NDP. Health care could likely be a high priority for them, superseded only by their dedication to tackling climate change.
Admittedly, my speculation about the results of the October 21 election falls short of reaching a prediction. But, although it is based more on hope than calculation, I would argue that my anticipation of a minority government with the Greens decisively wielding positive legislative pressure is not entirely without merit.