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A traumatized and weak-willed NDP doesn’t fight back
(This is the second in a backgrounder series on the 2005 BC election campaign entitled “Surrender to the right wing frame.” In the first instalment, we explored how the Liberals had stigmatized the NDP’s economic record in government, quite contrary to the facts. The leading illustration: a wildly fanciful statement by “star” Liberal candidate Carole Taylor, now finance minister, condemning the NDP for leaving the province’s economy in disarray.)

How could Carole Taylor make her outrageous statement about the NDP, a statement she had been making from the moment she announced her candidacy? How could Gordon Campbell and the Liberals have said the same thing over and over again – it was their mantra – going back to the 2001 election campaign? This is really asking how they could summon up the nerve to do so, politically, when it was so farfetched and potentially risky. How, also, could the Liberals, who were so fiscally intemperate, nevertheless luxuriate in an image of fiscal discipline?

The explanation lies mainly with the media, or rather ownership of the media, which, in a mass-media society, is where real political power lies. Next to this media power, Gordon Campbell hardly counted and, in the 2005 election, would otherwise have been a sitting duck.

If, for example, the NDP in government had made statements as outrageous as Campbell’s and Carole Taylor’s, there would have been major headlines on their dishonesty and lack of credibility, and probing attack journalism on everything that could be connected to their motivation, including their personal affairs and associations. Any Carole Taylor equivalent, similarly, would have been dismissed as smug, superficial and silly instead of being shamelessly coddled and stroked as Taylor was.

With the Liberals, though, nothing remotely likely that would happen. The major media in BC are owned by a small group of proprietors with, as I’ve already mentioned, effective right-wing monopoly power. Several of them in the past, including dominant CanWest, have contributed financially to the BC Liberal Party. They went along willingly with the Liberals instead. Occasionally a columnist mentioned the discrepancy between the Liberals’ rhetoric and the facts, but the larger framing, the distorted assumptions in coverage going back to the 1990s, and the polite handling of the Liberals in power, reinforced the frame. There was little or no media check on the mantra. The Liberals, it seemed, could say anything about the NDP governments’ economic performance, no matter how outlandish, and get away with it, which only encouraged them.

This leads to the second question: Where was the NDP in all this?

It was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the media abuse it had taken in the 1990s and, like a woman cowed by repeated beatings by a violent spouse, did not have the wit or courage to talk back.

The symptoms were most apparent in the previous election, in 2001. The so-called “fudget budget” was an issue then, for which the Clark government was excoriated in newspaper headlines and radio talk. There was, in fact, no fudget budget, as the B.C. Supreme Court found in the famous “electoral fraud” case, in which the court exonerated former finance minister Elizabeth Cull in clear, unambiguous language and dismissed the action. The NDP, however, did not answer back when the “fudget budget” was thrown at them in the 2001 campaign. They probably felt that, if they did, nobody would believe them and they would be held up to even further scorn, so deeply fixed was the “fudget budget” media imprint on people’s minds. They had cause. The BC media simply refused to credit the Supreme Court’s findings and continued to refer to the “fudget budget” as if it were fact.

The same applied to the attacks on the NDP’s economic performance – not just criticism, which would have been fair enough, but the phoney premise, buried in the language of reporting and commentary as a given and parroting the Liberal Party’s framing, that the BC economy had ground to a halt. Reporters and not just Liberals talked about how to “kickstart” the economy and “turn the economy around.” Remember, this was after a sparkling economic year and a $1.4 billion provincial surplus.

One waited in vain for the NDP to fight back. Their 2001 campaign, instead, was laced with apology and defensiveness. The calculation was that the public were too angry with the party for anything other than apologies and that the best one could do was appeal to voters to cast ballots for the NDP anyway so there would be a decent opposition. Ironically, the calculation backfired. Only two NDP MLAs were elected. There was, however, a much more serious consequence: The anti-NDP media frame on financial and economic matters became even more deeply entrenched.

Enter into this media frame new NDP leader Carole James and her advisors, and their planning for the next provincial election. They were intimidated enough by this media power that they not only surrendered to the frame, they did so long before the 2005 election campaign began. This was lost in the election results. Everyone focused on how well the NDP did, coming remarkably close to achieving an historic upset - at a time, moreover, when the incumbent government had all the external economic factors (federal payments, interest rates, the commodity cycle) going for it. Amid the celebration by NDP supporters, however, was the profound underlying surrender and defeat, a defeat which also meant that the party failed to become government when they had a chance of doing so.

The first, and most notable, capitulation was on the Liberal 2001 tax cut. Joy MacPhail and Jenny Kwan, the NDP MLAs in the legislature, had made political hay over the tax giveaway, and one can see why - its pandering to a tiny and already privileged minority, its specious reasoning, its producing a large deficit, the government’s dishonesty in hurriedly making the cut. James, instead, on her own hook, it seemed, held back on any commitment to revoke the cut and, when the election rolled around, backed off altogether, promising “no new taxes.”

It’s true that, by election time, the government’s books were in surplus, so that re-establishing the previous, and even then quite moderate, NDP tax regime didn’t seem immediately necessary, but that would be to overlook the implications. “No new taxes” meant one could not shift taxes even slightly towards progressivity nor, because of that, could one lower Medical Health Plan premiums and other new charges that had been imposed by the Liberals.

It meant leaving a larger gap between rich and poor – a gap that had already widened in the 1980s and 1990s.

It meant having to shortchange badly needed public services and public provision to the benefit of private luxury of a small minority. Throughout the campaign James often had to say she couldn’t promise this or that until the extra costs were known and the extra revenue was in hand. She could, for example, promise not to increase university tuition, but could not promise to cut it back to where it had been in 2001, much less to eliminate it and fully democratize post-secondary education.

For that matter, she could also have easily argued that reinstatement of the taxes would be dedicated to paying down the public debt to which the tax cut had so heavily contributed – turning the tables on right-wingers’ contention that the NDP didn’t care about public debt. That opportunity was foregone, too.

Similarly, had she become premier – and that, presumably, is what one fights for in an election - she would have been blocked from shifting taxes to resource consumption for environmental reasons. Ironically, the Green Party did have the honesty to propose revoking the tax cut - not altogether but at least for the small upper-income segment that had benefited inordinately by the windfall. There has been much talk in NDP circles about how right-wing the Green Party has become, but on this issue – a key one given its implications – the NDP was the party to cater to right-wing prejudice.

Foreclosing on the option of restoring that tax revenue would also mean that if there were a downturn in commodity prices, higher interest rates, or reductions in federal payments, and hence a downturn in BC government revenue, there would be little or no elbow room for anything at all...or one would have to make cuts to public services and government programs just like a diligent and dogmatic Gordon Campbell. The one other alternative – running a deficit, even for a year or two at the bottom of a cycle – had already been ruled out by James.

There was something more to the surrender than these particulars, however. It lay in the language and the posture of the position. “No new taxes” effectively meant accepting the phoney rationale behind the tax cut - that it would promote economic growth - specious as that was. Even more damaging, it reinforced the frame that taxes are bad, whereas in fact they are just a mechanism for allocating resources to where they are most needed or most practical. What we decide to do collectively and what we leave to the market is one of the most important political questions of our time. James surrendered on the question.

And, of course, she let the Liberals off the hook in so doing. A grandiose statement like “No new taxes” inevitably has a subtext – in this instance, “The Liberals were right all along.... MacPhail and Kwan were blowing hot air....The Liberals know about fiscal management and the NDP don’t” – the opposite of reality, on this issue.

Why did James do it? Forget for the moment about Gordon Campbell and the Liberals. They were relatively minor actors in this one. The major players were the media, particularly the CanWest properties with their inveterate and unremitting anti-tax framing and commentary. CanWest’s flagship outlet, the Vancouver Sun, is particularly notorious for it, sometimes in the past even trying artificially to scare up a “taxpayers’ revolt.”

The issue was such, however, that it provided one of those rare opportunities to face down this media power successfully. The arguments for revoking the cut were too cogent and sensible, and the political risk quite small. Most Canadians, in surveys, have shown themselves willing to pay more taxes within reason to make up for shortfalls in key services. One of the most striking outcomes of Bill Clinton’s increases in taxes when he was president of the United States was that there was hardly any political backlash, even in the demographic segment paying most of the shot. A public beachhead for the issue, moreover, had already been established by MacPhail and Kwan.

James, presumably prompted by her advisers, capitulated instead.

As CanWest’s people went into this one with James or wrote about James, one could almost hear them chortling with delight – that she had actually caved in.

Go to Part 3 - The punishing legacy of the surrender
Return to Part 1 - The hidden question about the 2005 BC election

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