In a political climate dominated by a global pandemic and European war, the deal struck yesterday between the federal NDP party and the Liberal government came as a surprise to many. The subject had been broached numerous times back in the fall with the new sitting of Parliament, but significant events intervened, and the possibility of a deal fell into obscurity.
It has returned, providing endless fodder for the pundits, partisans and power-hungry. Was the deal struck for altruistic reasons? Not so much, although both parties share similar policy leanings on issues like climate change, indigenous reconciliation, healthcare, and housing. Political considerations run through much of this. The NDP gained some clout in their fight for social, environmental, and economic causes, while the Trudeau government bought itself some secure longevity in a turbulent political season. Meanwhile, the Conservatives did their best to liken the developments to the coalition between Liberals and NDP opposition parties in 2008. That was a power-sharing agreement designed to acquire government, whereas yesterday’s development was an agreement between two parties to seek similar ends.
One could expect little else from the Conservatives – a party experiencing trouble finding accommodation even within its leadership and members. Their identity crisis will soon consume them in upcoming policy and leadership conventions.
It’s not ludicrous to ask if this Liberal-NDP agreement isn’t the kind of politics that most Canadians have repeatedly stated was their preference. It shows how far things have fallen when words like “compromise” or “collaboration” have become dirty words. In the modern political “take no prisoners” reality, the concept of parties or politicians finding common ground has now become the target for outright derision.
Politics was defined as “the art of compromise.” In a nation like ours, with so many regions, divisions, cultures, and distinctions, the ability to collaboratively share an agenda when it aligns with political pursuits is necessary if we are to work our way into the future.
Those opposed to such collaborations continually claim that they affront democracy. That logic has been voiced repeatedly in America and increasingly here. Yet the ability to find reasoned compromise is the very accomplishment on which democracy is founded. Political philosopher Jean Elshtain took it a step further, claiming, “Compromise is not a mediocre way to do politics; it is an adventure, the only way to do democratic politics.” If that’s the case, the Liberals and NDP are doing a bit of adventuring in an era that has become mired by ideology. It was what political parties were meant to do before they descended into the quicksand of hyper-partisanship.
Have our politicians forgotten that the only way they can genuinely prove effective is by getting buy-in from those in other parties who agree? Are they too preoccupied with the scorched-earth practices of their party to understand how they are undermining the historic Canadian hegemony? Didn’t they once used to believe, along with Otto von Bismarck, that “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best?”
What Canadians resent the most are unilateral decisions that defy the common good. The purpose of political parties is partly to organize democracy, not obliterate it. Where there is no collaboration, no respect, no gathering around common principles, there is no democracy, only its hollow shell. Political compromise is what best reflects the people of this nation; they practice it in their communities on a daily basis. To deny it is to deny them. If politicians can’t consider new thoughts and ideas that emerge as situations demand, they only disqualify themselves from the public good.
The rigidity and ideology of some special interest groups indeed seek to use politics to dominate the landscape. Politicians are meant to blunt extremism, to make it more amenable to the Canadian populace. It has its place, but not the pre-eminence. That belongs to the goodwill of the Canadian people, complex though it is.
Politics loses effectiveness when adherents and partisans view compromise as surrender. Everything becomes a blunt instrument, cudgels of demonization, leaving most Canadians turned off entirely by the political process. And as political representatives lose the respect of the voters, they veer off into their party in search of their identity. Over time, they lose their grasp of reality and the possible and instead seek to persuade Canadians of the impossible: that the country prefers the extreme over the temperate.
What might Canadians get out of this deal between the Liberals and NDP? Clearly, more white-hot anger from partisans. But should there be enhanced action on climate change, more affordable housing, more effective healthcare, a more straightforward path towards indigenous reconciliation, is that not how Parliament is supposed to function, through compromised negotiations and a shared sense of purpose for the country? Those who disagree will have future elections to stake their claim, but for now, following so much divisive extreme partisanship, an outcome that speaks of collaboration hints that effective democracy still has a chance to shape our future.