Prior to its official release, NDP Leader Nycole Turmel has already declared that she will lead her 101 MPs in a righteous war against Stephen Harper’s first majority budget. Calling it the “fight of her life,” Turmel hopes to turn her MPs away from the party’s internal leadership war in an attempt to reclaim the Leader of the Opposition role from the now de facto opposition leader who is the Liberal’s Bob Rae.
Aside from boisterous caucus rallies, it remains to be seen as to how she plans to wage war against what she calls “reckless Conservative cuts” in a House that has 166 blue seats reserved for those who will unquestionably vote to pass Harper’s budget (legislation requires 154 votes). Surely Turmel, the former Quebec sovereigntist, doesn’t consider war against the federal government in the same sense that previous Quebec sovereigntist groups, like the FLQ, did in Canada’s October Crisis of 1970. All military acts run contrary to the NDP’s isolationist policy which, most recently, was exhibited by their opposition to Canadian involvement against former dictator of Libya Muammar Gaddafi during the Arab Spring. With what, then, does the expiring NPD leader plan to fill her seemingly vacuous “fight”?
You can’t win a war against a hegemon without sufficient allies, and so Turmel’s first act of war comes in the entirely reasonable move to establish an independent government accountability review panel as an alternative to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF), a non-profit organization in which an exclusive cast of Conservative MPs are given the role of reviewing their own government’s expenditures. CTF declared that Canada’s current pension policy is unsustainable, thus Prime Minister Stephen Harper has responded by declaring government spending on pensions must be reduced. From this, the Conservatives conclude that pensions will now only be eligible to citizens at the age of 67 (2 years up from the current rule of 65). To “fight” Harper’s majority on the issue, an independent panel of experts, albeit one that is unelected, would significantly strengthen Turmel’s cause without the need of additional seats.
Another weapon of war at Turmel’s disposal is that of public opinion. Although one would think the public opinion bomb has already been dropped in Harper’s favor in the last election (directly dropped on the Liberals, in fact), it is entirely possible that Turmel could pick out a particularly unpopular condition of Harper’s budget to exploit the Conservatives and rally Canadians behind her. NDP finance critic Peter Julian for one, sees this as an effective option: “Public opinion does have an impact, and so our job is to make sure that those voices of those families from coast to coast to coast are heard in the House of Commons…[The Conservatives] have to pay heed to public opinion and we’re going to make sure they know full well what Canadian families are thinking.”
Exploiting an unpopular provision in Harper’s budget may not prove to be a difficult task, but public support for the NDP has plummeted since the election, while Harper’s ominous appeal to and clam handling of poor economic environments may ultimately swing public support in Harper’s favour – just like last May.
Harper is calling on every department in his government to balance a 5-10% reduction in spending, therefore granting Turmel plenty of options to expose an unpopular cutback. Informed public opinion, however, has the forgivable tendency to organize party positions into a left/right ideological continuum. Therefore, Turmel’s criticism of Harper’s cutbacks could backfire in the form of generated public reaction against the NDP, dismissing Turmel’s claims against cutbacks merely as unreasonable leftist socialism. The direction in which public opinion fires tends to be contingent upon the surrounding economic environment – scary words, like the “current recession”, tend to push people to the right.
If there is a single battle in Turmel’s war that ought to be deemed most significant, it would irrefutably be the one fought on health care. “My friends, we are New Democrats, we won’t let our health care wither and die,” said Turmel to her caucus in the most recent NDP rally. The battle is significant not only because of the content that is Canadian healthcare; this single issue has been an incessant battle of Canadian Constitutional history of which Turmel and Harper are only a small part. The Constitution places healthcare within provincial jurisdiction – or better defined now as provincial responsibility – but the expansion of Canada’s welfare state over the years has seen a dramatic increase in federal intervention on which the provinces have come to rely. Stephen Harper’s past behaviour indicates that his first majority budget will work towards removing the federal government as much as possible from healthcare expenses in an attempt to return the division of responsibility to a more classical sense of Constitutionalism. This of course would decrease healthcare resources, and Turmel sees this as one of those aforementioned tools of exploiting the unpopular.
Turmel’s war appropriately fits within her job description of Lieutenant of the Opposition, but it is one ultimately governed by democratic rules that grant Harper the optimal strategic battle stations. The NDP gained 67 additional seats in the House of Commons last election, but ironically lost all of their power through the Conservative dismantlement of the Liberals. Jack Layton swam through a jubilant orange sea to his election night post last May, but it was one weathered by unkind – cold Conservative blue – temperatures. Turmel’s army simply cannot make any ground until 2015 – almost four years after she leaves the command post.