Don’t be a pinhead

McGuinty will do Grits more harm by denying NDP party status

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Premier McGuinty has a golden opportunity early in his term to dispel the widespread suspicion that his is a pointy little head. It takes someone without a pointy little head or the narrow linear mind that fits inside it to have the smarts to count past seven – to understand that the NDP deserves the rights of a full-fledged opposition party despite the fact that its 15 per cent win in the popular vote only led to first-past-the-post victories in seven ridings instead of the eight required for official party status.

Recognizing the NDP is strictly a pointy-head, not a partisan, issue.

From a partisan viewpoint, it’s the Liberals, not the New Democrats, who have most to lose if they deny government-funded research staff or high-profile opportunities to participate in question period to the NDP.

The Grits can’t hold the radical middle of Canadian politics, the positioning that accounts for their greatest successes, unless they enjoy both a strong left and right opposition both inside and outside the legislature.

A forceful NDP presence in the legislature is what will keep the Liberals from losing their balance, from disregarding their own left wing and giving in to their own forces of complacency, already dangerously swollen by the huge Liberal victory. That way, as the 1990 provincial election that turfed out Liberal premier David Peterson clearly showed, lies a one-term government.

By denying official status to the NDP, the Liberals also lose control over the quality of their opposition on the left. Since politics abhors a vacuum, it’s almost inevitable that the role usually played by the left when the legislature is sitting will be played by someone – if not the NDP inside the Pink Palace, then the media or voluntary organizations (NGOs) or neglected city governments or some other group not constrained by the norms of “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.”

That’s what happened to Peterson’s huge Liberal majority government of the late 1980s when the media and social and environmental groups confronted the Liberals mercilessly.

Nor would a pointy-headed decision by McGuinty spell doom for the NDP. The relevance of not being able to participate fully in question period is not as great as one would think. In contrast to the federal scene in Ottawa, where opposition parties get equal time in the media, provincial coverage focuses almost exclusively on government announcements. That’s why few voters even knew McGuinty’s name in the early days of the recent election.

Indeed, it would do the NDP no harm to re-learn ways to organize outside the confines of Queen’s Park’s much-ado-about-nothing. In the multi-polar era of the Internet and empowered NGOs, most of which employ staff who have more policy expertise than is found within government, even volunteer researchers for the NDP team could do what hasn’t been done since Stephen Lewis’s leadership of the NDP in the 1970s – literally define the provincial agenda by virtue of top-notch exposés on issues like sprawl, pollution and child poverty.

McGuinty can’t stop that from happening just by denying the NDP recognition or research funds. Only the NDP can make that call. McGuinty’s challenge in recognizing the NDP is not a partisan one. It’s a matter of responding to a crucial trend in Canadian democracy.

His challenge is to recognize a staple of modern – or, should I say postmodern – society and politics. It’s called “inclusion.” The principle is sweeping the policy-wonk world at the UN, in Europe and even in North America. Health Canada under the federal Liberals is rife with “inclusionists” and has a special policy unit exploring it. The belief is that social exclusion and alienation – over and above the disadvantage of poverty, disability or whatever other handicap – has personal, social and health consequences that aggravate the original problem. It’s a safe bet that most people who voted for the NDP or Liberals in this fall’s provincial election are, without having studied it, sympathetic to an inclusive approach to social issues.

Unlike conventional “modernist” approaches, which treat everyone as having the same needs and rights, postmodern approaches insist on respecting the minorities so often marginalized. The inclusion approach is gaining ground everywhere. In schools, “differently abled” kids are integrated with others while their special needs are recognized. In electoral politics, the principle of proportional representation is increasingly accepted. The Tories hated this trend, referring to it as a conspiracy of “special interest groups.”

There are precious few places where all the minorities that make up majorities can meet and work through challenges to a productive relationship. Public schools are one. The legislature is another. If these institutions decide to ignore the inclusion principle, they will face mass defections. This is already happening to the electoral process, as declining voting rates show. This is the context in which McGuinty will make his first key choice as premier: whether to follow the instincts of a pointy little head, count to seven and deny status to the NDP, or to assist the transition to a pluralist and inclusive democracy.

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