How liberal dogma is eroding the left

I’ve said it before: from a certain angle, progressives are the real  conservatives. At least, we’re supposed to be. Resource and worker exploitation, rampant consumerism, overspending by an elite bureaucracy – these practices may increase the GDP, but they’re wrong. And part of why they’re wrong is that we end up paying for them in disproportionate and messy ways. Of course, it’s never the people who make the decisions that end up dealing with the repercussions, and it’s precisely this sense of injustice, this lack of social accountability, that is supposed to propel the left.

Progressives aren’t perfect. We’re not cohesive. We don’t have a monopoly on wanting things to be better for everyone. And we’re not immune to dogma and rhetoric. I hate to say it, but in the case of Ontario, many lefties seem to be having a tough time reconciling what it means to be accountable when it comes to how governments handle public money. Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath has this to say on the subject:

I believe that there is a lot of waste in government right now and I believe that the people of Ontario want to see that waste eliminated, and I don’t think we eliminate it without the hard decisions.

How many Ontarians would disagree with this statement? Does anyone really doubt that the provincial bureaucratic machine is not wasteful, after all of the scandals, and that we wouldn’t benefit by figuring out how we might do things more efficiently? If you’ve been reading the comments on Horwath’s Facebook page and other social media sites, for many self-proclaimed NDP supporters (past or current), the answer, oddly, is yes.

I’m really struggling to see the problem here. Since when is tackling waste the exclusive domain of the right?

You’d think the left, which makes a big fuss over the evils of austerity (for good reason) would be able to distinguish that from efficiency. What’s crucial here is who’s proposing the policy and why, what does it really entail, and what is its context within the overall platform? Why should talking seriously about fiscal responsibility be off limits? Is it necessarily the case that progressive candidates who do so are only trying to conquer new territory?

This knee-jerk reaction justifies and perpetuates the stereotype that progressive governments only ever pursue a ‘tax and spend’ agenda, that they’re inherently financially inept, wasteful behemoths. A lot of people who end up voting Conservative don’t do so because they like the idea of seeing social supports slashed; they do it because they’re sick of seeing their money being pissed away by people who don’t share their priorities or understand their challenges. Many on the left completely fail to understand this, to the detriment of us all.

Traditionally left-wing media purveyors such as Rabble and the Toronto Star have been steadily pumping out articles about the NDP that are both reflexive and peppered with conjecture. Case in point:

“The NDP will never win with policies that adhere to Conservative definitions of what counts as fiscal responsibility. Not ever. Fiscal responsibility is not spending your time looking under couch cushions for extra change. Fiscal responsibility is spending money on programs that help regular people and not the rich or corporations. All else is a Conservative smoke screen…”

And there you have it, folks – it’s not just a tired leftie stereotype: as per Michael Stewart, spending – and only spending – is an acceptable form of fiscal responsibility. What’s more, this lazy argument exposes an unfortunate liberal dogma. How is it that a concept as central as this can be defined in such a narrow way, without being widely challenged, and without having to demonstrate a holistic understanding of what it means to manage money? And how is it fair to declare that the NDP is adhering to Conservative ideology just because they’re pointing out a problem that pretty much every single Ontarian would admit exists? The NDP plan doesn’t come anywhere close to resembling a Mike Harris-type platform. Or a Tim Hudak platform. Or a Liberal platform, for that matter. It needs to be said that the progressive ideas put forth by the Liberals have been either borrowed (I’m being generous here) from the NDP or grudgingly adopted from them.

In The Ottawa Citizen, David Reevely criticizes this newest NDP initiative by writing that “what prevents mismanagement is competent ministers.” Sure, that’s true, but that’s not the only way a government can prevent mismanagement – not by a long shot.

A good friend of mine used to work for the Ontario Power Authority. She would go on and on about the fancy catered lunches her manager ordered. They simply had to have their San Pellegrino, and gourmet, organic selection of fine foods. The genre of requests from and accommodations for executives reflected a disturbing sense of entitlement. Does this qualify as the sort of program spending that Stewart was talking about? No, because it’s everyday practices like this that aggregately soak up revenue, in addition to other things, including truly excessive salaries and redundancies (both of which the NDP are targeting).

By pointing this out, I’m not badmouthing public workers or unions. It means I don’t think we should be spending other people’s money on things we don’t really need. There’s absolutely no reason why this isn’t or shouldn’t be a core progressive policy. Now, is this is the sort of waste that the proposed Minister of Savings and Accountability would address? Would we really save about $600 million annually? How would the NDP achieve the goal of 0.5% savings in the budget every year? That remains to be seen. But the sad fact is that many progressives don’t even want to entertain the idea that perhaps we should take a look at how we’re spending money. The claim by Reevely and others that the NDP is veering from their traditional policy of sticking up for the little guy is simply unqualified and nonsensical. Sometimes I actually get a glimmer of understanding as to why conservatives think the whole lot of us lefties are idiots.

If we’re going to question Horwath for promising too much, as Martin Regg Cohn has done (and reasonably so), we should also be ceaselessly pointing out the Liberals’ proven track record of having done so – and failed spectacularly. Cohn has inexplicably described the NDP campaign as “Ford-style populism”, but there’s a huge difference between a politician whose entire platform consists of cutting and saying no to everything and one who vows to go after waste we know exists, and as part of a broader platform that does actually include funding programs that will directly benefit the average Ontarian. While I honestly think it would be foolish to expect the NDP’s entire platform to check out economically, Cohn’s comparison of Horwath’s politics to Rob Ford’s was shamefully gratuitous. Rob Ford? Come on.

I get it – we’re sick and tired of neoliberal policies. We’re paying higher taxes and getting less in return. Services are cut while deficits grow. The solution to this, then, is to think creatively. This includes examining the budget and bureaucracy so we can make sure that where we are spending money, we’re not doing so needlessly. We literally can’t afford to pretend that raising taxes on big corporations and wealthy individuals will give us the kind of float we need to put things back into balance. This would be a good start – but not a solution. Why do so many within the left seem determined to sabotage any attempt at forming a platform that Ontarians can actually get behind?

More to the point, the question that continues to haunt me, now more than ever, is:

Can we not be progressive and responsible at the same time?

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