Chris Selley: Barely centre-left vs. barely centre-right, for all the marbles

As Canada’s federal politicians head to the campaign trail, climate scientists warn we are at the precipice of global disaster. The governing Liberals echo said warnings. Yet neither they nor the Conservatives have a plan to achieve our existing emissions targets, never mind the more ambitious ones the boffins insist are necessary.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s plan has been criticized as full of loose ends and unrealistically ambitious: “In conversation with me, May compared the effort involved to the rescue of British forces at Dunkirk in World War II,” environmental economist Andrew Leach wrote in July. “She might be underestimating the challenge.”

Unlike the big two parties’ plans, however, May’s at least reflects her stated belief in the severity of the problem. And when CBC sat down with her for an in-depth interview, days before the campaign, what was the headline? “Green Party won’t ban members from trying to reopen abortion debate.”

That, I’m sorry to say, seems perfectly emblematic of the campaign we’re about to endure. The planet is supposedly burning; the two major parties have very different plans to fail to address it; and all the Liberals want to do is distract you; and far too much of the country’s media is happy to oblige.

The Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and Greens swear blind they have no intention of legislating on abortion. The Liberals and NDP insist this is insufficient: Party leadership must restrict by any means possible MPs’ privileges such that they could never table a motion or private member’s bill that comes within 1,000 kilometres of the issue. (This presumably includes any bill that would codify Canadian women’s access to abortion, which Liberals constantly assure us is both inviolable, insufficient and in terrible peril.) Others, like the Greens and Conservatives, understand how Parliament is supposed to work and are committed to maintaining those privileges.

“Nothing comes before the right Parliament has to debate issues,” Liberal MP Stéphane Dion told the Commons subcommittee on private members business in 2012, when it was discussing Conservative backbencher Steven Woodworth’s motion on the legal beginning of life. “Parliament is a forum for debate, by definition. I fail to see on what constitutional basis we could prevent the House of Commons from debating issues, even things we don’t like.”

There are no defensible grounds on which to declare abortion or any other issue ‘special’ and wall them off from discussion

This is basic stuff. Canada’s press galleries are too full of process nerds for the Shock, Confusion and Horror act — “Leader to allow private members’ bills!!!” — to sound remotely credible. Indeed, generally speaking political journalist are quite sympathetic to the idea of backbenchers being freer to go about their business. It’s why Michael Chong’s Reform Act attracted so much positive notice.

There are no defensible grounds on which to declare abortion or any other issue “special” and wall them off from discussion. Once upon a time, even many pro-life MPs would have bristled at the idea on principle. The only reason Trudeau was able to implement the policy in his caucus was because MPs had been effectively silenced on most everything else so long ago: With a few honourable exceptions, they will do and say almost literally anything the whip demands.

Canadian elections are above all else a battle over small differences — not over what limits to place on abortion, for example, as in every other Western nation, but over how best to ensure there will never be any limits. The parties willing to at least let their MPs discuss the subject in Parliament, should it strike them to do so, thus become the extremists. Threatening the NDP for third place, May now finds herself depicted by some progressives as Genghis Khan in drag simply for refusing to whip her MPs on votes, in keeping with longstanding Green Party policy.

Somehow it seems especially pathetic coming from New Democrats — Charlie Angus, for example, who on Twitter declared himself “flabbergasted.” At their peak they were a remarkably diverse party of big labour, of the urban working poor and champagne socialists alike, of prairie populists, of the North, and for a while of Quebec nationalists. They achieved their greatest successes under Jack Layton by moving to the centre, which involved sidelining if not expelling inconvenient elements, notably militant socialists and Israel-haters.

It was all very impressive, but what was it for? They topped out in official opposition under a majority government. Eight years later it all seems to have been for nought, and now they’re barking at Elizabeth May to muzzle her MPs from the bow of a sinking ship.

It never seems to occur to progressives that in demanding abortion never be discussed in Parliament, they are validating a risk-averse, leader-centric orthodoxy that keeps so many bold and controversial ideas they support from ever getting a look-in. They’re about to get the campaign they deserve: A savage pantomime battle between barely-right-of-centre and barely-left-of-centre, fought by soldiers who would rather discuss anything but the difficult questions.

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