Thursday, September 20, 2012

On diverging paths

Earlier this morning, I noted that the NDP is developing on a promising line of economic messaging - highlighting the Cons' determination to place the interests of the wealthy and privileged over those of mere working Canadians. And I'd expect that principle to factor into the NDP's foreign policy as well.

But Campbell Clark suggests otherwise - reporting that the party plans to make the mistake of trying to match the Cons' "free trade" spin word for word. So let's take a quick look at another option available to the NDP if it's indeed searching for a foreign-policy theme.

Just as the NDP is rightly standing up for the principle that corporate interests are only one, overfed part of the broader policy picture at home, there would seem to be plenty of room to emphasize that trade is only one form of necessary and desirable interaction around the globe. And the Cons' obsession with the right-wing desire to promote trade and war only means that they've been refusing to engage with our diplomatic partners around the world when it comes to a bevy of other areas of shared concern, including immigration, human rights, health, the environment and democratic development.

In contrast, the NDP can plausibly point to its interest in that wider range of issues as better reflecting how Canadians see their country as a global actor.

Once that framework is established, there's still room for a message of "we like trade" as one of the forms of global engagement. But the openness to trade needs to be tempered with the recognition that several decades of focus on free trade have resulted in little benefit for many outside the world's elite. And in considering any given agreement on the merits, we should ensure that we don't merely hand multinational conglomerates yet more power to dictate that governments shall put no other priority above their interests.

So how does such a message compare to the one mooted in Clark's report?

For one thing, it actually leaves some room for contrast against the Cons on turf that's relatively favourable for the NDP. I'd be shocked if there's any prospect of actually gaining any leverage against the Cons by accusing them of being insufficiently devoted to signing free trade agreements, and I'm not sure it would be worth the damage to the NDP's broader message about the need for democratic decision-making even if it was possible. But a contrast between "trade only" and "trade only as part of the bigger picture" looks to allow for far more development among voters interested in that bigger picture.

And I'd have a hard time seeing it as less viable from the standpoint of demonstrating the NDP's fitness to govern. Again, any litmus test that suggests we should consider corporate approval as a precondition to forming government is bound to harm the NDP's wider interests. And there are plenty of friendly voices around the globe to send the message that a focus on broader well-being rather than doctrinaire free-trade promotion will make for better governance at home and abroad.

In sum, foreign affairs and trade policy look to be one more area where the NDP has to choose between defining a contrast with the Canadian public on our side, or choosing a supposedly easier road which ultimately leads exactly where our opponents want to go. And the party's grassroots may have plenty of work to do in making sure our leadership makes the right call.

[Edit: fixed wording.]

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