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One union leader to another: We can’t deal with the Conservative threat by urging NDP supporters to vote Liberal.

Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove has had to spend a lot of time justifying his federal election strategy to progressive Canadian voters, and with good reason.

Mere hours after the writ was issued, Hargrove urged Canadians on the left to examine their consciences and, in ridings where the NDP presumably had no chance of winning, vote Liberal.

There are many things that Buzz and I agree on – including the belief that Stephen Harper is a right-wing ideologue whose plans for Canada are extremely worrisome.  But we differ on the solution to the Conservative threat.

Buzz’s argument assumes far too much kinship between the NDP and the Liberals. Had Canadians taken it seriously in larger numbers, it might have prevented the New Democrats from ever providing a viable alternative to either of the established, pro-business parties.

Taking Buzz at his word, I can grant that Paul Martin’s government introduced initiatives (national childcare, equal marriage rights, the aboriginal deal) that the Liberals might have stalled as a majority.

But what the CAW leader has described as “a historical opportunity” was not, in fact, so historic.

Under David Lewis, the New Democrats held the balance of power during the Trudeau minority of 1972-1974 – a period in which Parliament introduced a national affordable housing strategy, a new Elections Expenses Act and pension indexing.
Thanks to NDP support, the government was also able to create Petro-Canada and the Foreign Investment Review Agency.

We all know what happened next: David Lewis lost his seat in the 1974 election and, following that brief minority Parliament, Canada and the NDP had to cope with several more Liberal and Tory majorities.

Whether the majority was Liberal or Conservative, the government was moved steadily to the right.
Remember: This is not the Canada of 1972-74. That Canada was not governed by a Liberal party that caved in on free trade and did nothing to prevent the spread of two-tier health care, a Liberal party whose taxation policy and favours for the corporate sector were often indistinguishable from those of the Conservatives.

Buzz’s suggestion of a joint pact among the NDP, Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois is naive at best. As Mel Watkins put it recently, “Buzz should have checked first with Bono and asked whether any promise from Martin is worth the paper it is not written on.”

As president of the largest union in British Columbia, I take offence at Buzz’s claim that the influence of his “strategic voting” argument led to more NDP victories in B.C.

In fact, had he not chosen to hug Martin during an election campaign, the NDP may well have picked up additional seats in Esquimalt, Surrey and elsewhere in B.C.– not to mention untold ridings in the rest of the country.

Again, quoting Watkins, I ask Buzz: “How is a more viable third party ever to be built if people only support it where it is already strong?”

Barry O’Neill is president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, BC.

Vancouver Sun editorial