Canada
3 min

Voting as harm reduction

Election fever

With all the sturm und drang in public discourse regarding the risks of a Conservative majority, voting itself may feel like a form of harm reduction. After all, the Tories have already shown their true colours on many fronts — from cuts to HIV funding, to ideological resistance to safer injection, to misguided mandatory-minimum sentences designed to lock up as many people as possible.

Yes, Harper’s henchmen need to be reined in before Canada turns into Animal Farm — and 2008 starts to resemble 1984. But this historical moment is also instructive about the limitations of electoral politics as a mechanism for social change.

If you care about the kinds of things that I do, and that I write about in this column, including the rights of sex workers, drug users, people with HIV and other marginalized folks, it’s basically impossible to find a political party whose representatives consistently share your values and priorities.

Still, I voted at the advance polls this week, and I marked an X for my friendly neighbourhood queer Muslim NDP candidate.

I guess you could call it strategic voting. I’m sick of the Liberal stranglehold on my riding and my preferred strategy would be to turf them out. The Liberal incumbent in my area is a famous former NDPer. So what?

Much hay has been made in the pages of Xtra — and the bytes of xtra.ca — about Bob Rae’s historic failure to whip his party on the queer spousal-rights law Bill 167 when he led the provincial NDP a decade and a half ago. To be frank though, those were different days and queer freedom is a lot less politically dangerous to support now — witness the Liberals finally legalizing same-sex marriage relatively recently.

So my point isn’t really to trumpet the virtues of one party over another. After all, you don’t have to step into the Wayback Machine to look for reasons to be disappointed with the New Democrats. One of the most disturbing in recent memory was the NDP — with the exception of queer MP Bill Siksay — lining up in support of the Tory move to raise Canada’s age of consent for the first time since 1892.

This retrograde gesture was an ideologically driven piece of the Conservatives surreal law-and-order agenda — and it was immediately denounced by respected youth-advocacy groups.

Everyone from Justice for Children and Youth to the Canadian AIDS Society to Planned Parenthood raised alarm bells, noting that adequate protection for youth already existed, and that this change would only threaten young people’s access to sexual-health information and education — by criminalizing sexually active youth. A rational approach to sexual health is key to progressive politics as far as I’m concerned, but apparently Jack Layton didn’t see it that way.

Handsome and articulate, Layton is everything Dion isn’t in terms of a compelling public persona, and he’s running an incredibly strong campaign as a result. Ironically, Layton seems to be taking lessons from Harper’s playbook when it comes to a laser-sharp focus on the leader’s personality above all else, and neutralizing any controversy that would prevent him from staying on-message.

Beyond the wrongheaded support of the age-of-consent change and Layton’s own inordinate focus on crime issues — did someone find out from focus groups that this issue plays well with working-class folks? — there were the recent resignations of two BC NDP candidates with long histories of well-known marijuana activism after ancient videos of them smoking reefer online were hyped up in the media.

These concerns aside, queers benefit from having multiple choices. This election there’s been much talk about the desirability of Canada reverting to a de facto two-party system. I can’t imagine anything worse, frankly. After all, we have NDP-predecessor the CCF to thank for universal healthcare. And I’m sorry, but the Liberals don’t have a natural right to govern.

I hope I don’t have to eat these words, but at this point I really don’t see a Tory majority coming. And to my mind, the Grits should be trying to enlist the support of Red Tories instead of NDPers to try and reverse their ailing fortunes.

Queers may have the ears of some politicians today, but we should never forget the days when we were forced to fight outside the system for change. That need for that grassroots struggle has never really gone away — and no matter what happens Oct 14, I suspect we may need those guerrilla skills now more than ever.