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ELECTION '84: How can we have an impact? What is the role of the peace movement?

Kim Killeen — August 1984

As the 1984 Canadian federal election draws near, peace activists across the country are engaged in efforts directed at maximizing the movement’s impact on this political event.

However, the public usually votes on domestic issues such as the economy, and not on issues such as disarmament, which are more international in nature.

To deal with this problem, peace groups are working on several election-related campaigns, encouraging candidates to take a strong stand on the nuclear arms race, and encouraging voters to vote on peace issues. (See the accompanying article by Ann Rowan on this page.)

The prospect of an election raises several other important issues which currently face the movement. To clarify these issues, I recently spoke with peace activists from across Canada in an attempt to discover how they see the role of the peace movement in the federal election.
and large, there was general agreement that both the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives are running in a dead heat for the mantle of power. The NDP is expected to place a valiant (but third place) finish. Whether the future government will be led by the Tories or the Grits was considered impossible to predict.
While this may present problems for the effective use of one’s limited campaigning resources, it was clear to all with whom I spoke that both leading parties do not have much in the way of a substantive policy position on the peace issue. What has been offered is generally considered to be long on rhetoric and short on innovation. Indeed, both positions were viewed not only as wanting, but as mirror images of each other. Tongue-in-cheek, Phyllis Creighton of the Anglican Church of Canada nbted that, “on the issue of peace, our choice comes down to Brian Turner and John Mulroney. “

Not all activists agree on this point. Dieter Heinrich of the World Federalists of Canada argues that activists must be aware of the subtle differences between the Liberals and Conservatives. While both parties have bad records on the peace issue, “a Conservative government with Sinclair Stevens as Minister for External Affairs may prove to be worse than those presently in power.”

On the other hand, despite the fact that the NDP’s platform was perceived as closely aligned to the peace movement’s goals, its chances to form the next federal government were viewed as extremely remote. The party’s recent drop in popularity further reinforced this perception.

Although the question of which of the two leading parties will form the next government appears unanswerable, activists should not despair. A minority government was held to be the most probable outcome, and such a development could put disarmament issues on the public agenda.

Optimism was expressed that, while the Liberals and Conservatives do not have a strong peace platform, a minority government (with the NDP as fair handmaiden) would strengthen the voices for peace within Parliament. “A minority government with the NDP holding the balance of power would be healthy for the advancement of all social goals,” predicts Jamie Scott of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation. Underlying this positive assessment of a minority government is the recognition that the party in power would, by necessity, be more responsive to the demands of the electorate as a means of increasing its popular support. In the past, issues such as medicare and unemployment insurance, which were originally NDP policies, have become government policy, because the issues gained popular support.

Given this scenario of the upcoming election, what course should peace groups follow? While universal agreement could not be reached on the best strategies for increasing the movement’s political impact, the following strategies were most commonly cited.

It is natural to assume that the NDP will garner the peace vote, as this party has consistently advocated the major goals of the peace movement. In keeping with this assumption, Beth Richards, PPCC Coordinator for the Labour Council of Metro Toronto, asserts that “peace activists should vote for the NDP because this party has consistently supported our concerns, while a John Turner. or Brian Mulroney vote will not advance our interests.”

A partisan position on the part of the peace movement is not supported by all activists. Operating on the basis of political pragmatism, Gary Marchant of Vancouver’s End the Arms Race coalition aptly encapsulates the dilemma he sees facing the movement. “We must remain nonpartisan. It would be a serious mistake to align ourselves with anyone party. While ethically we should support the NDP, it only enjoys 12% of Canadian public support, while a full 480/0 of Canadians are opposed to cruise testing. Clearly, a large number of peace activists are either Liberals or Conservatives who are not going to change their vote for a single issue.”

According to this perspective, to advocate the NDP as “the peace party” would only serve to alienate a percentage of the peace movement’s supporters, at a time when it is unclear whether the NDP could form the next government.

David Kraft of the Toronto Disarmament Network shares this view and adds that “we should not tie our fate to one party but rather centre the movement on as broad a consensus as possible, in order to attract new followers of every political persuasion. This is the only way we can strengthen the movement and make it an independent force.”

Bridging the gap between partisan and non-partisan voting patterns, Phyllis Creighton suggests that wherever the NDP has the possibility of fielding a successful candidate, it would be sensible to vote for that candidate, if only because his or her position would be in alignment with the party platform. However, Creighton cautions that a rule of thumb should be applied. To begin, the NDP’s strength in a given riding should be realistically assessed. Should the party’s candidate appear incapable of taking the riding, the remaining candidates should be scrutinized closely. Once the most pro-peace candidate has been identified, “peace activists should vote accordingly.”

This ‘winning vote’ approach is personally supported by Dieter Heinrich. “Voting for an individual candidate who is pro-peace,” he advocates, “is as important as whether the party has an explicit (pro-peace) position. The nbjective should be to elect as many propeace MPs as possible, regardless of their party affiliation.”

While it is evident that advice varies on how best to employ the ‘peace vote,’ activists agree that every effort must be expended to raise peace issues at the riding forums of all three parties. “Our purpose should be to use every opportunity to draw the candidates out, forcing them to declare their positions,” acknowledges David Kraft. Such a strategy will serve three goals. First, it would increase the public’s awareness of nuclear issues. Second, it will force all candidates to become knowledgeable about the nuclear threat and the concerns of the movement. Finally (and perhaps most importantly), by drawing out the candidate’s position, it will enable to public to determine which local candidate deserves their peace vote.

Regardless of which strategy is adopted, all activists concur that one message must be sent to all. candidates and parties. The message is quite simple: Disarmament is an issue of paramount interest to a large portion of their constituency, and its vote will be won by those candidates that pursue peace.

As a final word on the electoral strategy, Beth Richards sounds a note of caution. “We cannot fall into the trap of thinking that the peace issue can win an election. By the same. token, we must recognise that the future of the peace movement is not going to be determined by one election alone. This is a long-term struggle. “