Martyn Brown: Dispatching the Men from U.N.C.L.E.: Voting with a gun to your head

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      So I was sitting there in the theatre recently, waiting for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to start, trying to remember the full name for that acronym.

      I should have known, even though I was a kid when the TV series aired in the ‘60s. After all, I watched it religiously, along with the other Cold War classics like Secret Agent (aka Danger Man), The Avengers, Mission: Impossible, I Spy, and Get Smart.

      For some reason, all I could think about was the Sen. Mike Duffy trial and its preposterous cast of secret agents.

      Nigel Wright, Benjamin Perrin, Ray Novak, Chris Woodcock, David van Hemmen, and the star of the show, “Danger Man” Duffy. The Un-Rigged Avengers, ever ready to inflict harm on their own reputations, without provocation.

      The ones with the impossible mission and a paper trail that did not self-destruct.

      Senators Irving Gerstein, David Tkachuk, Carolyn Stewart Olsen, and recently retired Sen. Marjory LaBreton. The Un-Culpable ones. Whatever they spied, they weren’t saying.

      All of them, bumbling operatives of CONTROL, who struggled to Get Smart under their imagined Cone of Silence, yet produced only KAOS.

      Wright: “Sorry about that, Chief.” Perrin: “I asked you not to tell me that.” Novak: “Missed it by that much!” Woodcock: “Would you believe…”

      And then it hit me.

      The Men from U.N.C.L.E.—The United Network Command for Lie, “Law Enforcement.”

      Of course, that’s it.

      And at the top of that enterprise is The Man himself—Stephen J. Harper. Canada’s own Napoleon. Solo.

      So much for similarities.

      The “real” Solo is a former professional thief who works for the Central Intelligence Agency. At this point, no one would accuse Harper of being a former professional thief or the ace actor of any agency defined by its intelligence.

      Still, Harper’s an artful dodger and a cunning campaigner who is not to be underestimated.

      The question is, will Justin Trudeau’s surprise pronouncement in defense of deficits give Harper a new lease on life?

      Will it allow him to rally the swing Liberals’ avowed fiscal conservatives under the Conservatives’ flag, as it further splits the Left and the anti-Harper vote?

      Perhaps a little, but my guess is, not enough to materially improve the Tories’ fortunes.

      Will Trudeau’s shocking acceptance of short-term deficits and his plan for massive stimulus spending give his Liberals the sizzle they need to not only save their bacon, but to outflank and outdraw the NDP in dropping the Conservatives?

      The Liberals must be dreaming in Technicolor.

      Or will it give Tom Mulcair a lethal new weapon to deliver the coup de grâce to his floundering rivals in consolidating the NDP’s growing status as the best ones to dispatch The Man and his Men from U.N.C.L.E.?

      Bet on it.

      And if that happens, watch for Elizabeth May’s Green Party to also be an indirect beneficiary, as counterintuitive as that may sound at first blush.

      Either way, at last, the Game is afoot.

      Trudeau has come in from the cold to show his true colors and character. Who knew he was a chip off the old block, in his penchant for pirouettes?

      His candor is laudable. But ultimately, he has lit the fuse that will run across every image that many of us have in our heads about what voters should demand and expect from a Liberal government –  “come hell or high water,” as Paul Martin put it.

      Move over, Tom Cruise. Trudeau’s gone “rogue”

      In Trudeau’s “rogue nation”, maintaining a balanced budget is the new mission impossible. Or at the very least, it is held as an unwarranted immediate endeavor.

      Only time will tell which buys more votes: opening the floodgates on spending for things that most people want. Or resisting that temptation, to live within taxpayers’ means, while also refraining from either dramatically cutting or raising anyone’s taxes. Trudeau versus Mulcair.

      History suggests that we mostly want to have our cake and eat it too.

      We tend to punish the politicians who dare to tell us the truth about their intentions to run deficits and to reward those who tell us what we want to hear, whether or not we really believe that anyone will balance the budget as advertised.

      The Greek debt crisis makes the need for fiscal prudence even more salient, as it makes any talk of incurring avoidable deficits that much more verboten.

      As the Liberals continue their appeal to bribe Canadians with their own tax dollars, they should also be honest about the interest costs of their wished-for added debt.

      Even at today’s low interest rates, the federal government’s $600 billion debt is costing taxpayers some $93 million a day in interest payments. Or about $29 billion a year. Tough to comprehend, I know. And deceptively benign for that fact.

      That’s $29,000,000,000 a year that goes from our pockets into the banks’ and other lenders’ pockets. All for the privilege of borrowing their money, to pay for things that we either can’t or don’t choose to pay for as we go, or cannot contemplate doing without, whatever the cost.

      It’s not chicken feed. Twenty-nine-thousand-million dollars per year, for nothing, accept interest on dead-weight debt.

      How much will that interest bite rise under Trudeau’s plan to spend $30 billion more for operating purposes than he plans to generate in revenues over the next three years?

      How much more would taxpayers shell out in interest to double infrastructure investments by doubling capital borrowing costs from $65 billion to nearly $125 billion over 10 years, as he proposes?

      What could all of that money lost to new interest costs buy if that additional invited debt were avoided?

      Who knows?

      But it all adds up to a pile of dough that the Liberals should be equally forthright in detailing as they go about attacking Mulcair with their wild claims about the NDP’s supposed $28-billion gap between its announced spending plans and its identified revenue sources.

      If the Trudeau’s latest assault on Mulcair’s fiscal credibility sounds hysterical, it is only because it is; and equally, because his own fondness for Keynesian economics looks so much more profligate by comparison.

      Only a party that is running scared of its own tenuous position would resort to such “taint-by-numbers” attacks on a party that has promised a fully-costed platform.

      Until that accounting document is released, the Liberals’ and Conservatives’ predictable attacks on the NDP’s numbers are just so much hot air.

      With Trudeau’s Liberals doing their best to paint Mulcair’s New Democrats as the least fiscally risky alternative to the Harper government, the Tories have good reason to worry about the potential for a public stampede to the NDP.

      As the only leader who is still predisposed to the “pump-priming” deficits idolized in his father’s Cold War era, today’s Trudeau should be nervous about his increasingly vulnerable position.

      In their effort to court the NDP’s disaffected fundamentalists—who Tom Mulcair has only tried to soothe with the promise of power through quiet patience—the Liberals have consciously marginalized themselves.

      Indeed, barring a major gaffe, which seems unlikely, given Mulcair’s rock-steady performance thus far, Trudeau has just handed the NDP the ultimate gift that keeps on giving.

      He has indirectly positioned his chief opponent as Canada’s most fiscally responsible alternative to the Harper government.

      Quite a feat for a party that traded on that hallmark to keep the NDP on the fringe throughout its long life, up until the last election.

      Similarly, however populist Trudeau’s pledge may be to impose major corporate tax hikes, most voters sense that it is probably not advisable in the current economic context. No opinion poll could convince me otherwise.

      More fundamentally, Trudeau has effectively removed the gun from many voters’ heads in determining whom to support in defeating Harper.

      Traditional NDP voters who just want Harper gone will have no difficulty happily supporting Mulcair’s team in its efforts to form Canada’s first federal NDP government. Trudeau won’t win them over by outspending Mulcair on the hustings.

      Swing voters who were only grudgingly considering voting for NDP candidates to “save” Canada from another Harper government can now feel so much better about making that choice with a clear conscience.

      Incredibly, the Liberals have made the NDP more legit as the “true” liberal party.

      Lurking in the shadows: a boost for the Greens?

      For Elizabeth May’s Green Party, the potential effect of Trudeau’s “coming out” as a “closet socialist”—as Jean Chrétien might have labeled an NDPer of a like mind—is no less liberating and encouraging.

      To the extent that it serves to consolidate the NDP’s status as the strongest anti-Harper party, it gives Green-leaning voters new cause to vote with conviction for that party’s most competitive and demonstrably qualified candidates. Of which, there are several. (See Related articles).

      For so many potential Green voters, the only impediment to making that choice is the fear of splitting the anti-Harper vote and re-electing the Conservatives.

      If Trudeau’s game changing jump to the left makes Mulcair’s NDP the clear go-to choice for most Harper haters, many of May’s candidates will become newly relevant.

      Especially for ideologically conflicted conservatives, who have had it with Harper and who applaud the Greens’ unequivocal stance on climate change, “green” growth and other issues.

      Only the Green Party is standing firmly against Big Oil and the push to further exploit fossil fuels through oil sands development, LNG exports and their proposed new and expanded pipelines.

      No party is more committed to fighting and adapting to climate change with renewable energy, new technologies and an unswerving devotion to sustainable development in all facets of public policy.

      May has also succeeded in attracting the Green Party’s most compelling and widely credible team of candidates to date. Their stance on fiscal issues is also now arguably to the right of Trudeau’s Liberals.

      By electing more Green Party MPs and growing that party’s popular support, green-ish voters stand to achieve at least two things.

      First, they stand to strengthen their voice in Parliament and in Canada’s political landscape as a permanent force for progressive change.

      That could be critical in influencing an NDP government’s ultimate decisions on so many issues and projects that desperately need a new look or a wholesale rethink.

      They include the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project and Kinder Morgan’s efforts to turn Vancouver into a massive hub for heavy oil exports.

      They include the Energy East Pipeline Project and the plans to put major new LNG exporting facilities in the ecologically sensitive Howe Sound; smack in the middle of Vancouver, on the Fraser River’s Tilbury Island; and below the Malahat, on the Saanich Inlet.

      All of those projects should be stopped dead in their tracks, without delay.

      It is important for the Greens’ voice to be heard as a Mulcair government sets about doing the many laudable things the NDP has promised, including improving environmental protection, strengthening environmental assessment processes, and combating global warming.

      Second, in the likely event of a minority NDP government, even a few Green MPs might effectively hold the balance of power.

      Bear in mind that of the 29 federal elections in Canada over the last 94 years, 12 of them resulted in minority governments. Odds are, we are going to have another one.

      If it becomes clear that Trudeau’s position on the deficit has given the NDP sufficient new momentum to overtake the Conservatives, the argument for voting Green will become even more compelling and a little less “risky” for those whose paramount priority is deposing the Harper government.

      The upshot

      All of which is to say, both Mulcair and May have new reason to regard Trudeau as their best strategic asset. He has suddenly become their unwitting double agent.

      Harper may think that Trudeau’s new role, as the mole that roared “Deficits!” is his Tories’ ticket to safety.

      But once the NDP and Conservative attack ads are both locked on the target that Trudeau has newly placed on his party’s own back, it will be Harper who takes the ultimate direct hit.

      At the ballot box, we are all secret agents of change.

      This time, the vast majority of voters are gunning for Harper.

      They are bound to dispatch him and his Men from U.N.C.L.E. with extreme prejudice.

      If it turns out that Trudeau shot himself in the foot as badly as I think he did, Canada’s united agents for change and for more ethical law enforcement will not feel obliged to vote with a gun to their heads.

      They will do so with new confidence in their decision, with new clarity of their alternatives, and with new conviction.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. He is the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British Columbia. Contact Brown at




      Sep 1, 2015 at 1:45pm

      Trudeau is the only leader telling the truth about balancing the budget. Harper has never balanced a budget and, as a result, has added $170 billion to the debt. With the mess he has created during his reign, Trudeau and Mulcair both know that the next few budgets cannot be balanced without either large tax increases and program cuts. Instead of admitting that, Mulcair is hiding his plans and that concerns me. Will we see further cuts to health transfers, a jump in GST, increased taxes on capital gains, or what, Mr. Mulcair?

      ursa minor

      Sep 1, 2015 at 3:53pm

      @FN - Mulcair has been up front about raising corporate taxes and banning income splitting, which is more than anyone can say for Liberals like Paul Martin, who slashed health and social transfers and Jean Chretien, who claims that he said he would "scrape" the GST....

      F. Dalton

      Sep 1, 2015 at 10:55pm

      Thank you Mr. Brown! I started reading this with amusement. That turned to appreciation for the writing style. Then ...who IS this person? Reading of your background explained a lot. Best summary I have seen, by far. Even if it still doesn't make my decision much easier...wobble, wobble. Hope to hear more from you. In the meantime, I need to find out who my green candidate is.