This week, 12 years of Liberal party rule came to an end in Canada, when the Tories (Conservatives) won the countrywide parliamentary elections.
The Conservatives won 124 seats, the Liberals 103, the Bloc Quebecois 51 and the social democratic New Democratic Party 29. The Tories got 36% of the vote and the Liberals 30%. But the Tories fell short of the 155 seats needed to form an outright majority government in the 308-seat parliament.
Late last year, a parliamentary confidence vote forced the election. This was triggered by a public inquiry that found Liberal politicians in French-speaking Quebec province took kickbacks in return for government contracts. Prime Minister Paul Martin lost the confidence vote and his Liberals were forced into the second election in 18 months
Commentators pointed out that the Tory victory did not indicate a positive vote for this right wing, neo-liberal party, but that it was a massive public general rejection of two years of Liberal corruption scandals and cuts policies. Much of the press and sections of big business backed the Tories, who are keen to see a more right wing, aggressive government take on workers’ rights and conditions, attacking public and social services, carrying out privatisations and making generous tax cuts for the rich.
The Tories played on the public mood during the election campaign, calling for an end to corruption and for funding of childcare and healthcare. The party called for a “new voice” for Quebec, and made some poll gains in the province. Tory leader, Stephen Harper, pledged to cut taxes and to tackle “violent crime and corruption”.
Paul Martin tried to maintain Liberal support by emphasising the “buoyant” economy, pointing to eight consecutive budget surpluses. But social cuts and the corruption scandal stuck. Working people had enough of the Liberals pro-capitalist policies. A high profile, last minute Liberal advertising campaign which played on “urban” fears that the Tories would swing the government further to the right, seemed to have some effect, but did not save Paul Martin’s government. But neither did stepping up criticising of Bush’s trade policies and the US’s rejection of the Kyoto climate-control protocol, which Canada has signed and ratified, save Martin in the polls. Working class people saw through the Liberals’ opportunism. The Liberals vote dropped by 6.5% from 2004.
Tories fail to get outright majority
However the Tories did not get the large majority they were hoping for, as many voters were not prepared to hand power to right wing ideologues.
The poll results show the Tories did not win in the most populous parts of the country and in the three key urban areas.
They gained across the country but especially in rural and suburban areas and in oil producing Alberta, where all the provinces’ 28 seats were won by the Conservatives. In provinces that make up the majority of Canada’s population, the Tories got a minority of seats.
Harper’s gains in Quebec stopped the pro-separatist, pro-market Bloc Quebecois (BQ) winning a majority in the province, which it would have strengthened its call for a referendum on Quebec ‘independence’. The Conservatives appealed to some nationalists and big business in Quebec, with its pledges for more autonomy for Quebec. But the Tories failed to win a seat in the urban Island of Montreal.
The Liberals – mired in scandals and linked to a cuts provincial administration - lost 21 seats in Quebec, where for decades they had a strong base. The BQ party got some seats from the Liberals but losses to the Conservatives meant their total was reduced by three.
To make electoral advances, the Tories cynically and opportunistically toned down their right wing, neo-liberal policies during the campaign and sought to create distance between themselves and the Bush administration in the US.
Formed three years ago as a coalition of two right wing parties (the right wing, populist Reform/Canadian Alliance Party and the Progressive Conservatives) the Conservatives strongly supported the US-led invasion of Iraq and shares Bush’s opposition to Kyoto.
Aware these policies were in sharp opposition to the majority of working people in Canada, Harper promised he would “not move the country too far to the right”. He steered clear of social issues like abortion and gay rights.
This reflects the general mood of working people, which is against cuts in social spending, for defence of the welfare state, and against the Iraq war and invasion and opposition to the Bush administration across the border.
However, workers and youth had no party to vote for that articulated these policies or that put forward independent class politics. Although the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) won an extra 11 seats, mostly in British Colombia and Ontario, the party is firmly in the camp of capitalism. The NDP previously propped up the cuts-making Liberal government and then, last year, collaborated with the Tories to bring down the Liberals. The NDP ran a pro-market election campaign, ditching previous demands for higher taxes on the rich, playing on ‘law and order’ issues, and calling for more spending on the armed forces.
The new Conservative government will have to rely on the opposition parties to put through its right wing agenda. This will limit Prime Minister Harper’s room for manoeuvre and make the government susceptible. But it would be wrong not to see this new government as an attempt by the ruling class to intensify and step up attacks on working people, after more than a decade of Liberal cuts.
The new government will also aim to increase power and influence of Canada in the region and globally. Harper is naturally pro-Bush, but he will have to tread carefully given the antipathy of most Canadians to the right wing Republican administration. However, in representing the interests of Canadian big business, Harper will, on occasion, clash with his soul-mates in the White House. Already, just days after winning the elections, Prime Minister-elect Harper defended plans to send Canadian military ice-breakers to the Arctic, against the wishes of Washington. Harper said the move was to defend Canada’s northern waters from claims by the US, Russia and Denmark. Canada’s announcement was condemned publicly by the US ambassador to Ottawa. The US says it considers much of Canada’s northern waters to be “international waters”. This clash, along with recent trade disputes between the two countries, most particularly over soft lumber exports, shows how relations can quickly sour, as imperialist countries compete for profits, resources and influence.
Working class needs voice
In all of this, the working class needs a class programme that rejects capitalist policies, at home or abroad, and which also rejects the false arguments of Canadian nationalism.
All the main opposition parties – the Liberals, the BQ, and the NDP – have signalled they are prepared to horse-trade with Harper’s administration, supporting various Conservative government policies. How long this mutually opportunist manoeuvring lasts is another matter. What is clear, is that the working class needs to fight back immediately against the combined attacks of the main pro-capitalist parties. This means the unions breaking from the NDP and so-called “progressive” Liberals and Quebec nationalists. The unions must adopt fighting, independent, class policies. Working people also need a political party; a socialist party with mass support that will fight cuts and capitalism, linking workers of all nationalities and religions and also linking up with the US working class.