In an unprecedented move, the Canadian Governor General, Michaelle Jean, used her “royal” powers to prorogue (suspend) the country’s parliament until 26 January to allow Prime Minister Stephen Harper to cling onto power. This enabled Harper’s minority Conservative government to see off an opposition vote of no confidence that was set for 8 December. This vote was expected to lead to the collapse of the minority Conservative government, just two months after it was elected.
The suspension of parliament and the block on the right of MPs to form a new government is a direct attack on the established norms of a British-style parliamentary democracy. While not in any way endorsing the pro-big business policies of the would-be coalition government in-waiting, socialists oppose the reactionary and undemocratic actions of the Harper government and the governor general. The suspension of parliament is a stark warning to the workers’ movement in Canada and internationally of the measures right wing governments are prepared to employ to defend their class interests.
The constitutional crisis was triggered by Harper’s proposed policies, unveiled one week ago, that offered a meagre ‘stimulus package’ to boost the flagging Canadian economy
Harper is a right wing, neo-liberal ideologue and his party represents the section of the ruling class that does not want to embark the sort of big fiscal package employed by other governments around the world. The opposition regarded Harper’s ideological obduracy as hugely reckless at a time of worsening economic crisis. Figures released on 5 December reveal Canada suffered its worst month of job losses since 1982, bringing the jobless total to 6.3%. Ontario, the country’s largest province and its manufacturing hub, was hit particularly hard. The Canadian arm of Chrysler is looking for a $1.5bn government bailout to prevent the car maker shutting down.
Harper’s package also banned public sector strikes for three years. Particularly upsetting for the opposition parties, Harper proposed cuts to public funding for political parties, a measure which would have forced the opposition parties to declare bankruptcy.
This provoked the opposition parties to sign a ‘coalition deal’, which could have led to the Liberals and social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) forming a coalition government, with support from the Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec nationalist party. Playing on regionalist rivalries, Harper finds most support in the western provinces, particularly oil-rich Alberta, while he faces massive opposition in other provinces, including French-speaking Quebec.
Faced with defeat on 8 December, Harper, with the support of big sections of the media, threatened to organise pro-government public rallies and put huge pressure on the unelected governor general to suspend parliament. He also whipped up anti-Quebec nationalism, calling the potential Liberals-NDP government a “separatist coalition” and accused the opposition of trying to organise a “putsch” and of breaking “national unity”.
Socialists completely oppose the anti-democratic measures used by the Conservative government, through the office of the Governor General – the ‘representative’ of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The actions of this arcane and semi-feudal office show how the formal trappings of democracy, in one of the richest countries in the world, can be bypassed using extraordinary powers held by the capitalist state, in times of crisis. These powers can also be used against the organised workers’ movement during times of severe social crisis and big class movements and against future pro-working class governments. In 1975, the similar powers of the unelected governor general in Australia, John Kerr, were used to oust the Labor Gough Whitlam government and to replace it with the right wing Malcolm Fraser administration. Whitlam’s government did not bring about far reaching socialists policies or act as a serious challenge to the rule of big business but it held power during a time of growing class movements in Australia and earned the distrust of the ruling class, leading to its dismissal by undemocratic actions of Governor General Kerr.
Socialists call for the scrapping of the post of governor general in Canada and all ‘reserve’ anti-democratic powers and repressive legislation.
What will happen next? The crisis forced Harper to signal that he will back down on some of his proposed policies, including the threat to cut political parties funding. The prime minister is under pressure to show he can deliver economic relief when parliament resumes on 26 January. Harper may increase spending on infrastructure and homes and increase aid for manufacturing and the forestry industry.
The NDP and Liberals showed the tamest opposition to the actions of the governor general. How long the opposition parties remain united is open to question and there are signs of strains already. At the same time, Harper will probably use the next seven weeks to shore up his support base in the west and to step up anti-Quebec rhetoric.
Opinion polls show a deep divide in Canada over the suspension of parliament and the Conservatives still well ahead of the opposition parties. Before the crisis blew up, Harper was on 44% in polls, up from the 37% he won in elections last October. The prime minister was also “more trusted” on the economy than his Liberal opponent, Stephane Dion. Although a majority polled for The Globe and Mail wanted Harper to stay in government, 55% felt the country was on “the wrong track”.
The Liberals and NDP failed to mobilise mass support for their attempts to create a new coalition government. The NDP made big policy concessions to the Liberals to form a potential governing coalition, ditching opposition to Canadian troops in Afghanistan and dropping opposition to big business tax cuts. Many workers and youth want to see the back of Harper but they will hardly be motivated and enthused by the ‘milder’ version of Harper’s policies on offer from the Liberals and NDP.
While socialists oppose Harper’s slew of right wing economic and anti-working class policies, socialists do not, in any way, endorse the policies of the opposition parties (BQ, NDP and Liberals) in or out of power. They all have a record of neo-liberal policies and attacks on the working class, at national or provincial levels. The Liberals are the ‘natural governing party’ of big business. The NDP only give mild opposition to the Canada’s imperialist adventures and provide no serious alternative to the growing economic crisis.
The governmental crisis brings home the need for an independent mass working class party, with socialist policies, that can tackle the developing economic crisis, end imperialist wars and defend basic democratic rights.