Canadian voters overwhelmingly rejected Stephen Harper and his Conservative party. The Liberals, the traditional party of big business in Canada, won a majority, while the New Democratic Party (NDP), the official opposition before the election, was pushed back into a poor third place.
The overwhelming mood in Canada, throughout the longest election campaign since 1873, was both to kick out Harper and for change (http://abacusdata.ca/the-battle-for-the-change-vote/). Harper infamously said in 2006, that “You won’t recognize Canada when I’m through with it”. After nearly a decade in power, although he failed to change the fundamentals of Canada, as shown in the continuing strength of unions, the active social movements outside of parliament and the votes in this election, many Canadians felt their country was being ‘taken away’ and they ‘wanted it back’. The path to victory was not just Stop Harper but promising changes. The Liberals won that contest in the hearts and minds of voters.
The Conservative party went into the election on the defensive. They had won previous elections (hypocritically) promising jobs yet Canada was in recession, over half a million manufacturing jobs had gone, and the oil sector – the core of Harper’s economic strategy – was in crisis, as oil prices slumped from over $100 to below $50 a barrel. In addition, many of the Tories’ actions had enraged opponents and alienated sections of their support.
The NDP, Canada’s party with roots in social democracy, had won a big increase in seats, in 2011, as the Bloc Québécois collapsed in Québec to the NDP and the Liberals fared poorly in English Canada. They had been the official opposition for the first time in history. Following on from the NDP’s historic win in Alberta in May, after 44 years of Conservative rule, they started the campaign leading in the polls. Near the end of August the NPD had 37% in the polls. Yet the outcome was a loss of third of their votes and 59 seats. In Atlantic Canada and Metro Toronto they were wiped out. In Québec, they lost nearly three quarters of their seats.
Throughout 2015, as the price of oil collapsed, the Conservatives shifted their political arguments from the economy to trying to whip up fear over terrorism and security. They introduced a deeply anti-democratic Bill C-51. The Liberals, while criticizing the bill, voted for it. The NDP attacked the bill and voted against it. This gained the NDP support for taking a principled position that won majority support over a few months. The Liberals were seen as political cowards.
In the election, the Tories continued their attempt to spread fear about security with an added ingredient of playing the racist card. This included talking about “old-stock Canadians” and taking away the right to wear the niqab when taking the oath to become a Canadian citizen. This was code for wider prejudice but it totally failed to save them. The vote for parties that supported banning the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, the Tories and Bloc, declined in Quebec (down 3.9%) and in the rest of Canada.
The real election battle was who would replace the Tories as it was clear that they were unlikely to win. In the end, 68% of Canadians voted for parties opposed to the Tories.
The NDP’s election campaign was cautious, with a carefully costed platform and a commitment to balanced budgets. There were some welcome proposals but the overall impression was of modest change. The NDP seemed to be seeking to re-assure Bay Street (the finance centre of Canada) that they were reliable. The NDP campaign did not inspire great enthusiasm.
The Liberals had no need to make such re-assurances. They have close links with the Canadian elite, and had demonstrated under former Prime Ministers Chrétien and Martin their willingness to carry out huge cuts in public services while giving tax cuts to the rich and corporations.
The Liberals, having nothing to lose being in third place, talked radical with a commitment to tax the rich and run a deficit budget to tackle much-needed infrastructure and provide jobs. Whatever the reality of the Liberals, they appeared too many to be listening most to Canadians and be proposing the most radical change. One of the NDP’s slogans was, “Ready for Change’ while the Liberals campaigned on ‘Real Change’, regarded widely a subtle but significant difference.
The Liberals capitalized on Trudeau’s youth (at 43 he is the second youngest prime minister in Canadian history) and good looks. The association with his father, Pierre Trudeau, also helped, as he was the last Prime minister before neo-liberal policies of cuts and stagnating wages took a grip on Canada. Pierre Trudeau is associated with a sunnier Canadian past, even if it is partly a myth.
One of the features of the election was a big increase in turnout. Since the 2000 election, turnout has been around the low 60 percentages. In this election, it increased to nearly 70%, with an extra 2.8 million people voting, the highest in over 20 years. Almost all the increase in votes benefitted the Liberals. There was a big increase in Indigenous voters – for example, the turnout in Nunavut went from 46% in 2011 to 65% this time – and the Tory Cabinet minister was reduced to 3rd place. There was also an increase in young voters. The NDP and Conservatives both attacked Trudeau for ‘not being ready’, highlighting his youth. Their campaign ads told young people (under 40 years) that the NDP and Tories did not think they were ready to take decisions. No wonder the Liberals did well among young people.
As the election drew near, the Liberals gained momentum and were seen as the party most likely to both defeat the Tories and bring change. On election day they swept across Canada.
The Liberal vote was more than tactical voting, it was a wave of support. They won all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada, wiping out both the Tories and NDP. In Québec, they went from 7 to 40 seats, while in Ontario from 11 to 80 seats. They took all 3 northern seats, from none in 2011. On the prairies they did not do as well, but went from 2 seats to 12. In British Colombia the Liberals went from 2 to 17.
A Liberal government - a honeymoon
Most Canadians, even many supporters of the NDP, Greens and Bloc, celebrated the end of Harper. The Liberals, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, will have a honeymoon period. There are many relatively inexpensive actions they can do that will win wide support. They will hold an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women, rehire and un-muzzle government scientists, and reverse cuts to the CBC.
They did make quite a few commitments that are popular, including investing in infrastructure; increasing taxes, modestly, on the richest 1%; and giving a tax cut to middle and low income Canadians. They also stated they will replace several existing child benefit programmes with one that targets low and middle income families and raise incomes for the poorest seniors.
One of the more interesting commitments, also made by the NDP and Greens, was to end the first-past-the-post voting system, promising to enact electoral reform within 18 months of winning. The specific proposals will determine if this is a genuinely democratic reform.
Interestingly, the Liberals’ platform stated that “Labour unions play an important role in protecting the rights of workers” and they will repeal anti-union laws Bills C-377 and C-525.
After the Harper years, when anyone even mildly critical of the government was locked out of discussions, Trudeau will be more welcoming to leaders of labour, the environment movement, and First Nations. Many of these leaders will welcome this change. However, a conversation is not the same as policies. Indigenous peoples, union members and environmental activists need to be wary of their leaders being co-opted by the Liberals and settling for weaker actions than are needed. The Liberals’ election campaign has raised enormous hopes and the Liberals will struggle to meet the expectations.
The Liberals have a long history of running in the elections as progressives, on the left, but once elected, ruling for the corporations on the right. The Liberals are the favoured party of most of Canadian capitalists, especially the finance sector around Bay Street.
The Liberals have not opposed the recently signed, secret Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. They are sitting on the fence on it but have clearly stated that they believe that “free trade agreements are good for the Canadian economy”.
The Liberals strongly opposed the NDP’s limited proposal to raise the minimum wage for federally regulated workers to $15. However, the battle for a $15 minimum wage is growing across Canada, and although the provinces regulate most workers’ minimum wages, this could affect the Liberals.
The Liberals made many vague promises with few clearly defined actions, such as on health, childcare and housing. The hopes on these issues may exceed what the Liberals will deliver and could see future conflicts.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Paris, is only a few weeks away. The Liberals made noises about tackling climate change. But, so far, they have made no specific commitments or put forward any targets. They support pipelines from the Alberta tar sands including the Keystone XL to the US, Kinder Morgan to the Pacific and Energy East to the Atlantic. During the election, campaign co-chair, Dan Gagnier, was caught advising the company proposing the Energy East pipeline on how to lobby a new Liberal government. Global warning and pipelines could become a major battleground that shows the limits of Trudeau’s smile.
Most fundamentally, the world economy remains fragile, with the IMF recently warning of future shocks and recessions (http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/sep/29/imf-warns-new-financial-crisis-interest-rates-rise). Another global recession would hit Canada hard and the Liberals would show their true pro-Bay Street colours and return to the austerity of the last Liberal government.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) was the biggest loser in the election. At the start of the campaign, they were the official opposition and looked posed to be, for the first time ever, the largest party in the parliament. Instead their vote dropped sharply, down nearly one million votes on an increased turnout, and they lost the majority of their seats. They were swept away as people voted Liberal, believing it was the party for change.
It felt like a re-run of the disastrous provincial election in British Colombia in 2013. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory by running a careful, cautious uninspiring campaign. Even defeated NDP Deputy leader, Megan Leslie, stated: "People believe that there is very little policy difference between the Liberals and the NDP. You know, six of one, half dozen of the other.”
Socialist Alternative (CWI Canada) warned when Mulcair was elected NDP leader in 2012 that he would continue the rightward shift of the NDP. We argued that to seize the “historic opportunity to defeat the Conservatives and form a government that could make a real difference to the lives of Canadians … will require a change from the party’s present direction and [instead] strengthening its base in Quebec, decisively defeating the Liberals, building an active membership and adopting a radical progressive platform”.
The NDP leadership did none of these and instead moved right and as we predicted “this shift will be sold as the best way to unite all the opposition and so defeat the Tories and pave the road to victory with the historic election of first NDP government in Canada”. Instead of victory, the policies of the NDP’s leadership paved the road to defeat.
We pointed out in August of this year that the “recent NDP election failures in BC, Ontario and Nova Scotia are a warning. After the landslide win in Quebec in 2011, the NDP did not build a mass, campaigning party and did not actively support the huge protest of the 2012 Maple Spring.” The failure to build an active membership, alongside the weak policies, undermined the NDP’s campaign.
Most NDP members agree that the campaign platform was too cautious and the party was seen to be to the right of the Liberals. Yet, so far, there are no signs of the NDP membership demanding a change of leadership and policies. Megan Leslie, in spite of being part of the wipe out in Atlantic Canada, argues that Mulcair should continue as leader.
The left in the parliamentary party is very weak – there are no Jeremy Corbyn figures. Some union leaders, already advocates of tactical voting, will concentrate on trying to win influence with the Liberals rather than to reclaim the NDP as a radical party with policies for working people. Of course, under pressure there may be an eruption from the membership demanding change. More likely, at least in the next year or two, is that the social and environmental movements, outside the NDP, continue to campaign and struggle while the NDP licks it wounds and tries to figure out where it belongs and what its role is.
The Tories have suffered a defeat. However, they still have 99 seats and the support of 32% of the voters. They will hope that the Liberals will fail and they, as the opposition, can return to power. Maybe next time they will not have such a hostile face as Stephen Harper, but they will remain advocates for low taxes (i.e. austerity). The last weeks of the election campaign revealed they are willing to use racism and prejudice in an effort to win votes.
The Greens went into the election hoping to build on their one well-respected MP and 3.9% of the vote they won in the last election. Theirs was the most radical platform, with both environmental and economic proposals far more deep-rooted than any other parties’. Their vote declined and they only kept their one seat.
In 2011 the Bloc was reduced to four seats and faced almost extinction. Although their share of the vote in this election was down, they increased the number of MPs from four to ten. They are confident that the voice for a sovereign Quebec will be heard in the Canadian parliament. The Bloc may well recover much more in the future.
Needed: A different type of party
The failure of the NDP confirms Socialist Alternative’s analysis that we need a different type of party. The ‘Leap manifesto’, a Keynesian platform for an integrated strategy to tackle climate change and provide good jobs (https://leapmanifesto.org/en/the-leap-manifesto/), and the mood at the Ottawa Social Forum in August 2015, are signs of people looking for something more radical than anything that is likely from the NDP.
Socialist Alternative stated before the election that Canada needs “a political party that is committed to fundamental change. A party that starts with the needs of Canadians, rather than the limits dictated by big business, and that has a vision for a better society. This party would be democratic and controlled by its members. The party would campaign, not just during elections, but continuously on the many issues people face, supporting workers, Aboriginals, women, environmentalists and human rights activists in their struggles. The party’s life would combine activism, political education, cultural activities and solidarity.”
The failure of the NDP to grasp the opportunity of this election confirms the need for a different type of party to represent working people. While it may not come into existence in the short-term, the understanding of the need for such a party will grow. The Liberals will not be able to meet the hopes of Canadians, tied as they are to the corporations. The NDP has repeatedly lost elections, with cautious platforms, that were theirs to win. Struggle will continue over pipelines and global warming and for a $15 minimum wage. New battles will emerge and in all these struggles Socialist Alternative will raise the idea of a socialist society that can meet the needs of people rather than feed the greed of corporations.