Canada: Tories election win heralds new attacks on workers

Fight-back needed in workplace and communities

Canada’s newly elected Tory (Conservative) minority government, led by Stephen Harper, was sworn into office in Ottawa, last week. The Conservatives were brought to power as a result of a festering political crisis that brought down the previous Liberal government only fifteen months after the 2004 election. Holding a minority of seats in parliament, Harper’s Conservatives will need the support of at least one opposition party to pass legislation to avoid yet another early election. There will be no coalition government, rather it is expected that different opposition parties will support the Tories on different items.

The main issue in the election was political corruption. The election was forced by the passage of a non-confidence motion against Paul Martin’s Liberal government, last November. This was as a result of the report of the Gomery Inquiry into the ‘sponsorship’ kickback scandal involving the earlier Liberal government of Jean Chretien, who Martin succeeded in 2003. Initially, it appeared that the election would produce a second successive Liberal minority government. However, a new scandal emerged in the middle of the campaign when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police began investigating allegations of insider trading against the Prime Minister Office and the staff of the finance minister.

The new Conservative Party, the product of a merger between the old Progressive Conservative party and the even more righting Canadian Alliance, was previously considered unelectable by many political observers. The Conservatives’ policies were unpopular with most Canadians, particularly in Quebec, Canada’s second most populous province.

But the desire of voters to punish the Liberals for years of corruption and cuts proved irresistible and the Conservatives proved to be the beneficiary, thanks, in part, to a corporate media that openly supported Harper and suppressed criticism of his policies.

The Tories form a government despite only winning 124 seats in the 308 seat House of Commons. The Liberals were reduced to 103 seats, the Quebec nationalist Bloc Quebecois won 51 seats and the nominally social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) won 29 seats, up from the 19 they held previously. The Tories won 10 of Quebec’s 75 seats. This is considered a breakthrough as they had been expected to win none. However, the Tories failed to win any seats in Canada’s three largest cities, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Tories win by default

Harper’s weak mandate reflects the fact that he won the election by default, not because of widespread support for Conservative policies. These policies include Tory opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, support for privatised health care and their policy of scrapping Canada’s emerging national daycare programme and replacing it with a tax cut for parents that amounts to less than $5 a day – hardly enough to feed a child at snack-time, let alone pay for daycare.

Actual political issues affecting the lives of working Canadians received almost no attention during the campaign, with the media focus instead on corruption, political gaffes, and who was ahead and who was behind in the latest polls. This was facilitated by the fact that there is actually very little substantive difference between the Liberal and Conservative parties, both of which are neo-liberal in their economic orientation (and by the fact that the Tories have attempted to present themselves as “moderate”, downplaying their more draconian, neo-liberal policies).

While the Liberals often present themselves as a “left-wing” party during election campaigns, Canadians have become accustomed to the Liberals campaigning from the left while they govern from the right. The Liberals supported corporate globalisation during their 12 years, and carried out anti-working class policies, including attacks on unemployment insurance and a dramatic curtailing of social programmes. In practice, the Liberal government under Jean Chrétien and, more recently, Paul Martin (who was Chrétien’s finance minister) was the most right-wing government since the 1930s – at least until now.

The lack of substantive debate during the recent elections was not helped by the New Democratic Party, which has links to the labour movement and is a nominally a ‘social democratic’ party. While the NDP has been unable to move as far to the right as the New Labour in Britain or as many social democratic parties in Europe – largely because the Liberal Party attempts to occupy that space – it has tried desperately to adopt right wing policies in an attempt to make the NDP acceptable to Canada’s ruling elite.

The NDP’s goal for many years has been to hold the “balance of power” in parliament. They were able to achieve this after the 2004 election by propping up the Liberal government in exchange for some increased spending on health care and education. But the NDP pulled the plug on the Liberals, last November, claiming it was due to failed negotiations with the governing party over a proposed ban on the spread of privatisation in the health care system. However, during the election campaign, Jack Layton, the NDP leader, said his party would not ban private clinics; it would only deny them government funding – a position that undermined the NDP’s image as the ‘protectors’ of public Medicare. Even more blatant an example of the NDP’s real policies was its adoption of a ‘law and order’ platform that included increasing mandatory minimum sentences for crime – despite the fact that mandatory minimums have been shown to be a failure as a deterrent.

Paradoxically, while the NDP desires to be a junior partner to the Liberals in parliament, their main tactic in election campaigns has been to almost exclusively attack the Liberals, hoping to win over Liberal voters. At the same time, the NDP gives the Conservatives a pass since, according to the NDP leaders’ political calculations, attacking the Tories only helps the Liberals by indirectly encouraging Canadians to vote Liberal to stop the Tories.

NDP discuss supporting government

In recent weeks, the goal of holding the “balance of power” has become so central to the NDP that Layton has entertained the possibility of the NDP supporting the Tories on certain issues. Some leading NDP members crowed that with 29 seats the party now holds enough in parliament to be able to offer the Tories stability to govern in exchange for concessions to the NDP on issues such as electoral reform.

Judy Rebick, a political activist who was a strong ally of Layton’s in the past, has become openly critical of his leadership, arguing that the “NDP ran the most right-wing electoral campaign in recent memory” and violated official party policy in three areas – with it’s law and order platform, support for increased military spending and for the ‘Clarity Act’, which undermines Quebec’s right to self-determination.

By making concessions to the right in both its tactics and policies, the NDP made it all the easier for some rightward moving union leaders to explicitly support the Liberals.

The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), Canada’s largest private sector union, officially called for “strategic voting”, encouraging its members to vote for Liberals in constituencies where that party had the best chance of defeating the Tories. Unofficially, Buzz Hargrove and other senior CAW officials, such as its chief economist, Jim Stanford, openly supported the Liberals. Hargrove shared the same stage with Liberal leader Paul Martin several times – on one occasion in Windsor, a NDP stronghold, and even went so far as to drape Martin with a CAW jacket. Hargrove also campaigned for Human Resources Minister Belinda Stronach, a Tory turned Liberal, who was formerly the CEO of union-busting auto parts giant Magna International. Jim Stanford endorsed the Liberal candidate in Oxford, who is an executive with union busting Toyota. This reflects the CAW leadership’s abandonment of any pretence of being a class-based “social union”. Instead, the CAW leadership favour collaborating with elements of the ruling class to win ‘concessions’ for the auto industry, even if these corporate executives are union busters (and even if the union they’ve busted in the past is the CAW!)

As for the Conservatives, in the past, Harper was bolder about his political agenda than the Liberals. In a speech he gave when he was president of the right wing ‘National Citizen’s Coalition’, Harper blamed unemployment on social programmes, outrageously claiming about the unemployed: “We have over a million-and-a-half [jobless], [we] don’t feel particularly bad for many of these people. They don’t feel bad about it themselves, as long as they’re receiving generous social assistance and unemployment insurance.”

While the Tories tried hard to portray themselves as ‘moderates’, Harper is, in fact, a modern Thatcherite, favouring a right wing version of class warfare reminiscent of the ‘Common Sense Revolution’ that Mike Harris’ ruling Tories wrecked on the Canadian province of Ontario in the mid-1990s.

Harper appointed three key architects of the failed Harris regime to his cabinet. The new Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, is a far-right zealot, who was also finance minister in the Harris regime. Harris’ health minister, Tony Clement, is an unabashed Thatcher admirer, who de-funded the health system in an attempt to justify privatization. He now holds the same cabinet position under Harper. John Baird, who as Harris’ Community and Social Services Minister introduced ‘workfare’ and slashed social assistance, has a key financial portfolio under Harper.

The New Democratic Party argues that with its increased number of seats, it can use its “influence” to blunt the Tory agenda. This is a fallacious argument. While a minority parliament provides an opportunity for legislative jockeying and the passage of amendments, the only real way of stopping the Tories is by getting into the workplaces and onto the streets, organizing a mass social movement to bring down the Tories and putting forward a genuine, progressive workers’ agenda for social change. The NDP has shown, yet again, that it is incapable of representing the interests of workers – the only way forward is with a true workers’ party built through struggle and mass action.

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February 2006