Canada: Tories face election after nearly decade in power

The NDP represent as a left alternative?

After nine years of Conservative government, most Canadians have many good reasons to want the right wing government of Stephen Harper and his party gone when they go to the polls in federal (national) elections on 19 October. The Canadian economy is officially in recession. However, for most Canadian workers this merely confirms what they already knew. As Canadian economist, Jim Stanford, noted: “Coming six years into a lacklustre recovery (the weakest since 1945), weary Canadians probably question whether the last recession ever really ended.”

Well-paid manufacturing jobs have disappeared – 600,000 in the last 15 years – and most new jobs are low-paid, part-time and insecure. For many, including young people, women, Aboriginals and immigrants, the word “precarious” has entered the vocabulary to describe their job situation.

Only in Stephen Harper’s imagination is the economy “healthy and growing”. In fact, most of the 20 industrial sectors contracted during the worst months of this downturn.

Harper claims that his government is a sensible manager of the economy, pointing to this year’s ‘balanced’ budget. Yet the Tories ran a deficit almost every year and government debt has increased by over $150 billion, mainly because of tax cuts for the rich and big business. This year they fiddled the books to balance the budget, by cuts, under-spending on budgets, raiding $2 billion from emergency funds and $1.8 billion from Employment Insurance (after cutting the money going to unemployed workers), and $3.4 billion from underselling public assets. Senior managers were paid an average bonus of over $50,000 for ‘saving money’ – cutting jobs and underspending.

Ever since the Mulroney government in 1984, Canada has had government cuts to public services and stagnant living standards. Harper famously stated that “you won’t know Canada when I am through with it”. Since coming to power in 2006, he has systematically set out to make good on that goal, increasing cuts across a wide range of public services. Employment insurance, Veterans’ Affairs, immigrant services, environmental protection, food safety and health care have all suffered cuts. Government agencies and programmes that engage in advocacy, scientific research, public policy and promote democratic engagement have all been cut, closed or curtailed. If re-elected, there is worse to come. Harper has planned cuts of $43.5 billion in health spending.

There are debates about how to get rid of the Conservatives and what policies we need instead of their right-wing agenda. Socialist Alternative (CWI Canada) argues that to have a good quality of life and a healthy environment, we need to end the control of the economy and society by the 1% and big business. This will be achieved by strong democratic unions and social movements working for a socialist transformation of society.

Strategic voting?

This federal election is a three party contest. The Conservatives have lost support since their victory in 2011, due to the economic mess, cuts and arrogance. The Liberals have rebounded from their disastrous showing of four years ago. The New Democratic Party (NDP) has gained support, especially in western Canada after their recent victory in Alberta, and are holding solid in Québec.

Some argue that the only priority is to stop Harper and people should vote for any party except the Conservatives. In effect, this encourages voting Liberal, as Liberal supporters rarely call for a vote for the NDP or the Greens. It is usually union leaders and other lefts who flirt with voting Liberal.

Strategic voting ignores the Liberals’ history of campaigning as progressives, on the left, while ruling for big business, on the right. The last Liberal government, lead by Chrétien and Martin, carried out widespread cuts to public services, slashing $25 billion in just three years, and giving large tax handouts to big business and the richest Canadians. The drastic cut in federal social programmes, 40%, caused economic growth to slow.

The Established Program Funding, which had supported post-secondary education and health care, and the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP), which supported social security payments, were both abolished. Federal support for building social and affordable housing was also abolished, leading to today’s crisis of homelessness and lack of affordable housing.

The Liberals have demonstrated their lack of principles over Harper’s anti-democratic Bill C-51. The Liberals claim to believe in democracy and human rights yet, while critical of the snoopers’ charter, they voted for it. How can anyone have confidence that the Liberals, if elected, would be more principled or progressive than in the past?

More fundamentally, we know that the Liberals are a pro-big business party, and if elected, will not carry out fundamental changes to benefit working people. Tommy Douglas, the father of public health and pioneer Canadian socialist explained why it was pointless to vote Liberal in his 1944 speech, known as ‘Mouseland’ ( He pointed out that mice in Mouseland every four years elected a “government made up of big, fat, black cats”, who naturally enough, ruled for cats, while “they were hard on the mice”. These mice, he said, were just like Canadians who vote for parties made up of cats whatever their colour.

Douglas pointed out that “the trouble wasn’t with the colour of the cat. The trouble was that they were cats. And because they were cats, they naturally looked after cats instead of mice.” He went on to suggest that mice should elect a party of mice, for mice. A party of workers, for workers.

As the great US socialist, Eugene Debs, said, “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.” So why vote Liberal?

The New Democratic Party

Following the collapse of oil prices and the victory in Alberta, the NDP has been in contention to be the largest party after the election. It has some welcome proposals including:

  • Creating a million childcare spaces across the country at $15 a day
  • Introduce a $15 an hour minimum wage for federally regulated employees
  • Stop the income tax split plan of Harper which would only benefit the richest 15% of Canadian families at a cost of $2.4 billion
  • Restore the annual six-per-cent increase in health care transfer payments to the provinces, which the Conservatives have said they will reduce from 2018, resulting in cuts of $36 billion over the decade 2018-2028
  • Abolish Bill C-51
  • Establish an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women

The details of some of these pledges are less grand. The childcare programme will not be completed until 2023. The minimum wage increase only benefits some 100,000 workers, as the provinces set the minimum wage for most workers.

More fundamentally the NDP’s programme does not tackle the major issues of declining job numbers and quality of work, the crisis of climate change, and underfunded public services and infrastructure.

NDP leader Mulcair has ruled out increasing taxes on the super rich, although they were the main beneficiaries of the Tory tax cuts. The rich are getting richer in Canada; of every new dollar of real wealth generated in Canada since 1999, 66 cents of that dollar has gone to the wealthiest 20% of families. The super-rich are even richer; the 86 wealthiest Canadian families had the same wealth as the poorest 11.4 million Canadians. Even the Liberals have said they will increase taxes on the richest – although modestly.

The NDP says it will only modestly increase taxes on big business, by 2%. However, this comes nowhere near reversing the huge tax cuts by the Liberals and Tories over the last 15 years. They cut taxes on big business from 28% in 2000 to 15%, transferring nearly $20 billion a year from public services to private profits. These tax cuts have resulted in corporations sitting on over $600 billion of ‘dead money’ in Canada and another nearly $200 billion in tax havens that they refuse to invest. If they will not invest, a socialist government would use that money to get the economy going.

The NDP has made a firm commitment to balance the budget, while the Liberals say they will run a deficit to finance investment in infrastructure and to provide jobs. There are times when it is sound policy for governments, like people, to borrow now to invest for the long-term, although such ‘pump-priming’ Keynes-style policies stoke up their own contradictions on the basis of a capitalist economy. With $350 billion needed to upgrade and repair Canada’s infrastructure and the economy in recession, this is the time to invest and provide good jobs. But Mulcair and the NDP are campaigning on a platform of balanced budgets.

If the $800 billion that the rich and big business are sitting on was democratically and publicly controlled, Canada could have a massive jobs programme to upgrade infrastructure, build new homes and insulate existing ones, build public light rail, revise the long distance rail system and transfer to a clean energy society. All this is possible without running a deficit!

Many workers and young people have high hopes in the NDP, which has never been in power federally. The NDP’s record in recent provincial elections is a warning that they could still fail to make a breakthrough given their moderate platform. They threw away a 20% lead in the opinion polls in British Columbia to lose the 2013 election. Later the same year in Nova Scotia, the NDP went from being the government to third place, the first provincial government in 130 years that only lasted one term. In Ontario in 2014, the NDP brought down a minority Liberal government and waged such a weak campaign that the Liberals gained a majority.

In this election the Liberals are trying to position themselves as more progressive than the NDP, helped by the NDP’s modest platform. The NDP vote could yet be squeezed by the Liberals. Over the summer the NDP were leading in polls but with the Liberals are sounding more left they are now back in contention and the NDP is in 3rd place, according to some polls.

But experience should warn Canadians that the Liberals have a history of talking on the left and ruling on the right.

In Quebec in the 2011 federal election, for the first time the NDP swept the province winning 59 of the 75 seats. Unfortunately, in the four years since, the NDP did not grasp the opportunity to build a powerful party in Quebec. The NDP was noticeably absent during the huge protests of the 2012 Maple Spring. The NDP looks to be doing well in the votes, but it has not built an activist party.

In the rest of Canada, while the NDP has a ‘progressive’ past, it is now largely controlled from the top without a large and active membership, as most activists, especially young people, are not attracted to join.

In spite of these limitations, many workers and progressives will vote NDP. Some people, especially young people, will vote Green out of disappointment with the NDP’s timidity and encouraged by the Greens’ bolder environmental policies. Kicking the Tories out with the NDP as the largest group in Parliament would be the best outcome. This is not because the party’s platform meets the needs of working people, but because the NDP could be more open to pressure from workers to make reforms and would be tested in practice. However, with the economic crisis any reforms will be limited and subject to reversal unless working people mobilize and organize to challenge the rule of the big business elite, which the NDP leadership will not do.

Build an independent campaigning movement

The next government will come under enormous pressure from corporations and their allies to rule in their favour. Labour, environmentalists, social justice campaigners, First Nations and progressives will need to organize and cooperate in campaigns to oppose this, and instead fight for reforms and positive action. This will mean engaging in politics, not limited to party politics, and mobilizing the power of the working class – in particular of the unions that organize 30% of all workers.

If the NDP is in government, it will be tested, especially given the weak state of the Canadian and world economy. The experience of NDP provincial governments is that they are unwilling to stand up to the pressure from big business and have ended up carrying out cuts. The NDP government in Ontario, won in 1990 on a radical programme, but faced with a recession retreated and instead brought in cuts to services and attacks on workers. In British Columbia, the NDP government, from 1991 to 2001, started out with reforms but shifted to the right, infamously calling poor people "welfare cheats, deadbeats and varmints" as a prelude to cutting welfare.

If the NDP is in federal government, which will be the first time in history, workers and youth will learn from this experience, with important layers concluding that the working class needs a political vehicle to represent its interests and needs.

In these movements, a strong socialist voice will point to the need to end the domination of big business and provide a path to a society that puts the needs of people and planet before profit – a socialist society.

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October 2015