Canadians have voted for change and rejected the austerity of the Harper Conservatives. After a decade in office and a historically long campaign, the Conservative era of cuts and division is over. However, Canada’s labour party, the New Democrats, did not capitalize on this anti-austerity mood.
This article was originally published by the Canadian Marxist website Fightback
Under former Liberal Tom Mulcair, the party moved rightwards and adopted a tone of extreme moderation. This disillusioned the population looking for change and allowed the Justin Trudeau Liberals to fill the rhetorical vacuum on the left. They connected with the anti-Conservative, anti-austerity mood and jumped from 3rd place to win a majority government.
Party Seats %
Liberal 184 (+150) 39.5% (+20.6)
Conservative 99 (-67) 31.9% (-7.7)
NDP 44 (-59) 19.7% (-10.9)
Bloc Quebecois 10 (+6) 4.7% (-1.2)
Green 1 (+0) 3.4% (-0.5)
When the campaign began in early August, there was a real hope that the New Democratic Party could make a historic breakthrough and win for the first time in a federal election. The NDP was polling in first place on the basis of opposition to the Conservatives’ “anti-terror” erosion of civil liberties under Bill C-51, which the Trudeau Liberals also supported. There was a growing mood of anger about the corruption and attacks of the Harper government. From the removal of door-to-door mail, to the ongoing stories of Tory senators gorging on the public trough, people wanted change.
The New Democratic Party had vaulted into second place in the 2011 federal election due to the “orange wave” in Quebec, where they won 59 seats in the province. But after the death of party leader Jack Layton, Tom Mulcair, a former Quebec Liberal, won the leadership and moved the party rightwards. In 2013, the party voted to remove any mention of socialism from the party’s constitution and specifically a commitment to social ownership. This led to a series of defeats in by-elections, provincial elections and a return to the party’s traditional support level of around 20 per cent in the polls.
However, in the fall of 2014, the NDP brain trust decided to move left. They adopted a $15 minimum wage, a plan for $15-a-day childcare, an increase in corporate taxes, and opposition to the anti-ISIS mission in Syria and to the aforementioned “anti-terror” Bill C-51. This propelled the party into first place in the polls. When the election started in August the main issue was the Senate scandal that tarnished both the Conservatives and Liberals. At its height some polls put the party at 40 per cent, enough support to win a majority government.
It was at this point that the bureaucracy at the top returned to their policy of moderation. Instead of talking to the population, to the working class, they aimed their language to Bay Street – the home of the Toronto Stock Exchange and Canada’s major banks and corporate head offices. When an old Mulcair speech was released, where he praised Margaret Thatcher, the party brass actually welcomed it as proof of the fiscal assuredness of their leader! This was followed by a commitment to run four balanced budgets, based upon Stephen Harper’s finances. People began to question whether the NDP’s reforms were possible under this restricted fiscal framework.
To make matters worse, the party leadership released plans to waste $250-million on more cops, a 2% reduction in small business taxes, and proceeded to purge any NDP candidate that was critical of the murderous actions of the state of Israel. The hypocrisy was heightened further when it was subsequently revealed that an NDP candidate opposed abortion and gay marriage, but could stay, as “the candidate in question was expressing personal beliefs”!
After Labour Day, the battle of election advertisements began in earnest. One party released an ad saying “Raise taxes for the wealthiest 1%, and cut them for the middle class”. Another party’s ad said, “Experienced Leader. Concrete Plan.” Which advert did the “socialist” party founded by the trade unions release? The uninspiring and content-free second ad of course.
The Liberals, Canada’s so-called “natural governing party”, had made a strategic mistake of showing their true colours by supporting Bill C-51. Now they were given a golden opportunity to implement their favourite trick of campaigning to the left before governing in the interests of Bay Street. Trudeau even tried to pick up the mantle of founding NDP leader Tommy Douglas, the founder of Medicare who was voted as “The Greatest Canadian”, saying "you can't be Tommy Douglas on a Stephen Harper budget".
The Liberals adopted anti-austerity rhetoric and proposed stimulus spending and deficit budgets. They released adverts saying “Stephen Harper’s ideas to give benefits to the wealthy, and cuts to everybody else, has made it harder for people to get ahead. And Mulcair promises more cuts. Now is not the time for cuts.” Mulcair responded by critiquing Trudeau from the right over his recklessness of going into deficit. Andrew Thomson, former Saskatchewan finance minister and Toronto area “star” candidate, even went so far as to say that some cuts are “inevitable”.
The details of the NDP’s reforms were released, and it was discovered that based on Harper’s balanced budget, they would not be implemented for a long time. The Liberals pressed their advantage responding “His ideas for our economy are 8, 10, or 20 years away. Because, like Harper, he wants to eliminate the deficit immediately.” This had disastrous consequences in Quebec, where workers and youth have been fighting provincial austerity for a prolonged period and didn’t want to wait for change. From mid-September the NDP entered into terminal decline as can be seen from the below polling graph:
Perhaps we Marxists are being too hard on the NDP leadership and are presenting a purely self-serving analysis? Well, we are not alone in this view, as seen from the following press clippings:
“The best example of Mulcair’s desire to signal but not necessarily deliver change is his cynical stance to deliver a balanced budget. As we have seen over several years in the last decade, Canadians will accept deficit spending if politicians make the case for it. The NDP’s budget promise says there’s very little to change about current government spending, or that the party thinks it must say so in order to be taken seriously.”
“What has really ailed the Mulcair campaign has been an excess of prudence and a failure to cast the party as a compelling, convincing agent of change. On that score, the Liberals did not steal the ground from under the feet of the New Democrats. The latter left it vacant for Trudeau to occupy.”
“By shifting to the political centre in hopes of assuaging voters’ concerns over whether the NDP can be trusted with the nation’s finances, the party exposed its left flank. That created an opening for the Liberals to exploit.”
“Jim Flaherty could have signed off on the fiscal framework the NDP presented on Wednesday. It borrows more from the late finance minister’s budgets than it offers original content…
[I]t is hard to connect enough dots to get a solid take on the big picture of the first NDP federal government. But reading between the lines of the fiscal framework, that government hardly looks like it was worth the sixty-year wait of the Canadian Left.”
When presented with the above commentary, NDP hacks respond that it is all a conspiracy of the pro-Liberal media establishment. But even the London UK based Economist opined that “The decisive factor in the election was a collapse in support for the left-leaning New Democratic Party, in the lead at the start of the race. The NDP’s cautious campaign drove voters seeking change into the Liberal camp.”
Polls also confirmed this prognosis. Abacus data on September 29th released findings that found 76% of the electorate wanted change, and, “among voters who are going to choose only between the NDP or Liberals, 57% want ambitious change, compared to 43% who want moderate change.”
They went on, “Most (58%) favour change that would be felt soon, rather than more gradually (42%). This is the consensus in all three of the largest seat provinces. Among NDP-Liberal swing voters, 65% want change sooner rather than later.
Justin Trudeau is seen as the leader who represents ambitious change (63%) and change that will be felt soon (60%). Thomas Mulcair is more identified with moderate change (60%) that will happen more gradually (59%). This puts the NDP leader at a disadvantage to Mr. Trudeau among the Liberal-NDP swing voter.”
And yet, after an unprecedented drubbing, losing every seat in the Maritimes, every seat in Toronto including Jack Layton’s old riding of Toronto Danforth, more than two thirds of the seats in Quebec, the right-wing clique at the top of the party refuses to recognize reality. The morning after the defeat there was a diktat that no former NDP MP could appear before the media. Instead, in Toronto they trotted out “pro-cuts” Andrew Thomson to say that nothing was done wrong and there was nothing wrong with the party platform. This is despite the fact that this “star” NDP candidate only garnered 6 per cent of the vote! Mulcair has gone into hiding and is refusing to resign, much like former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff after his election loss in 2011. If losing 60 per cent of your seats and a 40 per cent lead in the polls is not a reason to resign, then we don’t know what is. Even the Conservatives have shown a higher degree of accountability and self-criticism, with Harper resigning and Kenny calling for “collective responsibility” for the defeat.
Returning to the campaign, sensing defeat, the Harper Conservatives decided to use Islamophobia and racism to try and salvage their government. They talked about “old-stock” Canadians and whipped up hysteria over Muslim women wearing the niqab face veil during citizenship ceremonies. Disgustingly, the Bloc Quebecois joined them in this tirade, which led to abuse and assaults against Muslim women. Correctly the NDP opposed this deliberate distraction that only affected 2 women. Some of the party brass blame the reduction of NDP support on this principled stand, but that does not explain how the Liberals, who also opposed this Islamophobia, were also able to make gains both inside and outside Quebec. In general, this divisive Conservative ploy was seen as a desperate over-reach, and finally backfired on them when Harper started talking about enforcing the veil ban on public sector workers.
The closing play of the election was the signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal in the final few of weeks of the campaign. In a final redeeming act, the NDP opposed this deal, which will entrench corporate power against the interests of workers in Canada and throughout the region. There was a minor uptick in NDP support, which may have helped salvage some seats in the Southern Ontario rust-belt, but it was too little, too late. Despite the Liberals’ tacit support of the TPP there was not enough time to explain the issue to voters. One also wonders if the party leadership would have taken such a clear stance if the TPP had been released back in August when the NDP was appeasing Bay Street, rather than October when they were scrambling for any issue to delineate themselves with the Liberals.
The last week of the campaign was dominated by talk of “anybody-but-Harper” and strategic voting. Pollsters estimate that as much as 30 per cent of the electorate were voting “strategically” for whichever party could defeat the Conservatives. There was increased enthusiasm to turf the Tories, as shown by a 7 per cent increase in voter turnout to 68 per cent. After the failure of the NDP to propose change now, this vote coalesced around Trudeau, pushing the party back down to its pre-2011 federal support levels under 20 per cent.
A historic opportunity has been lost. NDP hacks bemoan the opposition of the corporate press, or the lack of proportional representation, but these are not new elements and are just the current rules of the political game. It is like complaining that you lost at chess because it wasn’t checkers. They recognize that the vote coalesced around Trudeau who represented change – but have no understanding that it was perfectly possible for the NDP to decide to adopt policies to capture this mood. It would have made a huge difference if the party’s proposed reforms, childcare, pharmacare, the minimum wage, etc., were implemented immediately rather than in the never-never.
Mulcair is trying to hang on as leader of the NDP and it is not hard to see why. Both the right-wing and the left-wing of the movement has learned from the unprecedented victory of the socialist Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party. The Blairites made the mistake of allowing Corbyn on the ballot and then unleashed forces that they could not control. The Canadian Blairites would rather keep a death-grip on the party and continue with the failed strategy of moderation, than allow any possibility of a left alternative come forward in a leadership race. If the NDP is to be saved, left-wingers such as Niki Ashton and Jenny Kwan must step up and demand a turn to the left and leadership renewal. Alexandre Boulerice in Montreal was also re-elected and has sometimes leaned left. Erin Weir in Saskatchewan could also play a similar role. Left-wing author Naomi Klein tweeted, “The Libs ran left and soared. The NDP moved right and crashed. Now it's up to the public to turn cynical strategy into action”. Continuing on the present moderate track promises increased irrelevance and decline of the NDP. Only a left turn can save the party in the coming years of capitalist crisis and new Liberal austerity.
Justin Trudeau’s victory speech was as sickening as it was vacuous. The Liberals won on the basis of an anti-austerity vote, but they are not an anti-austerity party. They will follow the tactic of the Ontario Liberals, who won by campaigning left to undercut the Ontario NDP, and now are implementing privatization and cuts. Justin’s “stimulus” is based on public-private-partnerships and privatization. He will sign the TPP, which will undermine Canadian manufacturing, and Bill C-51, which will undermine civil liberties. Sooner or later this reality will come as a shock to those who voted Liberal.
Trudeau will likely have a honeymoon period of a year or so. The reversal of the most egregious elements of the Harper regime will likely be very popular, as well as fresh faces after a decade of snarling reactionary, “old-stock”, Conservatives. But sooner or later political and economic reality will predominate. Near the end of the campaign it became clear that the old Liberal Party - the party of the sponsorship scandal and corporate lobbyists - is still alive and well. In the final days of the election Trudeau’s campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier was forced to resign after it emerged he sent a detailed email to TransCanada Corp., the organization behind the Energy East pipeline, with advice on how and when to lobby a new government. The old-boys club is now back at the public trough.
Canada is still teetering between recession and stagnation. And the world economy is poised on the edge of a new slump led by China and Greece. Despite all of Trudeau’s talk against cuts, his plan is to seriously rein in spending after a few years of partial stimulus. In other words, after adding debt, the Liberals intend on making the workers pay for their “investments”. This is a recipe for significant class struggle as the population will react angrily after being betrayed. “This is not what we voted for,” people will say. The immediate task is the fight to save the workers’ organizations, including the NDP, from the dead hand of the moderates who have only brought defeat. Mulcair must resign and the movement must adopt socialist policies that can really oppose austerity. When the glitter washes off Trudeau’s magic wand, people will be faced with the harsh reality of Liberal rule. When this happens there needs to be a movement that has the ideas that can present a real opposition to corporate Canada. In Britain, the victory of the Corbyn movement has shown what is possible. Canada may not follow exactly the same trajectory in the short-term, but the same crisis remains. We appeal to all those seeking a socialist alternative to austerity to join us in preparing the forces for the inevitable fightback in the years to come.