Canadian Elections: Liberals Defeated, A Country Divided

The Liberal Party of Canada has finally been kicked out of office. The Conservatives must attempt to lead an even more fractured minority Parliament while there is little support for right-wing policies. The Canadian elite wants a strong majority government to push through attacks on the working class. But the good showing by the union-backed NDP, and the continued presence of the separatist Bloc Québécois, means the Canadian political crisis will continue until the fall of this weak government.

After 13 years in government, the Liberal Party of Canada has finally been kicked out of office. Weighed down by a series of corruption scandals and increasing class polarization, the Liberals ran out of answers. By default, the Conservatives must attempt to lead an even more fractured minority Parliament while there is little support for right-wing policies. The Canadian elite wants a strong majority government to push through attacks on the working class. But the good showing by the union-backed New Democratic Party, and the continued presence of the separatist Bloc Québécois, means the Canadian political crisis will continue until the fall of this weak government.

In 1993, the Federal Liberal Party demolished the discredited Conservative government, reducing them to 2 seats. Now the Liberals are back on the opposition benches and are left asking, “What went wrong?” The immediate cause of their defeat stems from a series of corruption scandals. However, it is wrong to think that these scandals just fell from the sky and were the accidental actions of individuals. Marx explained that sometimes necessity is expressed through accident; these scandals were merely the product of a malaise in society.

After the near break-up of Canada in 1995, when Québec separatism gained 49½% of the vote, the Canadian State and their Liberal representatives attempted to head-off another referendum. They instituted the undemocratic “Clarity Act” that outlined the narrow (and unclear) conditions by which the Québec people can express their right to self-determination. They also launched the now infamous “sponsorship program,” where sporting and cultural events in Québec would be supported by the Federal Government in exchange for prominent displays of the Canadian Maple Leaf flag.

However, this program also worked against separatism in that it funnelled money back into the federalist Liberal Party in Québec. Liberal friendly advertising firms were given lucrative sponsorship contracts, and in return made healthy contributions to the party (some under the table). They also hired Liberal staffers who did no work for the advertising company. When the worst revelations of this scandal broke in Spring 2005, it set off a series of political dramas.

NDP Budget Deal

Liberal support plummeted in early 2005 and the Conservatives made an attempt to overthrow the minority government. To prevent an early election, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin was forced to do a deal with the New Democratic Party and re-write his budget. The new “NDP Budget” eliminated $3½ billion in corporate tax cuts and transferred the money to social spending on housing, tuition fee assistance, and anti-poverty initiatives targeted at Native Canadians. The corporate press went ballistic – their representatives had given away billions of dollars to the poor, money that rightfully belonged to the rich! The right could always content themselves that the NDP, with only 19 seats, would be a bit player in parliament – now Canada’s labour party was having a hand in determining policy. Despite this manoeuvre, the Liberals were still one vote short. The Liberals secured this vote by offering the Tory frontbench MP Belinda Stronach a cabinet post. Belinda Stronach, heir to the Magna International Corporation, had recently run for leader of the Conservative party, and was in a personal relationship with the Conservative deputy leader. Unsurprisingly, this double betrayal caused a media frenzy. However, the life of the parliament was to be short-lived. In the fall, the NDP came back asking for measures to prevent the privatization of Medicare. This was too much for the Liberal’s corporate masters and Canada entered its first winter election in 20 years.

All seemed to be going well for the Liberals at the start of the campaign. Despite accusations that the Liberal Party had a “culture of entitlement”, memories of the “Sponsorship Scandal” were fading, nobody was enthusiastic about the Conservatives, and the Liberals seemed poised to achieve a new minority government. Unfortunately for the Liberals, a new scandal broke over Christmas, this one involving Income Trusts. In a flurry of announcements prior to the fall of the government, the Liberals declared the removal of tax on Income Trusts, benefiting those holding this kind of investment. Several hours before the announcement, a few well-connected brokerages engaged in a wild buying spree of Income Trusts on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Clearly there had been a leak, and the news that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were launching an insider trading investigation served to remind voters exactly why they did not want the status quo. That was the final nail in the coffin for the Liberal Party of Canada.

Strategic Voting

The inevitable defeat of the Liberals did not stop them from trying to drag others down with them. In the 2004 election, the Liberals launched a fear-based “Anybody but the Stephen Harper Conservatives” campaign and scared approximately 20% of NDP voters to switch to the Liberals. The rhetoric demonized the Neanderthal, US-Republican style Conservatives. This tactic was successful because all the NDP platform offered was the same type of reforms the Liberals were proposing and the NDP gained the moniker “Liberals in a hurry.”

Of course, once in power the Liberals dropped the “progressive” mantra and went back to supporting big-business tax cuts as usual. In 2006, the NDP functionaries realized how devastating this tactic was, and countered with the weak-willed slogan of “There is another choice,” which elicits the image of a child in a playground trying not to be picked last in team sports. Their campaign platform said that even though both the NDP and Liberals were proposing reforms, the Liberals did not mean them. A better way to put a dividing line between the Liberals and NDP would have been for the NDP to propose socialist policies that meet the needs and aspirations of working people. That strategy would have explained to voters that both the Liberals and Conservatives are capitalist parties who will be forced by the dictates of capitalism to attack the workers. Any reforms the Liberals (or the NDP) propose on a capitalist basis are fundamentally unsustainable as the capitalist economy moves into recession.

Even though the NDP functionaries understood the effect of the “strategic voting” tactic, some on the left did not even see this far. There is an old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, Shame on me!” Buzz Hargrove, the president of the Canadian Auto Workers Union, went as far as to invite Liberal leader Paul Martin to the CAW Convention, and hugged him while saying workers should only vote for the NDP in 40 approved ridings. The Liberals predictably spun this as support for their entire party while intimating that any vote for the NDP was a vote for the Conservatives. It is amazing that a former left-winger like Buzz, who was a leading proponent of social-movement unionism, has betrayed the movement so cheaply. Hargrove even campaigned for the Tory-Liberal turncoat Belinda Stronach, despite the vicious anti-union tactics Magna Corporation has adopted to resist CAW union drives. This time at least, the vote splitting tactic had less of an effect on the NDP due to the fresh memory of Liberal broken promises.

Election Results:

Party  Seats  Percentage
 Conservative  124 (+25)   36.3% (+6.9)
 Liberal  103 (-32)  30.2% (-6.5)
 Bloc Québécois  51 (-3)  42.3% (-6.6) *of Québec vote
 NDP   29 (+10) 17.5% (+1.8)

The right-wing press are attempting to present the election as a victory for US Conservatism in Canada. They are deluding themselves. The Conservatives were forced to run a middle of the road campaign that was as near to the Liberals as makes no odds. They even distanced themselves from their previous support of George Bush and the War in Iraq. It is clear that on the basis of policy there is no appetite for a rightward shift and the Conservatives only got their very weak mandate after the Liberals had completely discredited themselves. The only thing that will stop this government from collapsing is that the Liberals are now embroiled in a leadership contest and the NDP is too scared to act as the genuine working class opposition to the Tories and go for the jugular.

One interesting election result was the defeat of Liberal Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew in Montreal. Canada has played a lead role in Haiti, supporting the overthrow of President Aristide and the imperialist UN occupation. Pettigrew was the point man for the occupation and was defeated with the help of the large Haitian community in Montreal. Hopefully he will not be the first political casualty of this crime against the Haitian people.

The separatist Bloc Québécois failed to increase its support in Québec despite polling at over 50% early in the campaign. Much of the Bloc’s support was merely a protest vote against Liberal corruption and not a vote for separation. As soon as the Conservatives became a viable option, approximately 10% of those supporting the Bloc switched to the Tories. The Conservatives were able to harness this vote by proposing a new deal with Québec. If the NDP had said anything new in Québec, they could have had a similar breakthrough. Bizarrely, some on the left believe that the NDP should refrain from standing candidates in Québec and call for a vote for the Bloc. This proposal combines the folly of Buzz Hargrove’s strategic voting position with a dose of capitulation to petty-bourgeois nationalism. The Bloc was formed by splits in the Liberal and Conservative parties and is in no way a party of the working class. The class struggle burns white hot in Québec and the volatility of the electorate shows that people are not happy with the status quo. There would be ample support for a labour party in Québec, if only the unions and left got on with the job of building it.

Leftward movement

In contradiction to the apparent rightward shift, the true story of the election is the growing potential of the left. Canada has recently entered a period of labour turmoil with a near general strike in British Columbia and major student and union movements in Québec. The movement on the streets is finally getting its political expression with the NDP near-equalling its highest ever vote count of just over 2.5 million. As we have contended in previous articles, there are huge reserves of support for a left-wing socialist policy if only the NDP and union leaders had the guts to harness it.

The main line of the NDP was to redirect Tory and Liberal corporate tax cuts to social programs. Marxists obviously agree with explaining to the working class the result of tax cuts and increasing class-consciousness by explaining how the interests of corporations and the working class are opposed. In part, the “anti-corporate” message of the NDP explains a lot of the increased support. But if you look at the NDP platform more deeply, all they are proposing is the status quo on tax policy, so they are effectively as pro-corporate as the previous government. All of the NDP’s proposed reforms are dependent on balanced budgets and a booming capitalist economy. In other words, if the US continues in its economic weakness and debt, Canadian companies will not be able to export goods to the US market. This change in North American markets has already begun with 150,000 jobs lost in Canadian manufacturing, which disproportionately affects Ontario and Quebec. The recently announced Ford and GM plant closures are merely a taste of this future crisis of “overcapacity” (read overproduction). The NDP’s reforms are utopian on a capitalist basis.

The growing crisis in eastern manufacturing, combined with the election of the western-based Conservatives, brings about conflicting forces within the Canadian federation. The political and economic centre of gravity of the country is moving westwards to the Alberta oil belt. Alberta’s GDP per head is over $58,000, compared with less than $42,000 in Ontario and $35,000 in Quebec. This disparity will only get more acute as the Alberta oil sands come online with 180 billion barrels of proven reserves. Eastern Maritimers are flocking to Canada’s Texas as if they were pumping cod and not oil.

The truth is that it was not a foregone conclusion that public support would go to the Conservatives from the discredited Liberals. Within the last year there have been points where the NDP was only 5 or 6 points behind the Conservatives in the polls. The overwhelming majority of Canadians think all the political representatives of the current system are corrupt and over 2/3 of voters don’t expect politicians to keep their promises. http://www.cbc.ca/canadavotes/newscoverage/pdf/2006toplinefindings.pdf

Unfortunately, the NDP did not inspire workers when it tried to adopt right-wing policies during the campaign. NDP Leader Jack Layton withdrew previous opposition to the Québec Clarity Act, destroying any possibility of growth in the province. They were effectively silent on Canadian imperialism’s actions in Haiti and backtracked from forcefully opposing the upcoming deployment of 2000 troops to Afghanistan. The most miserable rightward turn was when the NDP adopted a conservative “lock-em-up” policy of mandatory minimum sentences for disadvantaged youth found guilty of gun crime. This mirrors Tony Blair’s “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” which never got beyond the first premise and failed to explain or deal with the causes of social exclusion. Interestingly, the NDP received most of its gains in Ontario and British Columbia, where the tradition is more labour and activist oriented. The right-wing NDP old guard in the Prairies and Maritimes merely held onto their existing seats.

Canada in Turmoil

The minority government will not be able to solve any of Canada’s problems. The ruling class will not be able to get its way without the fall of the government. Nothing will be done to address the 1.2 million Canadian children who grow up in poverty, a higher rate than much of Eastern Europe. There are the first whispers of a new tendency within the NDP that can harness the growing labour unrest. On December 7th CBC news reported that Leo-Paul Lauzon, an NDP candidate in Montreal, called for the nationalization of the oil and gas industry and said that we should look to Venezuela under Hugo Chavez for the way forward. The party bureaucracy quickly distanced themselves from the statement, but it is indicative of a growing tendency in society that is having its reflection in the party. These elections merely underline the fact that Canada is facing increasing political, economic, and social turmoil for the foreseeable future.

Alex Grant
Fightback Editorial Board


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