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June 9, 2004

The Stakes for Workers in Canada’s General Election

By Roger Annis and John Riddell 

Canada’s June 28 federal election wasn’t supposed to unfold this way.

According to the Liberal Party script, Paul Martin’s accession to leadership of the party last year would guarantee the election of a fourth Liberal majority government in a row. Martin would bring a fresh face and “new ideas” to Ottawa. His business roots in Quebec and command of the French language would help marginalize the bourgeois nationalist Bloc Quebecois party. Voters would accept the Liberals as a lesser evil to the more overtly right-wing Conservative Party. The union-based New Democratic Party (NDP) would be sidelined through a deft election campaign that would posit the Liberals as defenders of the country’s social programs.

Canada’s business elite sighed with contentment at this scenario.

But the wheels have fallen off the Liberal wagon. Poll results in early June have the Liberals running neck and neck with the Conservatives. Support for the NDP and the pro-sovereignty Bloc Quebecois is up. The wealthy class is now preparing for all possible results. A Conservative majority? A Conservative governmental alliance with the Bloc Quebecois? A Liberal/NDP alliance? The uncertainty is rattling them. A Globe and Mail editorial on June 3 commented, “Paul Martin is among the best qualified prime ministerial candidate in Canadian history. Why is he struggling so?”

What happened to the Liberals best-laid plans? How can working people use the June 28 election and the Liberal disarray to fight back against eleven years of attacks spearheaded by Liberal governments in Ottawa?

Growing social polarization

The Liberals’ misfortunes are the result of a growing social polarization in Canada. Working people have suffered many blows over the past 11 years of Liberal Party rule. The levers of state have been applied to transfer massive wealth from working people into the pockets and bank accounts of the wealthiest Canadians. Taxes have gone up for workers and down for the rich. Social programs have been sharply cut. Democratic rights have been seriously eroded, through laws like the anti-Quebecois “Clarity Bill” and so-called anti-terrorism laws.

Paul Martin was the finance minister during these years and a principal architect of Liberal policies. Today he is reaping the backlash. In the few months preceding the federal election call, large strike and political protest movements headed by the trade unions rocked the provinces of Newfoundland, Quebec and British Columbia. There is deep anger in Ontario as the newly elected Liberal government reneged on its promise not to introduce health care premiums.

Martin’s intended direction in foreign policy has also taken a battering. Last year, he announced intention to seek a closer political and military alliance between Ottawa and Washington. But the news from Iraq has been all bad since then; so bad that Conservative leader Stephen Harper is denying that his party would send Canadian troops to Iraq. Opposition is growing to a new missile defense treaty between the U.S. and Canada.

Despite the Liberal record, there is division among Canada’s rulers because many believe the Liberals have not pushed far and fast enough to advance capitalist interests. As a result, they are backing the Conservatives.

In these circumstances, the New Democratic Party has an opportunity for important electoral growth. The party is based on the unions and is viewed by masses of working people as the only major party which defends their rights. It has published a detailed election platform containing many proposals for reform, including:

  • Public works programs to create socially useful employment.
  • Extension of unemployment insurance benefits.
  • Extension of the public health care system, including provision of abortion services to women.
  • A 10 percent reduction in post-secondary education tuition fees.
  • Scrapping the federal Anti-Terrorism Act.

Prior to the election campaign, NDP leader Jack Layton spoke out against the war and occupation in Iraq. He has pledged that an NDP government would repeal the “Clarity Bill,” the federal law that authorizes the Canadian army to occupy Quebec should the people of that province ever vote for independence from Canada. This Bill was adopted with the support of most NDP members of parliament.

Indeed, the modest upturn in support for the NDP that has marked the opening weeks of the election has begun to draw the wrath of Canada’s rulers. Their campaign against the NDP will deepen as the party continues to draw support. They oppose the NDP’s political platform. But even more, they oppose what this union-based political party symbolizes for many of its supporters, namely, political action by working people that is independent of the capitalists’ political parties and governmental apparatus. That’s why every person concerned for social justice in Canada has an interest in electing an NDP government, however slim the prospects of that may seem today.

Fight for working class policies

The present leaders of the NDP and the trade unions do not propose nor fight for radical change in the present social order. They dislike the injustices that they see around them, but have no remedy. Jack Layton told interviewers with Canadian Dimension magazine last year, “My belief is that the way you transform the big phenomenon is by a huge number of local actions… The older notion of fundamental, once and for all transformation of society is less likely to succeed. Besides, it’s unpalatable to Canadians and to me as well.”

“It is local institutions like non-profits and cooperatives and local democracy where the action is.” When asked what would replace the capitalist system if his proposed “local actions” brought the social order to the point of dysfunction, Layton responded, “It is something to think about.”

Layton’s stated goal in favor of peace in today’s war-torn world does not explain nor challenge the social order of capitalism that breeds war. The peace plank in the NDP’s election platform focuses its attention on the protection and enhancement of the Canadian state. Titled, “Protecting Canadian security through peace,” the platform proposes a pivotal role for United Nations-sponsored military intervention in foreign lands, with Canada as an enthusiastic partner. The platform says nothing about the imperialist occupation forces presently in Haiti and Afghanistan in which Canada is a key player. Nor does it call for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Domestically, the NDP platform fails the key test of support to the national rights of the Quebecois. It opposes the right of the oppressed Quebecois nation to self-determination. Instead, it proposes something called “flexible federalism,” whereby provincial governments could opt out of federal programs provided they meet standards set by the federal government.

For their part, union officials in Quebec have long ago turned their back on organizing for working class unity across the Canada/Quebec divide, choosing instead to support, and thereby subordinate workers’ interests to, the bourgeois nationalist Bloc Quebecois and Parti Quebecois parties.

The historic failure of the trade unions and the NDP in English-speaking Canada to recognize and defend Quebec’s right to self-determination, including the right to independence, is the biggest obstacle in the way of the working class in Canada forging a political alliance across language and national barriers and mounting a challenge for government.

Lacking any perspective of replacing capitalism, the NDP has in practice seen no alternative to defending the prevailing order, and NDP provincial governments have without exception proven to be reliable defenders of capitalist order.

Nevertheless, the election of an NDP government in Ottawa would unsettle Canada’s political and economic order. Working people’s expectations of change would clash sharply with the NDP leadership’s commitment to defend capitalism. This would open the door to developing a new, socialist leadership and program for the working class.

This election is an opportunity both to build support for the NDP and also to explain why its pro-capitalist course runs counter to the interests of its working-class base and why socialism offers the only alternative.  

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