By Roger Annis
Two political shakeups have rocked British Columbia in the past two months. First was the resignation of the long-standing premier of the province, Gordon Campbell, on November 3, victim of the fallout of a hated tax he imposed. One month later, the leader of the opposition party, Carole James, was forced to step down by a revolt within her party.
Campbell’s Liberal Party will now attempt to rise from the wreckage of the hated consumption tax it imposed in 2009. A new leader will be chosen at a convention early next year, following which the party will claim it has something “new” to offer for voters. A snap election would catch the opposition seriously unprepared.
For its part, the trade union-based New Democratic Party is facing a wrenching decision, namely, whether it wants a new leader and platform that would distinguish it from the government’s course. The outgoing leader never did that. A significant section of the party decided it was unlikely it could win government with her at the helm.
But replacing the hated Liberal regime with a government committed to social justice will be a tough political battle for NDP and social activists, facing not only the Liberal Party but also a conservative, entrenched leadership of the NDP/social movement/trade union alliance.
Liberals under the gun
The Liberals’ principle undoing has been the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), announced without prior warning just days after a provincial election held on May 12, 2009. It took effect on July 1, 2010. It taxes the purchases by individuals of many goods and services that were previously exempt, while lifting many production input sales taxes paid by businesses.
The announcement sparked popular outrage and a petition campaign to get rid of it. Seven hundred thousand people signed the petition during the past summer. It was submitted to the provincial Legislature in September.
Under the province’s petition law, the government was left with two choices: either submit the petition’s demand for recall of the tax to a vote in the Legislature, or call a referendum vote. It opted to buy some time by announcing a referendum vote in September 2011.
But anti-HST organizers were having none of that, not least because the government can change the referendum date on a whim. They have moved ahead with Plan B: Recall of government members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). The campaign is now petitioning to unseat three of those judged most vulnerable, with more to follow.
The government presently holds 47 seats out of 85 in the Legislature.
The government launched a sputtering propaganda campaign in late summer extolling the virtues of the tax. Then on October 27, in a blatant attempt to buy support, it announced a personal income tax cut of 15 percent for the first $72,000 earned. Nothing worked. The premier’s popularity dropped to the single digits in polls. The prospect of getting rid of Campbell, and the HST, proved far more attractive than any income tax reduction he might offer. Out he went. His announced tax cut was cancelled.
Big business loves the HST. Billions of dollars of taxation will be shifted onto individual taxpayers. It has supported the tax strongly. But it is dismayed at the how badly the government fumbled its implementation. The Liberal leader who replaces Campbell, and the party elected in the next provincial election, will face unrelenting pressure to repeal the tax. For big business, this all sets the very bad precedent that popular will can prevail over capitalist economic policy.
Several challenges now confront the working class. One, whose interests will be served by a repeal of the HST? The right-wing populists who have dominated the anti-HST campaign are hoping to use popular anger to boost the electoral chances of a more overtly right-wing party than the Liberals. They will use their anti-tax/anti-government message to pressure whoever forms the next government to curtail public services and social programs even more than the Liberals have done.
And two, how can the NDP alliance organize to not only defeat the Liberal government and its hated tax but also elect a new government committed to defending public services and the living standards of working people?
The downfall of Carole James has several origins. There is dissatisfaction within and without the party with the business-friendly course that she has followed since her election as party leader in 2003. There is also opposition within the party, including among its MLAs, with an autocratic internal party regime that brooks little tolerance for differing ideas.
As well, James has lost two elections as party leader, in 2005 and 2009. She resisted pressure to step down after the 2009 loss. Polls show her popularity has remained flat, even in the face of the Liberals’ HST meltdown.
Her ouster seemed sealed on December 1 when the party’s longest-serving member of the provincial legislature, Jenny Kwan, went public with a searing blast against James’ leadership. Kwan said the leader lacked sufficient appeal to lead the party to victory in the post-Campbell election that looms.
Kwan also said that internal party democracy has been squashed. “Debate has been stifled, decision-making centralized, and individual MLAs marginalized.”
Twelve other NDP MLAs said they backed her challenge.
The internal battle lines were drawn in October when James booted MLA Bob Simpson out of the NDP caucus for writing a mild criticism of her in his local, weekly newspaper column. He complained she had offered few new ideas in a speech given to the annual convention of the BC Union of Municipalities.
The following month, the MLAs now grouped around Kwan refused to be pressured into a degrading display of public support for James – the wearing of yellow scarves – at a party provincial council meeting. The meeting voted by a large margin to refuse opposition MLAs’ request for a party convention and leadership election.
Few substantive policy differences have emerged between the two MLA groups. Simon Fraser University professor and former federal NDP candidate Kennedy Stewart told CBC Radio on the day of James’ resignation, “I have never heard of any discussion of policy differences between the two groups.”
Kwan explained in her December 1 open letter, “British Columbians want more than an opportunity to vote the Liberals out of office, they want the chance to choose a party with an inspiring vision and a clear alternative, progressive point of view.”
When asked by another CBC interviewer what direction she would like to see for the NDP, she offered nothing different that the mantra of Carole James. “We want to defeat the BC Liberals and we’re going to come together to do that.”
Bob Simpson told a radio interview on December 6 that the NDP should fight the next election on a platform of “good governance.” He has since announced his resignation from the NDP.
Pro-business course of the NDP
Since her election to leader in 2003, James has taken the NDP further along a pro-business course. Laurie Jones of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business praised James during a December 7 CBC Radio interview. She said James has “gone out on a limb” to court business interests and promise they would be looked after under an NDP administration.
British Columbians are rightly wary of such a political course. Big business under the Liberals has devastated British Columbia since their election to office in 2001. The Liberal government has imposed widespread cuts to social services, kept welfare rates and the minimum wage at well below the poverty line, given vast subsidies to environmentally destructive or socially regressive projects such as expansion of fossil fuel production and hosting of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and drastically reduced public supervision of the vast forest industry in the province.
Large reductions in income and corporate taxes have made BC the most “business-friendly” jurisdiction in Canada.
All of these measures have been urged by the very business interests in whose partnership James says the future of the province lies.
The NDP stood largely aloof from struggles against the harsh cuts and regressive industrial policies. In her speech to the BC Federation of Labour convention just a few days before her resignation, James staked out few positions on the difficult challenges facing working people.
To the extent the NDP has opposed cuts to social programs, these are usually voiced as opposition to the timing or exact form that cuts would take. The NDP gave only half-hearted support to strikes of hospital workers in 2004 and teachers in 2005 that could have mobilized the entire province in a general strike showdown with the government. It has offered little by way of alternative to the Liberals environment-wrecking industrial megaprojects.
Even on the hated HST, the NDP has soft-pedaled. It has ridden the wave of the popular revolt and gained in polls as a result, but James said she would not repeal the tax if elected. Right-wing populists have been left to control the message and direction of the anti-tax campaign.
Why the political timidity over the HST? Because the fight against it necessarily requires a clash with big business. The fight also encourages people to look for more radical policy alternatives, including anti-capitalist ones.
A glimpse of where James and her entourage want to take the NDP can be found in municipal politics in the city of Vancouver. An alliance of big business interests and municipal reformers, including leading NDP figures, came together in a party called VISION to win the 2008 election. It oversaw the construction and real estate bonanza leading into the 2010 Winter Olympics. Lots of money flowed to real estate and other capitalist interests, but municipal taxpayers have been left to foot the bills and the city’s marginalized population is poorer than ever.
The VISION government has also implemented a significant tax shift mirroring the HST, away from business and onto individual taxpayers.
New ideas needed
James’ departure leaves the labour movement adrift. If there was any dissent from her leadership and support for the opposition MLAs, it was not in evidence at the BC Federation of Labour convention which met during the very week in which Kwan and her supporters delivered their bombshell.
The unions have stayed on the sideline of the anti-HST fight, assuming, along with the NDP, that the party would automatically garner the lion’s share of the electoral shift resulting from the anti-tax revolt.
But this is playing with fire, and is a betrayal of working class people. In the recent municipal election in Toronto, a rightist politician, Rob Ford, played heavily to working class dissatisfaction with “big government and high taxes.” He came out of nowhere, seemingly, to win the mayoralty.
Two reasons for Ford’s success were the record of the outgoing and discredited VISION-type mayor, David Miller, whom the union movement backed in the 2003 and 2006 elections, and the tepid, status quo platform of the candidate that the labor movement and NDP backed to replace him this year.
The BC Liberal Party is damaged, but working-class people have yet to organize a campaign for a meaningful, alternative governing course. Surprisingly to many, polls taken since Campbell’s resignation show that the Liberals will remain competitive with the NDP if they can pull off a successful public relations drive around a new leader.
A fighting alternative
There are issues and social movements with which the NDP could successfully ally itself. These include:
- Significant protests taking place across the province to cuts in education by teachers, parents, students and elected members of school boards. As well, university and college students are protesting the fact that they now pay more in tuition than corporations pay in earnings taxes.
- A burgeoning environmental movement that opposes the expansion of oil and gas drilling, coal mining and related pipeline and transportation megaprojects; calls for an end to factory farming of salmon that is devastating the wild stocks of the fish; and is fighting for expansion of public transit in the Vancouver region instead of more highways.
- A broad movement for social housing and other services for the poorest and most needy, including raising of welfare rates and the minimum wage.
- Widespread anger over the violations of democratic principles that have marked the Liberal record, such as the privatization of BC Rail and the imposition of the HST.
- Support for improvements to the electoral system, notably proportional representation.
Championing these social and protest movements is one way for the NDP and trade unions to turn the anti-HST campaign in a positive direction. This would also help reach the fifty percent of eligible voters who no longer participate in elections. Failure to do so leaves the political terrain open to the right wing populists and their dangerous propaganda that blames “taxes” and “big government” for the world’s ills.
There are strong traditions of social struggle in British Columbia that can be drawn upon for such a course. And the broad, fighting movements that are emerging in many European countries provide new inspiration and examples to follow.
One of the keys to success will be to ally with protest movements emerging in other provinces so that the ultimate culprit in socially regressive policies in Canada be targeted – the federal government in Ottawa and the capitalist system it upholds.