By Bernard Rioux. An intolerable economic statement. The formation of a coalition of opposition parties claiming they want to bring down the government. A shuttered parliament, MPs flushed from it for two months at the prime minister’s whim. The House of Commons has been the setting for a parliamentary crisis the likes of which have never been seen in Canada. How should we analyze what has just happened and its consequences?
The world economic crisis is imposing its share of suffering on the people of Canada and Quebec: job losses, greater insecurity, household debt, decline in purchasing power, erosion of savings accumulated over the years by small investors, etc. And the most devastating effects of the crisis are just arriving at our doors.
Harper’s Conservative government with all its partisan and doctrinaire projects provoked a parliamentary crisis
Insensitive to the angst and difficulties of working people, the government gave priority to weakening the opposition and crushing the main opposition party, the Liberal party of Canada. Prime Minister Harper wanted to take advantage of the leadership crisis in the Official Opposition to force it to accept the unacceptable while cutting off its financial lifeline. So Finance Minister Flaherty’s economic statement proposed to put an end to public funding of political parties; it attacked pay equity for women; it prohibited the right to strike in the public service in coming years and proposed some economic measures characterized by the Conservative obsession with deficit-fighting. Flaherty announced cutbacks of four billion dollars in government spending that may further dampen economic activity and speed the onset of recession.
Opposition parties form a coalition
In an act of self-preservation, the opposition parties joined in a coalition — denouncing neoliberal rigidity, calling for a needed boost to the economy, and proposing themselves as an immediate alternative to the Harper government. Hoping to head off this possibility, the Conservatives retreated on party funding and the prohibition of the right to strike.
It was no use, for the perspective of overthrowing the Tories responded to a genuine democratic feeling among the Canadian people who, in their majority, did not vote for a Conservative government. They want to do away with a government that seeks to make working people pay for a crisis they did not create.
The Harper government used the State institutions to avoid being overthrown
But the government was not overthrown. Using some institutions of the Canadian state established to protect the governing party, Harper asked Governor General Michaële Jean to prorogue Parliament until the end of January 2009. In responding to the prime minister’s request, she was simply performing her institutional duties, [constitutional lawyer] Henri Brun argues. This meant there would be no non-confidence vote on the economic statement on December 8.
To legitimize this call to shut down the Canadian parliament for two months, the Tory leader launched a media campaign designed to undermine the legitimacy of the coalition, claiming that it included the Bloc Québécois. It was a horrifying prospect, he said, to give a coalition including a “separatist” party control of the Canadian government, even if that party would not be an actual part of the government. Harper’s campaign effectively whipped up hatred against Quebec in English Canada.
His objective was not only to delegitimize the Coalition and its proposed government but to divide it and make the Liberals in particular pay a high political price for this alliance with the “socialists” of the NDP and the “separatists” of the Bloc. He won some serious points on this score.
The Conservative operation was particularly cynical and . . . easy. Didn’t the opposition forces radically overestimate the depth of the political crisis? There was indeed a parliamentary crisis, but the legitimacy of a change in government was not rooted in the population as a whole, especially in English Canada, and nowhere did these sentiments give rise to a significant extraparliamentary mass movement. That is what explains the angle of attack taken by Prime Minister Harper, focusing on Canadian unity and his capacity to resist the parliamentary crisis, which will reoccur of course. Judging from opinion polls, he emerges a winner from the crisis.
The nature of this coalition and its program
The Liberals entered this coalition for self-preservation and out of opposition to Harper’s doctrinaire non-interventionism at a time when all other Western governments have already rejected this economic abstentionism.
The Liberals have imposed a program on this coalition that is fully consistent with the logic of the G-20 governments. “The new Government is committed to working with the international community, particularly with G-20 partners, in pursuit of an effective new global financial architecture.” But the G-20 plans do not question the deregulation of the financial industry in any way whatsoever. The G-20 have assigned the job of extricating them from the present crisis to the IMF and the WTO, the promoters of an unjust and unviable model. The only proposed solutions defend the interests of the major creditors. Poor peoples and countries continue to be denied a say.
The Coalition’s common plan aims to “provide active stimulus for the economy over the next two years, with a shared commitment to return to surplus within four years.” This is the principle of fiscal responsibility and it promises future attacks on existing gains of the people. Even the promised support to families is limited “as finances permit.” Not much, then.
The NDP and the Bloc are asking for measures to help people affected by the economic crisis, to protect pensions and employment insurance benefits, and to support cultural activities through cancellation of the budget cuts announced by the Conservative government. But there are very few clear and itemized commitments in the coalition’s founding agreement. That is understandable, as it is led by a party that cut back on unemployment insurance, attacked democratic freedoms through its anti-terrorist laws and initiated the disastrous intervention in Afghanistan.
And then there is what is not explicitly written. “In order to sign the coalition agreement with the Liberals, on Monday, NDP leader Jack Layton renounced his party’s call for the cancellation of a proposed reduction in corporate taxes.” Even more serious: “The NDP’s deputy leader Thomas Mulcair stated Wednesday that the party would no longer oppose Canada’s war in Afghanistan while it was teamed with the Liberals. This was a significant concession for a party that was the standard-bearer of the country’s peace movement. Mr. Mulcair, the only New Democrat MP from Quebec, stated that ‘the NDP is setting aside the differences that have always existed with the Liberals on issues such as Afghanistan’.”
This is a minimalist agreement given the scope of the crisis, and it essentially replicates, as its framework, the positions elaborated by the G-20 countries aimed at maintaining a development model that has led us to this crisis, adding to it an interventionism that is oriented entirely toward support to big business. It is an agreement that says not a word about the withdrawal of Canadian troops, the colossal sums that are being spent on them, and the unacceptable nature of that intervention.
Will this coalition hold together?
The federal Liberal party has a crisis of leadership. Stéphane Dion has been ejected from his position as leader. The Liberals have already decided not to develop an alternative budget to the one that the Conservatives will present next January 26. Will they participate in the budget preparation consultations being proposed by Stephen Harper? No doubt.
For the NDP, the coalition is still a governmental alternative, and if there are some good ideas in the Tory budget, they say, the Coalition should adopt them and include them in its own budget. Taking power as a coalition remains the party’s perspective. For the NDP, there is no going back.
The Bloc will be the only party to benefit from the Coalition episode. Its participation in building the coalition was not the expression of any confidence in the Liberals, but reflected its understanding that consistent opposition to the Conservatives is the source of its strength among the people of Quebec. Duceppe has clearly understood that all the manoeuvres designed to dislodge the Tories could only reinforce his own legitimacy and his base in Quebec. This does not mean he is setting out a clear strategy that can actually protect the people against the crisis. That’s another matter altogether.
The Coalition is already being torn by the contradictions among the Liberals, and the internal dynamics of the Liberal party will no doubt lead to its implosion.
Two scenarios that merge into one
Several scenarios are possible, but they lead to the same conclusion. The Coalition’s days are numbered.
- The Liberals vote for the budget and refuse to defeat the government. This theory is based on the fact that many Liberal supporters on Bay Street were not happy with the party’s alliance with Layton’s NDP and the separatists of the Bloc. This is reflected in the questioning of the coalition in the Liberal caucus, the scope of which is currently masked by party discipline. Voting for the budget would give the Liberals time to rebuild under a new leader. Also, recent polls indicate that Harper has to this point been the main beneficiary of the crisis in English Canada, with the Liberals far behind. Some Liberals are already arguing that the door is not completely closed to possible support to Harper’s budget even if, they say, he will have to make many concessions. In that case, the coalition will be over.
- If the Tories don’t shift much the government could be defeated and elections called. Would a coalition hold together in an election? The answer is clear. The Liberals could not accept an electoral agreement with the Bloc. The NDP likewise, given the national polarization that could be manifested during the next federal election campaign.
What coalition should be built to confront the crisis, the Conservatives, and all the federalist forces?
The unions have chosen to line up behind the coalition and ally with a party that has led a major offensive against the majority of the working population in recent years. The only perspective before working people and their organizations is not a coalition without a future, it is class independence and the unity of the workers and popular forces at the level of the Canadian state in a united struggle against the parties of big business. The NDP must stop tying its hands to the Bay Street Party and assist in the organization of this coalition of workers and popular forces. Only repeated mass actions can block the attacks being prepared to make the people pay for the economic crisis of the capitalist system. It is important that the unions and the popular, feminist and ecologist forces retain their freedom of action and coalesce on their own bases.
We must build campaigns to demand a complete revision of employment insurance in favour of the workers, the construction of social housing and a better public system of transport, strengthened public pensions, strict regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and the immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan.
The parliamentary crisis in Ottawa has not produced a nationalist upsurge comparable to the one provoked by the rejection of the Meech Lake accord. But Harper’s campaign has been an unacceptable provocation for many Québécois. The independence perspective, however, will broaden only if it is rooted in a strategy that can articulate a social agenda capable of contending with the coming crisis. There are no shortcuts. The only way to do this is to develop a party that makes the link between the social and national struggles, in place of a party whose elitist leadership uses sovereigntist sentiments to monopolize provincial power, a party content with managing as the Parti québécois has been doing for a long time.
Bernard Rioux is a leader of Gauche socialiste, a collective within the left sovereigntist party Québec solidaire. QS won its first seat in the Québec National Assembly in the December 8 election. This article was published in the web journal Presse-toi-à-gauche, on December 9. Translation by Richard Fidler.
 A Policy Accord to Address the Present Economic Crisis, a Coalition document dated December 1, 2008.
 La Presse, December 3, 2008.