By John Riddell and Roger Annis
Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW), dealt the New Democratic Party a low blow at the outset of Canada’s federal election campaign on December 2 when he announced his support for re-election of the Liberal Party of Prime Minister Paul Martin.
“We want a clear minority government, led by Paul Martin, with as many New Democrats holding the balance of power as possible,” Hargrove said while introducing Martin to his union’s national conference. The “extreme right-wing” Conservatives need to be kept from winning at all costs, he added.
Martin’s minority government lost a parliamentary vote of confidence on November 29. The NDP teamed up with the pro-Quebec sovereignty Bloc Quebecois and the right-wing Conservative party to defeat the government. An election is set for January 23.
Some union leaders argue that Martin represents a “lesser evil” compared to Conservative leader Stephen Harper. But this approach plays into the hands of Canada’s ruling rich, who control both the Liberal and Conservative parties. Elections play a subordinate role in a political system dominated by big business, big media, the courts, and the high government bureaucracy.
Unless a mass movement intervenes, election results are shaped by the dominant social forces. Voters are encouraged to vote not for what they want, but for the lesser evil. When working people buy the lesser evil line, the capitalist power brokers always get their way, since the two dominant parties advocate close variants of the same policies.
Liberals offer nothing to labour
To judge from the record of the “lesser evil” Liberals, this mechanism is clearly working well. Since the last election in June 2004, the Liberal government has done nothing to earn support from the working class movement. They showed their true colours in a pre-election gift to Canada’s ruling rich: $5.2 billion in corporate tax cuts, which boosted stock values by tens of billions overnight.
Although Martin professes concern for health care, he failed to counter the threat to public health insurance posed by this year’s Supreme Court ruling authorizing private insurance plans (see Socialist Voice #44). Such are the Liberal attacks on health care that Stephen Harper, whose party is the most outspoken advocate of privatizing health care services, is making headway in the election campaign by masquerading as a defender of public health care.
Canada is enjoying what passes under capitalism for buoyant economic conditions: industrial production is up, official unemployment statistics are edging downward, the currency has soared, and the government is awash in budgetary surpluses. Yet the capitalist war against working people continues without let-up, and unions in particular are under sharp attack (see Socialist Voice #54). Martin is proposing modest increases in social spending, but these fail utterly to address the urgency and depth of poverty and economic insecurity in this country.
Flush with financial resources earned from cutting salaries and social services to workers, the government has set Canada on the road to war. Earlier this year, it voted a $12.8 billion increase in military spending over five years. This will expand the army by 5,000 troops and 3,000 reservists. The NDP voted for the increase.
Thousands of Canadian soldiers have been shipped to Afghanistan, charged by army chief of staff R.J. Hillier to kill the “ball of snakes” represented by those who resist foreign occupation. Meanwhile, Canada has sent police and political advisers to back the murderous junta it helped install in Haiti (see Socialist Voice #49 and #50).
Some 40,000 people marched through the streets of Montreal on December 3 to demand radical improvements to protection of the environment, on the occasion of a major international conference on the environment. Yet the federal government has done little to implement even the weak and inadequate Kyoto accord. Greenhouse-gas emissions have been increasing faster in Canada than in most industrialized countries — almost twice as fast as in the U.S.
NDP leadership aspires to lesser-evil status
The labour movement in Canada sought a way out of the two-party trap by building its own party. In 1961, it joined with others to found the New Democratic Party in the hope that the new party it would represent workers, farmers, oppressed layers, and movements for social change.
Yet, where the NDP is strong enough to elect provincial governments, it acts as a faithful defender of the capitalist order, effectively replacing one of the old-line parties in the role of lesser evil. All the provincial NDP parties aspire to this role. And the federal NDP, barred from hope of government by its hostility to Quebec’s national rights, projects no more ambitious a goal than to exert a helpful influence on a Liberal or Tory government.
Although NDP leader Jack Layton argues against Hargrove’s support for the Liberals, he proposes much the same formula: electing “as many New Democrats as possible.” It is the same goal as Hargrove: positioning the NDP to hold the balance of power in a parliament where no party has a majority.
Moreover, the federal NDP’s program, while advocating some useful measures, is shaped to enhance their parliamentary credibility, hewing close to the Liberal model. The party leadership opposes or at best abstains from the mass struggles that can in fact create conditions for meaningful social change. They are committed defenders of capitalist rule.
Balance-sheet of NDP-Liberal alliance
The record of the NDP’s parliamentary alliance with the Liberals this year shows the bankruptcy of this course. The New Democrats backed the federal government budget earlier this year in return for a promise of $4.6 billion in additional social spending and withdrawal of proposed tax cuts for corporations. In November, when the NDP joined in pushing through a non-confidence motion against that same government, the Liberals had restored and augmented the corporate tax cuts, while the fate of the promised social spending, little of it yet delivered, was tossed in the lap of the next parliament.
In return, the NDP did more than approve a budget proposing massive increases to military spending. It lapsed into silence over the government’s military interventions in Afghanistan and Haiti — actions that would have aroused strong opposition across the country if the NDP had spoken up. By falling in line with the Liberals’ war program, the NDP did working people an injury that weighs much more heavily than the benefits of increased social spending.
Failure to defend Quebec rights
During the NDP-Liberal alliance the inquiry by Justice John Gomery into Liberal government corruption and political payoffs in Quebec reached its culmination. These revelations brought to a head Quebecois’ resentment of federal tutelage. Liberal party support in Quebec plummeted; support for sovereignty soared; and the Bloc Quebecois is poised to win almost every Quebec seat where francophones are in the majority.
Here was an historic opportunity for the NDP to speak out in defense of the right of the Quebecois to national self-determination and democratic government, rights denied by the Liberals’ scandal-ridden attempts to bribe Quebecois into supporting federalism. The NDP could have blocked with the Bloc Quebecois in defense of Quebec and for the elementary reforms advocated by both parties. In doing so, the NDP would have taken a step toward an alliance with the Quebecois people against the Liberal-Tory federal regime to the benefit all working people in Canada.
Instead, during the entire “sponsorship” scandal, the NDP kept silent on Quebec rights. And during the election campaign, Jack Layton has come out squarely in support of the oppressive “Clarity Bill,” the law that empowers the federal government to nullify the results of any future referendums on sovereignty in Quebec. (Pro-federalism forces won the last referendum, in 1995, by less than a one percent margin).
Crisis in auto industry
The months of Liberal-NDP alliance also saw gathering clouds over Canada’s unionized auto industry. The U.S.-based auto giants are embarked on a program of plant closures and new demands for wage and benefits takebacks. At a minimum, the autoworkers need effective government measures to protect their livelihood, health benefits, and pensions. The NDP’s policy does none of this. Presenting his “auto strategy” in Oshawa on December 1, Jack Layton called for (1) more auto research and development; (2) “targeted incentives” (that is, subsidies) for auto plant retooling; (3) more vigorous trade policies against foreign competition; and (4) easier border crossings for auto transport trucks.
This is “lesser-evil” politics with a vengeance. The possibility of a fightback against the cuts is simply ignored. Each of the NDP’s demands aims at government assistance — not for the auto workers — but for the giant auto corporations. This has increasingly been the approach of the Canadian Auto Workers leadership, and it provides a rationale for their tilt toward political support of the Liberal government that holds the money bags.
The NDP as labour’s alternative
The NDP’s current program, put to test of government or governmental coalition, turns out to be not substantially different from old-line bourgeois parties. This program positions the NDP as nothing better than a lesser evil — a somewhat less cruel administrator of capitalist oppression. And the NDP as lesser evil is not worthy of support.
Nevertheless, socialists should give critical support to the NDP, and oppose the Liberal and Conservative parties. The NDP, despite its right-wing course, contains within it the germ of an alternative — the consciousness among hundreds of thousands of its supporters that working people need our own party and our own government, committed to defending them against corporate power. Major NDP gains in the federal election would be a step forward for the working class and a stimulus to workers’ struggle.
We need a workers government in Ottawa, one pledged to champion the interests of the working class. The NDP and other working class organizations must break with the lesser-evil framework of politics in Canada and support the struggles of working people.
For union and political activists today, the way to push the whole movement along this path is to step up campaigns for solidarity with the people of Haiti, against factory closings and cuts to social services, or support of the self-determination struggles of indigenous peoples and the Quebecois. Far from relaxing these efforts in the name of playing the electoral game, we need to redouble them.