On election night the majority of Canadians were dismayed. Prime Minister Stephen Harper managed to win a majority of the seats in the House of Commons with only 39.6% of the popular vote. Many of us fear that his government will now move full speed ahead in his professed goal to transform Canada from “a second-rate socialist state” to a copy of the free market United States.
But at the same time there were many NDP activists who were greatly cheered by the results of the election. The Liberal Party collapsed. The astonishing results of the election in Quebec gave the New Democratic Party another 58 seats, and they became the Official Opposition. This was always Jack Layton’s goal, creating a two-party system. These NDP supporters, and apparently all of the leaders of the trade union movement, have placed their hope in the possibility of the NDP forming the government after the next election.
The NDP’s election platform
Would it be any different if Jack Layton’s NDP had won the May 2 election? The NDP platform promised spending on social programs, with a strong emphasis on supporting “working families,” primarily through the use of tax benefits and rebates. This strategy ignores the 35% of tax filers who do not earn enough to pay income taxes and do not benefit from tax breaks.
Other pledges were to provide tax breaks to small business and to keep corporate taxes below those in the USA. Military spending would be maintained at the levels set by the Harper government. The federal budget, running a $29 billion deficit this year, would be balanced within four years.
La Presse (May 5, 2011) revealed that just before the election the top brass at the NDP phoned prominent people in the finance sector to assure them that they had little to fear from an NDP government. They were told that Jack Layton’s party was inspired by the government of Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan.
The transformation of social democracy
Canadians in general seem to be unaware of the fact that social democratic and labour parties in the industrialized world have all abandoned the policies of the Keynesian welfare state. Beginning with the Labor governments in New Zealand and Australia, they have moved far to the right, embracing the full policy package of the neoliberal agenda fostered by the right wing governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Allan Blakeney’s NDP government in Saskatchewan (1971-82) greatly expanded democracy by implementing the Keynesian welfare state and moving strongly to gain control over the exploitation of natural resources. But the subsequent NDP governments of Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert (1991-2007) fully embraced the neoliberal policy package. This included privatization of state enterprises, deregulation, reducing resource royalties, cutting corporate and business taxes and greatly reducing income taxes on those in the highest income brackets. Social services were cut, and they froze social assistance rates for fifteen years! Is this what Canadians want as an alternative to the Harper government?
The NDP and Quebec
Canadians on the left seem pleased that the Quebec NDP Members of Parliament now form the majority in the NDP caucus. They are bound to be more progressive than the NDP caucus that we have seen since 2006. But the NDP success in Quebec is a very strange and unusual political phenomenon, and it is conceivable that the NDP could lose almost all of those seats in the next election.
How will the NDP caucus deal with the issue of Quebec sovereignty? If Harper pushes through his right wing policies, we should not be surprised to see a revival of the sovereignty movement and possibly another referendum.
Alternatives for political activists
What can the 60% of Canadians who do not want the Harper government do at this time? First, we learned that strategic voting, without a serious mass mobilization, does not work. Under the British electoral system we have, political parties stress maximizing their own self interest. Jack Layton made it clear that the NDP is strongly opposed to strategic voting.
Some have announced they will push hard on the issue of electoral reform. But there is no possibility that a Harper government would be at all interested. The recent NDP governments in Saskatchewan flatly rejected any form of PR as they did not want any Greens sitting in the legislature.
We also know that one day actions, even large marches, rarely result in any changes in government policies. Well designed mobilizations against the corporate free trade agenda rarely achieve their goals when anarchists and provacateurs smash windows and burn police cars.
There is a call to revive the New Politics Initiative within the NDP. That is certainly one road to take. The party could change substantially if the membership in Quebec would actually increase.
Building an extra-parliamentary opposition
What successes progressive forces in Canada have achieved over the past twenty odd years have to a very large extent been due to broad coalitions of popular forces engaging in extra-parliamentary actions. The anti-free trade coalitions, and the provincial Coalitions for Social Justice, educated and mobilized the general public to eventually defeat Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government and then to block the implementation of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) and the Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (FTAA). We cannot forget this history.
Any new coalitions would have to stress a positive vision of a Canada different from that being pushed by the neo-conservative minority and their government. It is time for political activists and their organizations to think seriously about undertaking a new effort in this direction.
The decline in political participation
Those who are politically active on the broad left seem to overlook the fact that voter turnout in Canada has been dropping in recent elections. While Elections Canada reported that the turnout this year was 62%, that was of those on the National Register of Electors. The vote was only 53% of eligible voters, citizens 18 years and older.
Why is it that so many Canadians are no longer members or supporters of any political party and do not even bother to vote? In Saskatchewan, the drop has been greatest in those areas where the NDP has been strongest in the past – low income and working class districts. This is a general phenomenon in the advanced capitalist states. The root of this reality is the fact that the social democratic and labour parties have moved so far to the right that their policies are virtually identical to those of the parties of big business. Electing the supposed parties of the workers just results in more of the same. Look at the financial crisis in Europe today.
Nevertheless, there is good reason to be encouraged. In all the European countries which are under stress from the financial and housing crisis, and where the governments in power are demanding draconian budget cuts and right wing policy changes, we are seeing a widespread revival of popular movements demanding real democracy. Canadians can learn a great deal from these experiences. That will be the focus of the last part of this essay.
John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist, author and a long time political and social justice activist.