The 2004 Canadian federal election is looking to be the closest race since the 1970s. The Liberals hold a narrow lead over the Conservative Party, with the New Democrats looking to make gains and the Bloc Quebecois optimistic that it will retain much of the Quebec vote. For the first time in over a decade, the Liberals are in a position where they could fail to win a majority government.
When Paul Martin replaced Jean Chretien as Prime Minister this January, few would have thought he’d find his government in such a predicament only six months down the road. The Liberals seemed as solid as ever. Martin was to be a dose of fresh blood that would remove any public concerns that the party had grown stagnant during ten years of Chretien leadership. The Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives were locked in the same talks of uniting the right that had failed to succeed so many times before. And as for the New Democrats, they had languished low in the polls for years.
Then in March came the sponsorship scandal. The auditor general revealed that Liberal bureaucrats and Crown Corporation chiefs were funnelling millions of dollars worth of public money into their own pockets. The Liberals’ slide in the polls began almost immediately.
However, to say that the Liberal Party’s fall in the polls is strictly the result of the sponsorship scandal alone is to oversimplify the situation. Rather, the drop in support that followed the sponsorship scandal is an expression of a discontent with the ruling government that had long been festering. Paul Martin’s reception as Prime Minister was not nearly as warm as expected; voter turnout is at record lows, and years of cuts to public spending have taken a toll on the social infrastructure. While the polls leading up to the scandal may have said that 60 percent of the population supported the government, what they did not say was that the resolution with which that 60 percent supported the government had been dwindling for some time. The sponsorship scandal was merely the event that finally pushed people from increasingly reluctant support for the government to actual opposition. Marxism explains that necessity is sometimes expressed through accident.
The newly formed Conservative Party of Canada, which came into being when the Canadian Alliance annexed the Progressive Conservative Party and renamed itself yet again, has leapt all over the Liberal’s sponsorship scandal. Such misappropriations of the public’s money are synonymous with the type of big government the Liberals offer, claims opposition leader Stephen Harper. The Liberals are overtaxing Canadians and mismanaging their money. The government is an over-sized, corrupt bureaucracy that has been in power too long to be in touch with ordinary Canadians. According to the Conservatives, what is needed to revitalize Canada is a drastic tax cut (for middle income earners) and a move towards smaller, hands-off government.
In response, Martin is attacking Harper as a betrayer of Canadian values. A Conservative government would dismantle our social programs (or at least what’s left of them after the last 10 years of Liberal government) and make us more like America. Martin who was elected Liberal leader on the support of the party’s right wing now finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Out of one side of his mouth he attempts to cater to the will of the electorate, promising to put drastic amounts of money back into healthcare. Out of the other, he must prove his loyalty to the interests of those who supported his leadership, vowing that putting more money into healthcare will not mean higher taxes. Precisely where Martin intends to find this surplus of cash (or whether it can be found at all) is apparently one of those things that can only be discovered once he is safely back in office for the next four years.
Despite all their campaign rhetoric, the Liberals and Conservatives more than anything else, both defend the rights of the ruling class. Harper, through the looser economic regulations that come with ‘smaller government’, wishes to open the floodgates to American capital, while Martin, using the guise of ‘Canadian values’ wishes to defend the interests of himself, and the Canadian business class that supports him, from that US capital. Neither party will improve the lives of working people in Canada. Paul Martin’s promises to restore healthcare ring about as hollow as those made ten years earlier by Jean Chretien to eliminate the GST and rebuild the welfare state.
The New Democratic Party is currently faced with the greatest opportunity to win public support that it has had in years. The Canadian people are dissatisfied not only with the current political situation, but with the roots of the bourgeois democratic process itself. This is indicated not only by the drop in support for the Liberals but the drop in voter turnout that has been seen in recent years. Young people especially, while more politically active than ever before, are voting in record low numbers.
It is not an accident that the increased support for the NDP coincides with a leftward movement in the party. The election last year of Jack Layton as leader represented the final defeat of the Blairite "Third Way" faction. Layton has courted all sections of the party (left and right, green and labour) and has enthused the rank-and-file. The 2004 NDP election platform is the most left-wing since the 1980s. It includes a new higher tax bracket for those earning more than $250,000 per year, reverses Liberal corporate tax breaks, and implements an inheritance tax on estates greater than $1 million. In total this will raise about $10 billion per year. The NDP’s redistributive program offers reforms in the way of eliminating income tax for those earning less than $15,000, reducing tuition fees by 10%, investing $29 billion in healthcare and halting privatization, doubling the child tax credit, creating 2 new national holidays, creating 200,000 low-cost childcare spaces, giving 5 cents per litre of the gas tax for reconstruction of cities, creating a new nationalized crown corporation for green energy (mostly wind power), and on top of all of this the NDP proposes to remove general sales tax from family essentials such as children’s clothing, school supplies, and women’s hygiene products. Marxists have consistently criticized social democratic parties for not offering the working class any reason to vote for them – here we see Canada’s labour party offering real reforms and in response their national support has doubled.
However, it is wrong to view the NDP platform as any sort of solution. There is an important catch – the reforms are planned to be within a balanced budget and if this cannot be reached then the package will be curtailed. The plan is supposed to be achievable if budget surpluses reach a projected $50 billion per year. Herein lies the problem – the NDP platform is fundamentally utopian while Canada has a capitalist economy. There are very good internal and external reasons why the NDP’s targets will not be reached. As we have explained in previous articles, Canada’s economy is dependent on selling manufactured goods to the USA. This is a well that is likely to run dry in the next period. George Bush has built up a massive debt load to fund his imperialist adventures. This will likely lead to a period of austerity or protectionism – cutting the market for Canadian goods. Internally the reforms will face both the political and economic pressure of the ruling class. The banks and finance houses will organize a credit strike against any government that does not do their bidding. There is a basic flaw in reformism; if you tax the rich they will not invest. They will pack up and move to Mexico, or China, or Indonesia. There are many examples of this; the British Labour government in the 1970s was told by the banks that they could not implement their program of mild reforms even though they had been elected on that platform. In a similar way we can look at the Ontario NDP government to see how the capitalist class can bring down a reformist program and force the reformists to do their dirty work (e.g. Bob Rae).
The fundamental truth is that you cannot control what you do not own. If the NDP came to power on their program then they would be faced with two choices; either betray the working class (who supported the NDP in the hope of seeing real improvements), or mobilize the workers against Capital and take control of the banks and top 150 corporations that control 85% of the Canadian economy. While we support taxing the rich as a reform, by itself it merely causes capital flight. However, if the banks and monopolies have been nationalized and are being controlled by the workers then the profiteers will have problems when they want to make a withdrawal. The choice is capitulation or confrontation. This may not be palatable to some, but there is no middle road.
Unfortunately the leaders of the NDP have no perspective of taking power and do not have confidence in their platform or in the working class. They are in fact mistaken; the barrier to victory is not the NDP’s program but the doubt that the workers have in their leaders being serious. The Liberals know this and in previous elections were able to split away NDP voters by raising the spectre of the fundamentalist right-wing. This tactic was aided and abetted by the corporate media that did everything possible to ignore the NDP. Jack Layton has partially recognized this and attacks both the Liberals and Conservatives as corporate parties; it is good for once to see an NDP leader face up to right-wing attacks rather than cower and apologize. A measure of the NDP’s success is seen by how many editorials are attacking the NDP for their program of "class war". Despite this, workers still know that all the NDP leaders are aiming for is a role as junior partner in a minority Liberal government. All the reforms would be dumped for a few cabinet portfolios and the Liberals would have no problem appointing an NDPer as minister for windmills! There is also a mythology, promoted by the NDP right wing, that the good things in Canada have only come about during a minority Liberal-NDP government.
While propping up the Liberals may be initially popular within the NDP, it will rapidly fall into disfavour. The youth and the Marxists will be at the forefront of opposing the coalition and any further watering down of the NDP’s platform (which is already too watered down). Appeasing the Liberals and maintaining cabinet portfolios is not an excuse for letting poverty, homelessness, and unemployment increase. The first major attack by the government on the working class will cause every contradiction to come to the fore. It is possible that a section of the right wing will split away to stay with the Liberals (like we have already seen former BC NDP premier Ujjal Dosanjh and IWA leader Dave Haggard do). It is not even certain which side of the divide Layton will find himself on. Suffice to say, the perspective for both society and the NDP is not stability.
Elections are merely a snapshot of the processes within a society at any given time. The recent period in Canada has seen economic stagnation and an upturn of the class struggle. The Conservatives were defeated in Ontario, there are general strike movements in BC and Quebec, and Newfoundland recently saw both the largest strike and largest demonstration in its history as a province. Capitalist governments everywhere have been forced to attack the working class and the fightback is in its first stages. These events form the backdrop of this election. While it is impossible to predict every outcome the general processes can be highlighted. A majority Conservative government is extremely unlikely given they have zero support in Quebec, and a minority Conservative government would be highly unstable and would not last the year. The only way the Conservatives could form a lasting government is if they united with the Liberals in a government of national unity. However, the crisis in society has not yet reached such a level for the two parties to be willing to put aside their differences in order to preserve the rule of capital. The most likely outcome is a minority Liberal government supported by the NDP. The NDP is fundamentally a working class party (despite its leadership) and the class forces acting on the party will eventually force it to break the coalition with the capitalist government. Those on the "left" who do not recognize that the NDP is organically linked to the working class will be at a loss to explain these movements. If the NDP was just another capitalist party then a Liberal-NDP (capitalist-capitalist) coalition would be perfectly stable when doing the bidding of the capitalists. In fact the intense class forces inherent in the situation raise the possibility of a real left-wing force developing within the NDP. We do not know who will lead this movement, or what form it will take, but it was under similar conditions during the last Liberal-NDP coalition that the radical Waffle movement formed within the NDP. For the first time in a generation there is a possibility for genuine socialist ideas to come to the fore on the picket line, at the ballot box, and on the streets. Canada is entering a new period of turmoil.