Canadian election: Left and labour movement discuss way forward
A selection of articles from Canadian socialists discussing the October 14 federal election and the debates and discussions in the Canadian and Quebec left and labour movements on electoral tactics.
Canada’s elections: What’s the alternative to the Tories?
By Roger Annis
October 1, 2008 -- Canada’s minority Conservative Party government has called a federal election for October 14. Serious issues confront voters — war in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the economic downturn that that will grow out of the US financial crisis, and climate change that endangers human life on our planet. But four of the five parties in the federal parliament are avoiding serious debate on these issues.
The fifth, the labour-based New Democratic Party (NDP), has a platform that responds to many working class needs, but it is evading vital issues. Only action by trade unions and social justice movements can place working-class concerns at the centre of the electoral spectacle.
The Liberal Party — lesser evil?
The two leading parties — Conservatives and Liberals — have traded off the governing of Canada since the founding of the country. The Conservatives, who replaced the Liberals in power in 2006, currently take a more right-wing stance. This leads many working people to favour a vote for the Liberals as a lesser evil, but in reality there is much more continuity than difference in the successive governments of these parties.
The Liberals are campaigning aggressively as a “left” alternative to the Conservatives. The party’s supporters have disrupted NDP events, claiming that a vote for the NDP will split the “left” vote and return Conservatives to power.
The country’s largest industrial union, the Canadian Autoworkers (CAW), echoes this position with a call for “strategic voting” — support for NDP candidates in constituencies [electoral districts] where the party has a chance of winning, and for Liberals elsewhere. CAW national president Ken Lewenza urges CAW members to “support candidates who have the best chance of defeating a Conservative”.
Many social-democratic writers and thinkers, including Murray Dobbin and James Laxer, also favour the Liberals as the lesser evil choice.
A wartime election
Whichever of the two parties heads the next government, it will be a government of war.
A key feature of the Conservative record is its close warmaking alliance with US imperialism in what economist and former oil industry executive John Foster terms “The New Great Game”, the neo-colonial grab for the oil and gas-producing regions of the Middle East and central Asia. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper sought to deflect attention on the war at the outset of the campaign by announcing that he would stick to federal parliament’s vote last March for withdrawal of Canadian combat troops from Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2011.
The Liberals, who took Canada to war in Afghanistan in 2005, voted with the government in March. Both parties have massively increased military spending: a new study says that by 2012 the Canadian war in Afghanistan will have cost $22 billion.
The Green Party and the Bloc Québécois criticise the war one day and say it should continue the next.
Only one opposition party, the NDP, says it would end Canada’s war mission in Kandahar. But the NDP has not highlighted the war in its campaign, and it accepts the imperialist rationale behind the war, the idea that wealthy countries are entitled to subjugate countries and peoples by labelling them as rogue or failed states that require protection.
Democratic rights and the social wage
The Conservatives have continued Liberal policies on other fronts. Attacks on democratic rights and on the social and economic conditions of workers, especially the most vulnerable, continue. Canada conducts illegal detentions and participates in torture in the name of the “war on terrorism”, including the now-infamous kidnapping, rendition and torture of Maher Arar in 2002.
Police agencies across the country are engaged in an unprecedented wave of killings and other forms of violence against ordinary citizens. Police budgets doubled between 1997 and 2006, the last year for which statistics are available.
Meanwhile, spending cuts have been the order of the day for everything from social services to funding of arts and culture under successive Conservative and Liberal governments. Eighteen people have died as a result of contamination of meat products at the country’s largest processor, Maple Leaf Foods — a direct result of cuts to food safety inspection.
A campaign of denial
The crisis in the financial markets and the collapse of major US banks has drawn little attention in this election. All parties agree with financial industry claims that Canada will be little affected by the crisis. The NDP’s principal financial proposal in the first weeks of the campaign was for reduced credit card charges.
There is a word for all this — denial. The near trillion-dollar bailout of some of the largest financial corporations in the world will shift more wealth to the wealthy while providing little protection against further financial crises.
Canadian capitalists have pursued many of the same predatory policies as their US counterparts, and the Canadian economy is now slowing as interest rates rise, credit gets harder to obtain and capitalists shut down production because of falling profit rates. On September 29, the Toronto Stock Exchange suffered its largest point drop in history. The livelihoods and pensions of millions of Canadians are at risk.
Climate change is the most hotly contested issue in this election. As a recent Socialist Voice article showed, there are only minor differences between the five major parties. None of them favours the radical cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that scientists are calling for.
None of the parties call for shutting down the massive tar sands projects in western Canada, the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country: the parties disagree only on the scale that should be permitted. When NDP candidate Michael Byers declared that the projects should be “shut down”, he quickly drew a rebuke from party leader Jack Layton.
Indigenous rights and sovereignty — another disappeared issue
The more than one million Indigenous people in Canada are waging militant struggles against continued encroachment and pillaging of resources on their territories and to protest the horrendous social conditions that they are forced to endure. None of the parties supports these struggles in a meaningful way.
The Conservatives in office turned their backs on Indigenous peoples. One of their first acts in government was to repudiate the Kelowna Accord under which Indigenous leaders and the previous Liberal government agreed on $5 billion of new spending on social programs and capitalist economic development. And the Tory government made Canada one of only four countries to vote against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations contrasts poor government spending on Indigenous needs to the vast increases on military spending in recent years. “The response we are looking for from each of the parties is next steps in regards to the eradication of First Nations poverty”, he said, urging Indigenous people to engage more actively in the election campaign.
Quebec’s alternative: Bloc Québécois or the NDP?
In Quebec, the election is a three-way race between the Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc Québécois. The Conservatives and Liberals oppose Quebec’s right to freely decide if it wishes to form an independent state.
The Conservatives’ aggressive war policy and cuts to arts and culture funding are unpopular, but the party has won support through its skilful manipulation of nationalist feelings. It offers a more friendly form of federalism to Quebec voters than the Liberals.
Liberal support in Quebec have been in decline for years because of the party’s unwavering hostility to the national aspirations of the Quebec people. Liberal leader Stéphane Dion was the author of the hated Clarity Act, under which the federal government claimed the power to override the results of any future referendum on Quebec sovereignty.
The nationalist Bloc Québécois, which holds the largest number of federal seats in Quebec, arose in 1990 out of the ashes of attempts at constitutional reform that would have granted more autonomy to Quebec within the Canadian state. Today, the Bloc is stagnating, unable to form or participate in a federal government and unable to lead Quebec to independence. It is also coming under fire from more conservative nationalists for its relatively progressive social policy.
The NDP hopes to capitalise on the Bloc’s stagnation to make an electoral breakthrough in Quebec. Last year, it won a surprise victory in a by-election in a Montreal riding [electoral seat]. But the party has a long history of opposing Quebec’s national aspirations and it ducks issues of Quebec sovereignty. Polls show its support rising above 15%, up from 7.5% in 2006.
The NDP campaign
New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton has highlighted three key issues in the NDP’s platform — the economy, protecting the environment and improving Canada’s mixed public/private health care system. In the 2006 election, the party scored one of its highest results in history, with 17.5 % of the vote. Polls now have it challenging the Liberal Party for second place.
The NDP has built its campaign around a string of popular proposals, including a national daycare program, increased spending on care for seniors, and more public transit. It proposes to pay for these programs by revoking a large tax cut given to corporations earlier this year and by the savings that will come from ending Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan.
The rise in support for the NDP is a positive development for the labour and social justice movements. Its program is broadly progressive, and its opposition to the war in Afghanistan opens doors to deepen antiwar discussion and mobilisation in the labour movement. The election of more NDP members would encourage a spirit of fightback and be a step towards breaking up the Conservative/Liberal duopoly in Ottawa.
That’s why the labour movement should reject the strategic voting option put forward by the CAW and others. The proponents of strategic voting exaggerate the differences between Liberals and Tories, and prevent the working class from using the election to advance its agenda and to strengthen its forces for the post-election period.
At the same time, however, an anti-capitalist program is needed to counter the NDP’s pro-capitalist outlook. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost in Canada in the past several years. The numbers will now grow sharply as a result of the financial crisis.
The NDP’s program voices concern about this, but its central proposal is a $2 billion subsidy to large corporations in the name of preserving jobs, including for projects dubbed “green..
The party avoids policies that would offend Canada’s business elite. A call to nationalise the oil industry and use its profits for social and economic improvements, as Venezuela is doing, could win broad support. Similarly, it could demand the nationalisation of companies that threaten to close operations when profit rates decline.
While the NDP’s program calls for an end to Canada’s “combat mission” in Afghanistan, it does not recognise the right of the Afghan people to live free of foreign intervention. It supports a continued foreign military presence there.
Electing the maximum number of NDP members is an important step for the labour movement, but it’s only a beginning. Gains can only be won by stepping up mass pressure and mobilisations.
The NDP has governed in four of Canada’s 10 provinces and its record in office has always disappointed its supporters. Its leaders preach reliance on parliamentary procedure to make social and political gains, as opposed to mass mobilisation and creation of new institutions of popular power. In power, the NDP has proven to be a loyal defender of capitalist interests.
At the May 2008 convention of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), an “Action Plan” was submitted by the Executive Council and approved by delegates. It posits the building of “a broad, diverse and inclusive movement for social change”, including support for the NDP and “the political choice of unions in Quebec”. It concludes, “let us commit ourselves to continue to work in solidarity to achieve our goals and build a society that meets the needs of working people and their families”.
In the current campaign, the CLC has issued an election flyer that contains many positive proposals, but omits many of the “Action Plan” proposals and repeats flawed notions from the NDP program. It doesn’t mention the war in Afghanistan, even though the CLC convention voted overwhelmingly to call for withdrawal of Canadian troops. It does not deal with the environmental crisis or the destructive tar sands projects. Its proposals for the economy mirror those of the NDP, calling for tax breaks and subsidies to large corporations.
Needed: a new movement
What’s needed in Canada today is an anti-capitalist and socialist movement. Working people in Canada need a vision for a socialist future that will confront the horrors that the capitalist system is unleashing. We need a movement that champions such a vision, that builds mobilisations in the streets and workplaces to achieve it, and that contests for its program in the electoral arena. A socialist movement that adopted a cooperative but critical attitude toward the NDP — supporting its progressive demands while advancing a program and perspective that can help build the struggles of unions and social movements for fundamental change — would strengthen, not divide and weaken, a resurgent working class.
Such a movement is needed in Canada to help mobilise for serious action on climate change, to end Canada’s participation in the Afghanistan war, and to oppose factory shutdowns and attacks on democratic rights and the social wage.
The labour and social movements should also focus on the parts of the world where working people are building new societies. There is much to learn there, especially in Latin America where an alliance of governments, including Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, is making important advances towards societies of justice and equality.
[Roger Annis is a trade union activist in Vancouver, BC and was a delegate to the May 2008 Canadian Labour Congress convention. This article first appeared in Socialist Voice.]
Quebec left debates election tactics
By Richard Fidler
September 28, 2008 -- An interesting debate over federal election tactics has developed among socialists in Québec Solidaire (QS), the new left pro-sovereignty party that confines its activity to contesting Quebec, but not federal, elections. For the first time since the 1980s, the federal New Democratic Party (NDP) is being considered as a valid electoral option by some, while others advocate voting for the Bloc Québécois as the best means of forestalling the re-election of the Conservative Harper government. The debate also reflects an interest among some supporters of Quebec independence in the possibility of forging new ties with progressive-minded people in English Canada.
When the October 14 election was called, QS leaders Françoise David and Amir Khadir held a news conference in which they said the challenge was to defeat the Harper government – its re-election would be a “disaster”, David said – but without indicating how opposition to Conservatives should be expressed in the election. The QS leaders focused their criticism of the Tory government on its cuts to spending on cultural activities and its moves to restrict women's right to abortion. There was no mention of Canada's war on Afghanistan, the environment or the threat to working people from the US financial meltdown.
This position apparently did not sit well with many QS members. In a subsequent article, published in a number of newspapers, Khadir and David fleshed out their position, comparing Harper with George Bush, and citing among other things his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, his refusal to endorse the UN statement on aboriginal rights and his “dragging Canadians into an interminable war in Afghanistan”. They urged progressive Quebecers to vote “for an ecologist Quebec, a Quebec of justice and equality, a Quebec in which the arts flourish and a Quebec that is open to difference”. Again, however, they did not indicate what form such a vote should take. The article did not mention the NDP.
Québec Solidaire does not publish a newspaper, its website is confined to official statements, and there is no viable internal discussion bulletin either in print or on line. However, much of the subsequent debate has been published in the on-line journal Presse-toi-à-gauche (PTàG), which generally reflects views within Québec Solidaire.
A `strategic vote'?
In its September 16 edition, Caroline Béliveau, in an article headlined “Vote against or vote for?” wrote: “It is strange that Québec solidaire advocates such an approach, as it simply contributes to slowing down the rise of emerging and progressive parties like the NDP and QS.”
The strategy of voting against, she said, amounts to “shooting ourselves in the foot. This is what has led the Bloc Québécois to parliament, and has now led us into an impasse.” She said she would be voting for the NDP candidate in her riding [electoral district].
In the same issue, Bernard Rioux, a leader of Gauche Socialiste, one of the recognised “collectives” or organised tendencies in QS, argued that voting for the Bloc Québécois could result in the election of the Liberals, like the Tories a party of big business. Liberal governments, he said, had been the first to turn to neoliberal attacks on the welfare state, had imposed the Clarity Bill in violation of Quebec's right to national self-determination, had plunged Canada into the “criminal adventure” of the war in Afghanistan and initiated the massive increases in military spending. Furthermore, even holding the Tories to minority government status would be no victory. Liberals and Tories have voted together in parliament on all important issues.
To vote for the Bloc Québécois, said Rioux, was to vote “for a nationalist and neoliberal alliance (PQ-Bloc) that has dominated the sovereigntist movement and led it into a complete dead end”. A vote for the NDP, he said, would “underscore the need for unity of the social movements in opposition to conservative policies ... The NDP's discourse in this election is a sustained support for social mobilization against the policies identified with the Harper regime expressed in the call for withdrawal of the troops from Afghanistan, the denunciation of fiscal injustice, the desire to advance a policy of full employment, etc. The NDP defines itself as an ally of the movements on all these questions. That is why it must be supported.”
However, this support could not be unconditional, Rioux explained. The NDP's “timid asymmetrical federalism, limited to a case by case policy, its lack of understanding of the aspirations expressed in the independentist struggle, demonstrate that the political left will have to replace this party on the federal scene in Quebec if a real political alliance against the federal state is to become possible.”
Also in that issue of PTàG, Pascale Rioux-Oliver attacked the QS leaders' support of “strategic voting”. It presents the Bloc Québécois and the Liberals as “defenders of the people, as the only serious alternative for persons on the left who seek... greater social justice”, she wrote. “This habit of voting to block the most right-wing party benefits only the ever-lasting official opposition parties which, once they find themselves in power, govern the country with the same neoliberal policies.”
The Bloc Québécois and the Liberals, in the last parliament, had never combined, as they could have, to counter the Harper government's destructive policies, she noted. Where was this “opposition” when more and more soldiers were sent to Afghanistan; when military spending was multiplied; when the Tories blocked the anti-scab law, opened the way to further oil sands development, defied the Kyoto protocol on climate change?
A system of proportional representation – a long-standing campaign demand of Québec Solidaire – would add “a little democracy” to our society, said Rioux-Oliver. “But perhaps it is time to look a little further than the end of our nose and to begin to think about the repercussions the succession of all these 'strategic votes' will have over several years.” What is needed, she said, is a party that reflects our convictions. That is “our best bet”.
The case for the Bloc Québécois
In the following edition of PTàG, dated September 23, François Cyr made the case for voting for Bloc Québécois, “the party that in most of the 75 [Quebec] ridings, is best placed to do useful work”. Cyr is the former chair of the Union des Forces Progressistes, one of Québec Solidaire's founding components. His argument followed an earlier contribution he had co-authored with Pierre Beaudet of Alternatives, a federal-government funded NGO, that also defended the Bloc Québécois. Cyr wrote:
“I cannot vote for the NDP, even if the correctness of its position on the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan stands in courageous contrast with the Bloc's procrastination on the issue. While its trade-union roots wither and it stands squarely in the centre of the left, the NDP appears as the most nationalist of the Canadian parties, as testified by the fact that its leader was unable, despite his promises, to block the support by his parliamentary wing to the Clarity Bill.”
Moreover, the Quebec spokesperson for the NDP, Thomas Mulcair (the party's only MP from Quebec), had quite recently served in the Quebec Liberal government, after a career as a lawyer where he had helped fight Law 101, Quebec's popular language legislation, on behalf of the Anglophone lobby Alliance Quebec. “Some of our political friends, independentists in fact, will vote NDP forgetting that in its essence Canadian nationalism, the party's ideological substratum, has been forged in part in opposition to Quebec's historic demands.”
Cyr drew attention to the divisions of party allegiances within Quebec's social movements, comparing unfavourably some of the NDP's candidates – such as Mulcair and former Liberal MP Françoise Boivin, “the NDP's new rising star, recently converted to Canadian social liberalism” – with some Bloc Québécois candidates “from the social movements”, such as Luc Desnoyers of the Canadian Autoworkers or Viviane Barbeau of the Federation of Quebec Women. While some “exceptional” NDP candidates were worthy of support (“where the Bloc has no chance”), “Mr. Mulcair's team clearly controls this campaign”.
While Cyr predicated his support of Bloc Québécois primarily on its support of Quebec sovereignty, he also saw merit in some other aspects of its program. “The Bloc over the years has departed from its partly conservative roots, those of Lucien Bouchard, and taken fairly progressive positions, except on the intervention in Afghanistan.” Bloc Québécois' positions on such issues as employment insurance, anti-scab legislation, French-language rights of federal employees, etc. showed that Bloc Québécois, a coalition party, was “now strongly influenced by its progressive wing”. And it was the “only force capable of slowing down this rise of the right, both neoliberal and neoconservative”.
Is Quebec sovereignty the only difference?
In an article also published in the September 23 edition of PTàG, André Parizeau of the Parti Communiste du Québec (PCQ) expressed much the same position as Cyr. The pro-sovereignty PCQ, which parted company with the Communist Party of Canada two years ago, is also a recognised collective in Québec Solidaire. Parizeau expressed the unanimous position taken by its central committee, also published in PTàG: vote for Bloc Québécois except in a few ridings such as Mulcair's Outremont, where the NDP could be supported.
Both Bloc Québécois and the NDP are social democratic, Parizeau wrote. “The only real difference of importance lies in the fact that there is one (the NDP) that consistently says it is against Quebec independence, while the other says it is for, although it tends to tail behind the PQ (which is another problem). When all is said and done, I fail to see how sovereigntists could continue to claim that the NDP would be somewhat better.” And Bloc Québécois has more support within the unions and “popular groups” than the NDP, he added.
In fact, the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ) leadership has come out squarely behind Bloc Québécois, while the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) urges an anti-Tory “strategic vote” for the Bloc, the NDP... or the Liberal candidate, whichever is best positioned to beat the Conservatives. The other major union federation, the CSQ, has not expressed a position on the federal election.
In a remarkable article also published in the September 23 PTàG, André Frappier put the fight against the political right in a broader context than other contributors to the debate. Frappier, a leader of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers in Montréal and a prominent member of Québec Solidaire, was an NDP candidate in the 2004 federal election.
Frappier urged his readers to join in building an anti-Harper demonstration being organised for October 5 in Montréal by a broad coalition of unions and women's and other grassroots organisations. “This gathering should become a high point in the election campaign, to advance our demands and publicly proclaim our rejection of conservatism and neoliberalism. The political battle must also be conducted in the streets.” He continued:
“But in the longer run we cannot disparage the need for a progressive political alternative at the pan-Canadian level. Otherwise, we are condemned to leave the political horizon either to the Conservatives or to the Liberals, we are condemned in each election to fight the party in power without having any real perspectives. This is a luxury we can no longer afford, particularly in the context of globalization and the predominance if not interference, both political and military, of the American government.”
Can the Quebec left reach others through the NDP?
We have built Québec Solidaire, Frappier noted, despite the ever-present pressure of the strategic vote. The anti-worker record of the PQ governments showed us how urgent it was to build a left-wing political alternative. However, he conceded, the special problem on the federal level is that the national question is also posed.
Bloc Québécois' response to this question is the opposite of what it should be. “Instead of weaving links with progressives in English Canada, the Bloc... adopts positions much more closely aligned with US policy.” Bloc Québécois claims to defend Quebec values. “Is sending Canadian troops to Afghanistan part of those values?” He quoted Bloc Québécois' program: “Canada will always have a role to play both in Afghanistan and within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) [NATO's Afghan command] to which it belongs. It must be available to accept another, less offensive, type of mission.” Furthermore, Bloc Québécois supports NAFTA, Frappier noted.
The NDP, on the other hand, had some good positions on social and economic as well as international questions. It was the only party to oppose the Security and Prosperity Partnership; it had opposed NAFTA and the war in Afghanistan.
What about the NDP's position on the Quebec national question, then? Frappier drew attention to an article by English-Canadian feminist and socialist Judy Rebick after the previous federal election, when she wrote:
“In my view the election was a disaster for progressive ideas and movements in Canada. While the Conservatives are carefully constructing a majority for the next time, the left is deeply divided and demobilized....
“When Jack Layton announced out of the blue at the beginning of the campaign that he actually supported the Clarity Act, any chance of unity with the left in Quebec flew out the window....
“The pressure of electoral politics in the age of neoliberalism and a relentlessly right-wing media is enormous. It is difficult for a social democratic or even a socialist party to stand up to these pressures. The only way that can happen is for social movements to pressure the party from the other side.”
Frappier said he had run for the NDP in 2004 under the influence of NDP leader Jack Layton's professed readiness to oppose the Clarity Act, and that with party approval he had identified openly as a sovereigntist. Today, under electoralist pressure, the pendulum had swung the other way.
“However, the NDP currently represents the only vehicle on which we can push in order to indicate to progressives in English Canada the importance of recognition of Quebec's self-determination. That choice will be made in Quebec and we will not accept interference from Ottawa. But it will be important, when the time comes, to have supporters who will fight for respect of our position. It is a shocking idea, even for many progressives in English Canada, but it is also a shocking idea in Quebec to undertake the construction of a federal party.
“But this dynamic, allied with mobilization in the streets, can alone enable us to go further, to weave a political solidarity between trade unionists, women's groups, and community groups in English Canada and Quebec, in order to emerge from this impasse.”
An important debate
This is an important debate among progressive pro-sovereignty Québécois. None of the participants questions participating in the federal election; no one calls for abstention, as most sovereigntists did until two decades ago. All are looking for a political alternative to neoliberalism and capitalism, although they differ on whether or how that alternative can be expressed at this time. They see the importance of waging the fight against the federal regime on federal terrain. The NDP is increasingly a factor in the debate, although even those tempted to vote for it are highly critical of its positions on the Quebec issue. (They also tend to exaggerate the progressiveness of some key NDP positions.) The labour movement, as always in recent decades, is divided on electoral tactics as on political strategy in general.
This debate among Québec Solidaire members and supporters is much needed. After a promising beginning, as a fusion of various political and social forces on the broad left, the party has stalled, in part because its sole focus on Quebec electoral politics has contributed to a certain parochialism and electoralism that inhibits its ability to develop a coherent program on international and class questions and a mass action strategy to implement it.
The crisis of perspectives of the sovereignty movement, and the threat to Quebec working people from the neoliberal offensive orchestrated by the federal government, are encouraging some rethinking among Quebec socialists on the question of alliances between the left in Quebec and the rest of Canada.
Socialists in the rest of Canada need to take note, and respond positively to this opening. If nothing else, the NDP's inability to develop as a credible contender for federal office – in large part because of its historic opposition to Quebec's self-determination – is striking proof that the left in both nations suffers greatly from their lack of mutual solidarity and a common, coordinated political strategy by which to express it.
[Richard Fidler is a member of the Socialist Project in Ottawa and a contributing editor of Socialist Voice. This article first appeared on Fidler's blog, Life on the Left. Sources: Presse-toi-à-gauche: http://www.pressegauche.org/; Québec Solidaire: http://quebecsolidaire.net/.]
Harper's bunker: The state, neoliberalism and the election
By Bryan Evans and Greg Albo
September 25, 2008 -- The manner of governing of Stephen Harper's Conservative government might be characterised as a paradox with a purpose. A sharp centralisation of authority over decision making and political management in the executive branches of the state – particularly to augment policing, warmaking and market-enhancing administrative capacities – is accompanied by an equally focused policy agenda that seeks to hollow out the redistributive role of the Canadian federal state. This simultaneous centralisation and decentralisation is a key feature of the process of state restructuring under neoliberalism.
It is not a matter of bypassing or weakening the state in favour of markets in general, but a change in the form of the state: the executive of the state is strengthened relative to parliaments and participative bodies; state economic apparatuses facilitating the internationalisation of capital and market processes to bolster capital accumulation are given policy precedence over redistributional and regulatory departments of the state; decentralisation is pursued as an administrative and constitutional agenda to weaken further redistributional and regulatory policies while centralised policies for the protection of free trade, commerce and private property are adopted; and the internal processes of all levels of the state are increasingly commercialised, privatised, insulated from democratic accountability and subordinated to capitalist imperatives and agencies.
The phenomenon of ``centralised decentralisation'' was first observed with respect to the British experience with Thatcherism. It was observed that the power of the state was in fact becoming increasingly concentrated – ``free market, strong state for these iron times'' – in particular state apparatuses closely controlled by the executive branch. This centralisation of power was necessary, politically speaking, as a means to drive through an agenda to restructure the economy, defeat the trade unions, erode the welfare state and strengthen control and political usage of the coercive apparatuses of the state. The Thatcher-era Conservatives understood that state power was a necessary element to restructure the state and economy alike, as well as its relations with different aspects of civil society.
The parallel process in Canada had its origins with Brian Mulroney's Conservative government of the 1980s (although the Liberal governments of Pierre Trudeau first brought neoliberalism to Canada, and he began administrative restructuring in the last years of his regime). It gained a great deal of momentum under the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, and the massive restructuring budgets of Paul Martin of the mid-1990s.
What Canadians have witnessed in the two odd years of the Harper regime in Ottawa is a variation on these themes. There is a further centralising of power at the centre of state, and in key state economic apparatuses, as neoliberalism ``hardens'' in response to the current economic crisis and the military impasse of the wars in the Middle East. As well, a new agenda for decentralisation of social and redistributional policies of the federal government appears to be forming. It is in this light that some of the recent developments of the Conservative minority government need to be read as they prepared themselves for the federal election of October 14, and their hoped for subsequent agenda in a new parliament.
Centralising power at the summit of the Canadian state
Even by the standards of other liberal democracies, the Canadian state, burdened by the vestiges of British colonialism, is among the least democratic. The immense powers previously held by the colonial-era governor-generals have, over time, been transferred to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). This includes the power over appointments to the cabinet and to important non-elected positions within the state apparatus, most important through the extension of administrative and political controls over the Privy Council Office (PCO – the overseer of the bureaucracy). The result is that the prime minister and those individuals who inhabit the PMO wield immense power – Canada's elected dictatorship – over the workings of the Canadian state.
This political-institutional legacy substantially enables the centralisation of power within the Harper government, as it did for prior Mulroney and Chrétien regimes. This process has had several dimensions including the building up of separate administrative and policy capacities, the formation of a few key (and most often secretive) operational committees, placement of key political personnel in the PMO and PCO, and a narrowing of persons and institutions which can influence policy direction.
In terms of the elected and appointed officials constituting the executive offices of the Canadian state in the current regime, what is most evident is the number of former ``Common Sense Revolutionaries'', from the hyper-neoliberal Ontario government of Mike Harris of the 1990s, now at the centre of the Harper government.
Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty served in prominent positions in both the Harris and the successor Ernie Eves' governments, including as minister of labour, corrections, attorney general, finance and deputy premier. He was clearly identified with the hard right within the Common Sense Revolution and aggressively attacked Eves in the leadership battle to succeed Harris as party leader and premier as too moderate.
John Baird, the current minister of environment, was the social services and energy minister through the Common Sense Revolution years. There he took a hard line on young offenders and took every opportunity to boast that the rapidly dropping number of social assistance recipients was evidence of the success of the Harris government's social and economic policy. When asked where these tens of thousands of former welfare recipients were ending up he admitted not having a clue.
Tony Clement, who is responsible for the health portfolio, is another Common Sense Revolution veteran who at various times held the transportation, environment, housing and health portfolios. Peter Van Loan, the Conservative house leader, was president of the Ontario Conservative Party under Harris.
And, behind the scenes, Harper recently appointed as his chief of staff in the PMO, Mike Harris' former chief policy advisor and also chief of staff, Guy Giorno. This is in addition to a bevy of lesser known young Common Sense Revolutionaries who found their way into the Harper government as policy and communications specialists in various minister's offices.
Taken together, these individual conservative partisans and several of their former colleagues were all central players in Ontario's Common Sense Revolution. They left Ontario a stunningly different place than when they entered government in massively restructuring government and bolstering corporate power. A similar project is under construction in Ottawa to pursue more radical neoliberal policies, slowed mainly by the realities of minority government. Still, the Harper government is two and a half years old and there are clear signs which look eerily like Ontario in the 1990s. And like Harris in Ontario, the Harper agenda is to embed neoliberalism and social conservatism as the fused governing philosophy in Canada whatever party is in power (something that the Harris project was quite successful in Ontario, including having it embedded in Toronto municipal government although nominally run by a social-democratic council bloc).
There are, of course, ``insiders'' of note who have no link to Ontario's Common Sense Revolution, such as Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson and Defence Minister Peter Mackay. By virtue of their current portfolios they are responsible for policy fields of considerable importance to the Harper government as it aligns Canada to an unprecedented extent to the ambitions of US imperialism. Emerson in particular is interesting in terms of his background as deputy minister of finance in the British Columbia government of Bill Vander Zalm but also as a director, prior to election to parliament in 2003, of Macdonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA). MDA specialises in data and information processing as well as various satellite technologies which have applications to missile and other weapons systems. Moreover, MDA's US parent company, Orbital Sciences, is a major missile defence contractor.
As industry minister in the Liberal Paul Martin government (Emerson crossed the floor to join the Conservatives shortly after the Conservative win in 2006), Emerson lobbied for a Canadian aerospace industry strategy where he openly recognised the “potential industrial cooperation opportunities for Canada associated with Ballistic Missile Defence” (The Hill Times, November 22-28, 2004). Fast forward to the Conservative budget of 2008 and a line of continuity is apparent. A ``Canada First Defence Strategy'' was proposed entailing a $12 billion increase in defence spending over the next 20 years and using public money to forge a “new relationship with industry”, as the budget speech referred to it.
Neoliberals and the personnel of the federal state
The changing nature of the Canadian state cannot be ignored in all of this. The long-standing doctrine in public administration that the state is neutral serves to mask a rather different reality. Forty years ago British political scientist Ralph Miliband launched a debate regarding the nature of the state wherein he argued the state is an instrument of the ruling classes. That is to say, the liberal democratic state is a capitalist state in that it is dominated by the ruling classes via the elites who control the state, and the way that departments of government are subordinated to business interests. The relations between the state and corporate interests, however, do not always take the same institutional and political forms. Today, the state and its institutions are taking new organisational and corporate forms that are organically linked to the neoliberal project. This can also be seen in the circulation of state elites under Harper.
A case in point is what is happening to the very uppermost echelons of the federal state elite. In March 2006, exactly one month after being sworn in as prime minister, Harper appointed Kevin Lynch to the top position in the Canadian public service. An economist by education, he had a long career in the ministries of finance and industry as well as the Bank of Canada. Within six months Lynch had removed a number of senior bureaucrats. It is purely speculative to attribute motive to the removals and ensuing promotions but alignment with the agenda of the government is always at least a part of such moves.
Lynch's predecessor as head of the public service, Alex Himelfarb, while no leftist, was a traditional public servant who saw the role of senior public servants as one of offering policy advice, even unwelcome policy advice, to the cabinet and prime minister. Himelfarb's background as a former professor of sociology and then as a public servant associated with social policy initiatives, was probably simply not a good fit in assisting the Harper government pursue its neoliberal economic agenda. Moreover, a pluralist approach to policy advice was not welcome in the Harper state.
As with the Common Sense Revolution in Ontario, the latitude for policy development narrowed substantially. The role of the broad public service – apart from the core at the executive summits in the economic or security apparatuses – has been recast as one of simply implementing the priorities of the government without regard to alternatives or warnings respecting potential downsides. It is this type of neoliberal bureaucratic restructuring that partly accounts for, on the one hand, the scandal of the meat inspection processes in Canada as it moved toward industry self-regulation, and, on the other, the autonomy and the lack of democratic accountability of any of the measures of the Bank of Canada, under the leadership of Governor Mark Carney (with his work lineages to Goldman Sachs and its derivatives trading arm), during the current global credit meltdown.
According to a well-placed Ottawa consultant, the centralisation of the policy-making function in the PMO has led to the loss of several senior policy managers, especially at the assistant and deputy minister level. With less interesting and more distasteful work to do – such as the massive gutting of funding of cultural programs in the quiet of August, many public officials, at both senior and intermediate levels, have departed. This is a crucial way that neoliberalism has consolidated across the senior levels of the Canadian state. Neoliberals have consistently been moved into key bureaucratic posts, in a sense forming themselves as ``organic intellectuals'' of the neoliberalisation of the state. The Harper government is continuing this process in a more thorough-going reorganisation of state personnel.
Centralisation of power for decentralisation of social and economic security
It is important to see the recruitment of the many political and administrative leaders of the Common Sense Revolution, and the extensive dismissal, circulation and conscription of new state personnel, to the Canadian state with a sharpening of neoliberalism in Canada. This is a strengthening the central executive and organs of the Canadian state. They are putting in place the political and administrative capacities to pursue a further fundamental decentralisation of the redistributional capacities of the state. This is consistent with neoliberalism, the legacy of the Reform and Alliance Parties that Harper has sustained, the Conservative strategy for gaining political space in Québec and the agenda the Harrisites have brought to Ottawa.
The fundamental premise of the postwar ``social contract'' in Canada, as elsewhere among the northern capitalist states, was establishing some minimal floor of social and economic security. The period of post-war and depression reconstruction was best captured by the 1943 Report on Social Security which would inform the next 30 years of largely federally driven welfare state building in Canada. This redistributional bargain was built into the institutions of federalism in Canada, particularly through federal transfers but also by federal government administrative and policy oversight.
Today, in contrast, the Harper government is proposing to build on the defunding and deconstruction which took place under the Mulroney and Chrétien governments. Together these governments brought Canadians a deepening insecurity through the effective constitutionalisation of free trade and an unprecedented retreat of the federal state from the funding of social programs. Recent suggestions that the provinces may be provided more economic autonomy is a program to further constrain what is left of the Canadian social security state. As it is the social program fabric of Canada, given that the provinces are responsible for program delivery, is increasingly a hodge podge of unequal access, quality and coverage. Greater decentralisation without fiscal capacity, that is the ability to fund programs, will assuredly translate into greater inequality. No doubt, as has been the case elsewhere, devolution to subnational levels of government, whether local or provincial, sets the stage for a race to the bottom as these jurisdictions compete with each other to win investment and curry favour with capital by cutting taxes and rolling back social security.
The centralising agenda of Harper's Conservative government, particularly as it relates to political and state personnel, has its counterpart in this decentralising agenda with respect to social and redistributional policies. It is one of the key areas that Canadian neoliberals are keen to act further upon. This is framed in terms of the Conservative's ``strict constitutionalism'' in assessing the federal division of powers in Canada: the federal government should not be involved in policy areas, such as health, education, welfare, culture, that are allocated as provincial powers in the Canadian constitution. This is the neoliberal competition state further displacing the welfare state. It is also Harper's vision for Canada, and forms the basis for the Conservative election platform.
2008 federal election
While neoliberalism in Canada, as throughout the world, is increasingly discredited, and has less and less popular appeal, it continues on inside state institutions and power structures. Economic crises and military debacles have not yet broken it. The opposition parties all reject, to varying degrees, some of the worst aspects of the Conservative government. On this basis alone, it will be worthwhile campaigning to defeat the Conservative as one of the most egregious governments Canada has had in 80 years in terms of domestic policy, and the most supine ever in having Canada fulfill its role as faithful ally of US imperialism. Yet, it cannot be ignored that the political scene in Canada is all but absent of political alternatives to neoliberalism: all of the parties have accepted the ``new realities'' of Ottawa, and none is attempting to build an anti-neoliberal politics.
It is pure fantasy to suggest, as many have been doing, that a Liberal-NDP alliance (with the Greens possibly thrown into the mix) and tactical voting would serve as a means to ``reclaim'' Canada against the ``neoconservatives'' of Harper. The Liberals implemented the main features of neoliberalism in Canada. And social democracy around the world has accommodated neoliberalism, as has the NDP everywhere it has held power in Canada since the 1990s. Indeed, social democracy has realigned itself in terms of its organisational basis, its policies and the political alliances it forms. As a political instrument, social-democratic parties such as the NDP play as much a role in disorganising the working class as they once did in organising it (in Canada on the basis of a quite particular and paternalistic labourist ideology).
This is a feature of the broad collapse of the left since 1989. In Canada, it has led to political dissent taking a variety of forms: political apathy, minoritarian radical campaigns, social coalitions, efforts to forge electoral pacts and starry-eyed efforts at reforming the NDP. This has meant that elections have come to focus – as with the current election – on the merits of voting for the NDP as the best alternative in existing circumstances. This has held the majority opinion as the NDP remains, if ever more loosely, the only ``labour'' party in North America and it remains the closest of all the parties to a variety of community struggles and progressive opinion on the issues of the day. These contentions still have merit.
A smaller number have been few calling for a wider electoral front to defeat the hard right of the Harper coalition, through strategic voting where the Liberal candidate has had the best chance to defeat the Conservative. This position has proven difficult to pursue in practice given non-cooperation from the parties and being simply a call for particular voting through the media (where a wider campaign is going on to simply have the NDP and the Liberals merge, given the view that the NDP's policy stance is largely one of degree and not of kind from the Liberal Party). The strategy, moreover, has left the wider electorate (particularly ordinary workers) more confused when the same general policies continue on with the Liberals in power. The leading organisation campaigning for this strategy has been the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), and it has, no doubt, contributing to the current strategic disorientation of the CAW on both collective bargaining and political issues as its elected leadership cosied up to the Liberal Party.
The contention that the left should take on the responsibility for the formation an electoral pact between the Liberals and the NDP, rather than campaigning for the issues and campaigns it believes in, has proven electorally fruitless and political debilitating in the past. There is no plausible reason to expect any different outcome in this election.
The features of neoliberalism that now structure the Canadian state (and that Harper's electoral agenda seeks to deepen) do not lend themselves to easy reversal through elections or through these political forms. Discussion about electoral strategy in the context of existing political forces becomes ever more formalistic. This limiting of democratic politics, and the political disorganisation of working class and social movements, have been central objectives of neoliberals. That is a crucial and most painful lesson of the last two decades.
Social transformation in the 21 century is not going to occur through a singular political rupture, or a set of reforms built into an electoral alliance, or a series of spontaneous scattered revolts. This is also the case for breaking the grip of neoliberalism as a set of socio-political relations and state structures (and not just as a set of policy ideas or an ideologically extremist defence of the market). To form an alternative to neoliberalism and the form of state it has constructed, the formation of a new social bloc, campaigning for a systemic anti-neoliberal alternative and able to contest – not even necessarily conquer – political power, is required.
The left in Canada has been much slower than elsewhere to come to terms with this new political reality. In both more radical small political currents, key unions and social movements, there are just calls for more of the same, only better or more determined than the past. This is intellectual nonsense and increasingly politically debilitating. The current federal election provides an opportunity to defeat Harper. It also allows the left to campaign on a series of key political demands – such as getting out of Afghanistan, a public infrastructure program to reverse carbon emissions, settlements with First Nations, rebuilding public healthcare and education, constraints over financial capital – that can also be a foundation for its own rebuilding and re-emergence as a social force.
[Bryan Evans teaches public administration at Ryerson University, Toronto. Greg Albo teaches political economy at York University, Toronto. This article first appeared in the Socialist Project's Bullet.]