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April 18, 2011

Election 2011: More of the Same, Turning Point, Transformative Opportunity?

SS Editorial

Party Leaders

We are now at the mid-way point of a national election – the fourth in seven years, the first three of which have produced minority governments, Paul Martin’s Liberals in 2004 and Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2006 and 2008. The election debates, in English on April 19 and in French on April 20, were a tame affair with Stephen Harper droning on about stability, Michael Ignatieff lecturing us about parliamentary democracy, and Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe taking potshots at the corporate agenda of both, but posing little in the way of a serious public alternative.

What has changed in 2011? In a certain sense, not much. Canadian national politics has been fragmented since the 1990s with the rise of the Bloc Quebecois as the dominant party in Quebec and, on the left-liberal margins, the Green Party which consistently polled above 5% in recent elections. The New Democrats, Canada’s labour party, have improved their seat total (rising to 38 in 2008), but not significantly improved their share of the vote (from 15% to 20%).

But something has changed with the dominant employers’ parties. The Progressive Conservatives have been re-made as the Conservative Party, a strong proponent of neo-liberal policies as a result of the Reform/Mike Harris coalition in 2003, and the Liberals, Canada’s governing party, is in relative decline. Michael Ignatieff is the third leader in the last five years of a party that struggles to maintain 30% support in the polls.

The strengths and weaknesses of the dominant employers’ parties indicate we could be at a polarizing turning point if the Conservatives get a majority or if another minority poses the question of a Liberal-Left coalition government as a realistic alternative.

Programmatic Choices?

According to Nanos Research polling the single most important vote driver is party policy (54%); then leadership 23%; local candidates 12%; and traditional affiliation 8%. So, when we examine the political programs of these parties, what do we see – and how can we measure these claims against reality?

In Harperland, the Conservative design is for a low-tax, free trade, and physical-digital infrastructure growth plan, supplemented by tax credits and exemptions for families (of greater use to upper-income than middle or lower income families), and the continuation of state capitalist subsidies for ‘traditional industries’ such as agriculture, fishing, forestry, and mining (or shoring up the rural Canada vote that is overrepresented in the House of Commons).

As Jim Stanford points out in a recent study for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, cutting taxes on businesses does not generate growth and jobs. In looking at the pattern of business investment from 1961 to 2010, Stanford reveals only 1$ was reinvested for every 10$ in tax savings. In fact, in the fine details of the Tory program one can see the government trying a variety of strategies, such as using post-secondary education to subsidize business investment, to overcome a long term tendency to under-investment by the private sector.

Complementing this giveaway of public revenue stands an ideological agenda to get ordinary people to identify with a reactionary nationalism by deepen military capacities, including militarizing the Coast Guard, to more than double the prison population, and a cultural agenda to promote religious freedom, maternal but not reproductive health care for women in developing nations, and erect a memorial to the victims of communism (but not the victims of imperialism such as aboriginal peoples or Afghan civilians).

Not surprisingly, the environment and government integrity come dead last in the Tory program. But then what can one expect from a government that promotes an unregulated Oil Sands industry that has moved Canada’s climate action goals to 2050, and passed an Integrity Act that saw 228 complaints about government malfeasance with only 5 investigations and no prosecutions? Or a government that was defeated for the first time in Canadian national politics for being in contempt of parliament?

Michael Ignatieff replaced Stephane Dion after the disastrous Liberal showing in the 2008 election. The Liberal platform – ‘Your Family’ – focuses on social wages: a new child care program, post-secondary education subsidies, tax credits for elder care, and a private supplement to the Canada Pension Plan. It even talks about restoring pay equity, the Court Challenges Program, and renewing the Canada Health Care Accord. And, in a show that private housing can be socially waged for the haves (just like the Tories), there is an offer to pay for energy retrofitting homes.

In a clear effort to lean left and pick up soft NDP and Green votes (estimated at 50% and 75% preferences that could be changed), the Liberal party strategy is to draw on the need of increasingly indebted wage working Canadians for public supports against Conservative market decisions.

Economically, the Liberal focus is on productivity and how the federal government can create tax and partnership incentives to get private investment up. But, other than offering small businesses social wage premium holidays on CPP and EI, the Liberals are remarkably silent about a broad growth strategy.

Of course, as Jack Layton pointed out in debate, the Ignatieff Liberals have been in a silent coalition with the Conservatives since 2006 to carry a neo-liberal economic agenda. No wonder Ignatieff has the worst voting attendance record of any Parliamentary leader, being absent 59% of the time.

But is the NDP any different? Its social base is waged and unionized workers. In that sense, the NDP is an objective threat to the two employer’s parties. But its program is not an alternative to the market. In fact, the NDP’s ‘Giving Your Family a Break’ is a social wage primer that says virtually nothing about building a public economy.

In social wage terms, an aggressive agenda is mapped out to restore Employment Insurance, double the Canada Pension Plan, renew the Canada Health Accord, begin a national child-care program, and even restart a national social housing strategy. The NDP are also the only major parliamentary party to seriously talk about promoting culture as a public good, with investment and protection for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The NDP also talks about restoring civility to parliamentary politics and to state-society relations – bringing Quebec into the constitution, investing in aboriginal reserves, limiting the executive powers of the Prime Minister. And, with the Green Party, there is a proposal for proportional voting to address the blatantly inequitable representation practices at the federal level, especially between rural and urban Canada.

But economically, the NDP platform is barely differentiated from the Liberals. Tax cuts for small business as job creators (over one half of the 17 million workforce work for small businesses) and pledging to always keep Canada’s corporate tax rate below that of the United States is hardly a program to combat market volatility in the banking, manufacturing or trade sectors. Capping consumer credit interest rates is not a substitute for directly dealing with an 8% unemployment rate (and 14% youth unemployment) and a child poverty rate of 10%.

But then Canada’s social democrats gave up the idea of a socialized economy a long time age in the Winnipeg Declaration of 1956, when nationalization was abandoned for managing capitalism as it is.

Socialists and Elections

In the long run, what matters to Marxist socialists is the balance of class forces, as to whether there is an opportunity to transform an inequitable society – to end the anarchy of the market, the division of politics from economic forces, perpetuated in capitalist democracies as well as dictatorships, and the alienation of a society driven by self-interest over any sense of community. But, in the here and now, Marxists need to be able to relate to mass politics, even of the parliamentary kind, to raise transformative questions.

So, if party platforms and party leadership are the most important vote drivers, what does this mean on May 2 - and to the class struggle in Canadian society over the distribution of economic, political, and social power?

The first point is no more Harper. The Conservative Party agenda is to reduce the public sector for the market. Four billion dollars in cuts has been promised to balance the budget by 2015-16. Only privatization and major social program cuts can generate those kinds of savings as corporate taxes fall from 18 to 15%.

The Conservatives are trying to sell that agenda to working class Canadians by saying there is no alternative to the market or the imperialist nation-state system (with ‘peacemaking’ in Afghanistan), and by waging culture wars that get wage workers to identify with elite definitions of social reality at odds with worker interests. How many ‘ethnic’ Canadians understand that Jason Kenney, the Conservative Immigration minister, has reduced family reunification, while praising conservative immigrant values?

And the trump card for the Tories is to whip up anti-Quebecois racism by raising the specter of a Liberal-NDP coalition with the separatist Bloc Quebecois– when Harper himself signed a coalition government proposal in 2004 with the Bloc.

Nor should working class Canadians choose Ignatieff as the lesser evil. The Liberal Party has had an amazing ability to bridge the contradictions between promoting capitalist development agendas that undermine economic security by offering some social wage improvements. But bridging that gap is becoming harder as the Liberals have faded as a provincial and federal force since the 1980s.

As Paul Martin’s cuts demonstrated in the 1990s, the Liberal Party is fundamentally an employers’ party. Jean Charest’s Quebec Liberals have delivered a series of savage attacks on public goods, services, and workers; and Dalton McGuinty’s austerity moves on the way to an Ontario provincial election, such as zero public sector wage guidelines, express this as well.

Voting for the New Democrats does express a working-class logic, if not substantively advancing the case for socialism. This will be especially true in Quebec if some Quebecois workers move beyond the nationalist cross-class logic of the Bloc Quebecois to elect one or more social democrats in the Montreal region.

Voting for the Greens, who at least have the merit of a clear cut platform and leadership that names many of the contradictions and hypocrisies of Canadian electoral politics is tempting as a protest gesture (though less tempting than in the past if current polls of 3.6% support are accurate). But it is a utopian gesture. The record of the Greens where they are electorally viable, in Australia or Germany, is that of an advanced liberal party, strong on individual rights but often conflicted about social rights.

Class matters and that is why Marxists call for a vote for the New Democrats as the only way in mass political terms to express working class opposition to both employers’ parties. Whether that vote contributes to a Liberal-left coalition government opportunity is to be seen. But such a vote is a tactical matter. Strategically, the task is to build Marxist organization that can raise, and act upon, a transformative socialist agenda.