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July 5, 2016

The Great Leap Sideways

Socialist Solidarity Editorial

Leap Year

In the aftermath of the 2016 national election, the New Democratic Party orange wave has retreated. Paradoxically, from becoming the Official Opposition for the first time in the country’s history, the NDP has reverted to third party status where the national leader, Thomas Mulcair, has been dumped – as a result of being apparently outflanked from the left by the Liberals, with their promises of deficit spending, under Justin Trudeau.

In an effort to positively respond to this unfolding upset during the election, one part of the NDP under the leadership of Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, presented the Leap Manifesto – a call for a radical green agenda to support fundamental reforms in addressing aboriginal oppression, poverty, and climate change. In the demoralizing aftermath of an election where over half of sitting NDP Members of Parliament were defeated (going from 103 to 44 seats), the NDP convention voted to hold a party dialogue on the Manifesto to rebuild Canadian social democracy.

Leaping to What?

The Leap Manifesto essentially argues for tax reform in order to generate a 33% increase in federal monies to address major environmental and social questions. While a number of tax proposals are meant to reverse the corporate giveaways of the Harper era, such as the reduction in corporate taxes from 21% to 15%, the key tax reform is a carbon tax, that would escalate from British Columbia’s current rate of $30 a tonne to $200 a tonne.

No wonder why Alberta’s Rachael Notley, Canada’s lone NDP premier, has denounced the Manifesto in the context of the collapse of tar sand oil prices (and provincial royalties).

The means to this green energy strategy, the Manifesto argues, is town hall mobilizations (the Council of Canadians for example has been holding a series of meetings) to pressure political parties to embrace tax reforms as a path to parliamentary voting reform, physical and social infrastructure spending such as a 100% renewable energy economy, mass transit, a guaranteed annual income, even experiments in worker cooperatives. Other reforms that could be financed would be a national childcare program and substantial investment in native communities, especially clean energy projects.

Such an eco-friendly expansive agenda would also create a space for new human rights like immigration rights for temporary foreign workers and a turn away from reliance on arms sales to human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia.

Leaping to Whom?

The demand for a 99% oriented tax reform program is to be welcomed as the Leap Manifesto puts a spotlight on the growing inequality in Canadian society that has been deliberately fostered by Harper Conservative governments.

But there is nothing inherently socialist, or even social democratic, in these proposals. If anything, the Leap Manifesto is a call for Liberal populism.

The fact is, it is Ontario and federal Liberals who can claim to have embraced many of these proposals: from Ontario’s state subsidized green energy agenda to a federal plan for a national carbon tax this fall; Trudeau’s embrace of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a commitment to major new developmental partnerships and spending on aboriginal communities; a major deficit budget process to support physical infrastructure, including mass urban transit and social infrastructure in an expanded Canada Pension Plan; and national parliamentary voting reform. And it was the Paul Martin Liberal government who committed itself to a national daycare program.

The class reality of these promises will likely prove to be otherwise.

British Columbia’s carbon tax has been frozen since 2012 with claims of tax neutrality proven to be false. Corporations have received more tax benefits than individuals. The federal Liberals are likely to approve some pipelines that communities do not want, regardless of current low prices. Ontario’s green energy agenda is actually premised on one half of the province’s energy being generated by nuclear power.

The one major early achievement has been reform of the CPP, but the CPP is a self funded poverty reduction program, not an income replacement program. Because private pensions have declined from over half of the workforce to less than one third, the replacement level has been raised from 25% of average wage lifetime income to 33%. This is a far cry from the 50-60% replacement level the Canadian Labour Congress believes is necessary.

And the Liberals have maintained conservative measures like the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, security legislation, and trade agreements like CETA and TPP that bind governments from promoting social justice for the sake of increased business with Europe and the Pacific.

Yet New Democrats resist embracing reform. The BC NDP has a history of being against carbon taxes. Mulcair campaigned on a balanced budget promise – an adaptation to neo-liberal austerity politics. Will the party actually engage the Leap Manifesto? At this point, it has not. Maybe that will change in the lead up to the national leadership convention in 2017, but only if someone like Avi Lewis steps forward like Jim Laxer did in the 1970s with the Waffle Manifesto. Otherwise, deflection not dialogue will be the result.

Moving Sideways or Moving Left?

The Leap Manifesto authors have done a necessary and positive act to open up a dialogue about alternatives to neo-liberal austerity politics.

But this is a modest exercise. The Regina Manifesto of the 1930s boldly declared against capitalism and demanded public ownership and direction of the economy to support the producing majority. The Waffle Manifesto of the 1970s also demanded significant public ownership to combat the volatile market, particularly in the energy economy, to support worker rights, pay, and conditions as a means to address all social questions.

These social democratic programs may have had illusions in parliament and nationalism, but they did question market system fundamentals.

The Leap Manifesto calls for a more regulated market economy that can support significant economic, political and social reform initiatives. That is to the good. But a lobby for regulation in no way challenges capitalist property relations that generate pollution, maintain exploitation of workers, and such forms of oppression as the stinging poverty of aboriginal peoples. That is why Liberal cooptation is a danger.

But the dialogue may provide an opportunity for system change activity and reflection - and that too is welcome.