Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Left in the Canadian Elections

[From The Activist.]

Most people in the U.S., including most leftists, know next to nothing about Canadian politics. Because of this, Canada tends to be seen as some sort of social democratic paradise – a land of universal healthcare, multiculturalism, and benign stoners – instead of the complex and changing society it is in reality. In an effort to partially redress this unfortunate situation, The Activist caught up with Herman Rosenfeld, a member of the Socialist Project group and the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly, in a wide ranging interview about Canada’s recent elections and the prospects for the Left north of the border.

The Activist: Most people in the U.S., including most leftists, know next to nothing about Canadian politics. As briefly as possible, tell us about the broad contours of the Canadian electoral system and the constituencies of the main parties.

Herman Rosenfeld: Canada has a parliamentary system, different from the US system of separation of powers. Power is vested in the parliament, which has two houses: an elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate, which has fewer powers. Political parties field candidates across the electoral districts (called ridings), across the country. The voting is according to a similar “first past the post” system, as in the US and the UK, where the candidate with the most votes (a plurality) claims the seat. The party with the most seats out of the 308 total, gets to form a government. Each party has a leader, and the leader of the party with the most seats becomes the Prime Minister, appoints a cabinet and governs.

The PM has powers that combine those of a US president and a leader of the entire legislature. This system, based on the British Parliamentary tradition, requires parties to follow a rigid discipline and all sitting members of given parties vote similarly on issues. The principle is that each party had a specific platform and program, and their votes in parliament reflect their respective party agendas.

If a given party has an absolute majority of seats, they are said to have a majority government and can basically rule as they please – respecting the constitution and other laws – for 5 years. If they do not have a full majority, they are said to rule as a minority government, and carry out their agenda, always keeping in mind the possibility that they can be the subject of a non-confidence vote by the other parties. If they lose such a vote over a budget issue, the parliament can be dissolved and a general election called.

Technically, the head of state is the Queen of England, and her designate in Canada – the Governor-General (appointed by the PM) – asks the leader to form a government and calls elections. This is just vestigial.

Canada is a federal system, and the 10 provinces have a lot of power over key areas. The electoral system in the provinces mimic the federal practises.

The principal parties in Canada are:

    • The Conservative Party of Canada, whose principle supporters are the main wings of the Canadian capitalist class, those dependent on trade, resources and the principal elements in the financial sector. Their electoral strength has traditionally been in the west and oil-rich Alberta and the rural and suburban areas. In this recent election, they have made significant inroads in areas with large immigrant populations, particularly around social conservative issues. Of the two main traditional bourgeois parties, they are more like the American Republicans and include a significant social conservative element. The CPC is the product of a merger between a right-wing populist breakaway from the old Progressive Conservatives and what was the PCP. The PC’s were positioned to the right of the Liberals. They are currently the majority party in Canada.
    • The Liberal Party of Canada has traditionally been the most successful ruling party in the 20th century in Canada. It vies with the CPC for the support of the capitalist class and tended to have stronger support among what used to be manufacturing interests, based in central Canada. It sponsored much of the welfare state reforms of the post-war period, but also applied many of the key elements of neoliberalism when enjoying majorities in later 20th and early 21st century. When successful, it posited itself as a Third Way party, opposing the harder conservatism of the CPC, and championing the traditions of the welfare state legacy, all the while cutting and privatizing key elements of that tradition. The Liberals like to style themselves as socially progressive, in contrast to the CPC, that has more of a socially conservative base. (But the Liberals also have a socially conservative wing that opposes abortion.) It fancies itself as the party of the centre and in Monday’s election on the federal level – suffered a catastrophic defeat.
    • The New Democratic Party (NDP) is a social democratic party which had never held more than a small minority of seats on the federal level, but has been in power in a number of provinces. It is the successor to the original social democratic party – the CCF – that has roots in the 1930’s. The NDP was formed as an alliance between middle-class social democratic reformers and the labour movement. It and the CCF developed elements of the welfare state – notably single payer Medicare – in provincial governments that they led, and pressured the Liberals to apply them on a federal level. It, like other social democratic parties around the world, adjusted its political approach with the advent of neoliberalism in the 1980’s, and today is more like a party of moderate social reform, just left of the Liberals. It has important tensions as well as relations with the labour movement.
    • Bloc Quebecois, (BQ) is a provincially-based Quebec party, whose platform is mildly social democratic and is basically oriented towards enhancing the prospects of Quebec sovereignty through advocating for Quebec’s interests on the federal level. It suffered a huge defeat in Monday’s election and its very survival is in question.

TA: What does the Conservative victory tell us about the state of Canadian politics? Many progressives here in the U.S. seem to view Canada as some sort of social democratic paradise, but this election seems to be a consolidation of an unmistakable shift in recent years away from the previously hegemonic center-left toward the right.

HR: If you look at Canada as a whole, the population is fairly evenly divided between the broad right and the broad centre-left, although the overall voting this time had about 60% supporting the Liberals, NDP, Greens and Bloc, with about 40% or so voting for the CPC. The Conservatives took advantage of the first past the post electoral system and the competition between the Liberals and NDP.

Aside from this, the fact is that the CPC vote did go up this time and although it went up marginally across the country, they concentrated on key electoral districts and constituencies and crafted a majority out of it. This included appeals to socially conservative themes in some areas, a moderate posture on social issues in others, and always, a defence of low taxes, free trade and the maintenance of a ‘friendly’ business climate.

The key is that none of the other parties be they the middle-of-the-road Liberals, or the NDP, argued against the power of corporations, free trade or the reliance on private markets for job creation. From the hard right to the so-called centre-left, all accept the limits of neoliberalism and the fiscal orthodoxy, with minor (but important) differences. As such, it is disappointing, but not all that surprising, that the Conservatives could win this election. It says nothing about any real shift in the general political opinions of most Canadians, but reflects much of what was really there before.

What appears as a move from the centre-left to the centre-right in public opinion, is really a reflection of peoples’ adjustments to the constraints of neoliberalism and the fact that this era makes even the more socially just and fair social programs dependent on the ability of highly competitive markets to generate profits. Canadians remain, on the whole, supportive of social programs and especially public medicare, but the there is no political force on the left that argues for a challenge to the dominance of neoliberal structures and practises. The Conservatives thus appear to many to be the guardians of economic success and rationality.

TA: What types of policies can we expect from a Conservative majority government with Stephen Harper as PM, who by all accounts seems to be a fairly cretinous fellow, to pursue?

HR: Cretinous yes, but stupid no. The new government will move towards an austerity agenda geared to making working people and the poor pay for the costs of the bank and auto bailouts, as well as the mild stimulus. They will seek to reduce the size of the federal government’s regulatory capacity and the federal civil service; cut transfer payments to the provinces for social spending (or eliminate regulatory conditions that make these programs universal); move towards private sector versions of programs; increase deregulation of trade and communication, corporate tax cuts; gutting of environmental regulation ending efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions; huge supports for oil and gas; increasing military spending ; massive prison spending and a draconian law-and-order agenda.

Unlike in the US, Harper is very careful to legitimate these horrible policies, both with his social conservative base – not large in Canada and regionally concentrated – and with other constituencies.

TA: Many U.S. progressives have been celebrating the second place showing of the New Democratic Party, becoming the Official Opposition party for the first time in history. What shifts within the Canadian electorate enabled them to achieve this success? Is the NDP’s surge sustainable over the long run or not?

HR: Most of the new NDP parliamentarians are from Quebec. While NDP seats went from 34 to 102 overall, in Quebec, they went from 1 to 58. Across Canada, the popular vote did go up from 18% to 30%. Most of the difference (but not all) came from Quebec.

In general, the NDP did extraordinarily well in displacing the Liberals as the opposition. The showing across the country was better than before. But I think our friends in the US should keep in mind the following points:

The huge success in Quebec is very tenuous and could be temporary. Former BQ voters seemed to have deserted their former party en mass, hoping that NDP leader Jack Layton’s “Orange Crush” (orange is the colour of the NDP) will do three things: represent their interests as Quebecois in Ottawa; argue for progressive social and economic policies as the Bloc did; and become a fighter against the Harper government and agenda. They seemed to have rejected the BQ because it was a one trick pony and as such could not represent them properly. As well, they liked Layton and persona he used in the campaign. None of this is the stuff of permanent transformation, as the NDP has little infrastructure in Quebec. We’ll see where this goes.

Without the surge in Quebec, we can’t reasonably describe what happened as a major electoral shift. What we can see is a move of some centrist voters away from the Liberals and closer to the NDP in various places. That would partly account for the Liberals’ woes. The Liberal leader had little credibility and a number of voters see Layton as the only one standing up to Harper. The NDP did make some gains in Toronto. Also, there is a rather firm base of trade union activists, voters and generally a progressive community that regularly votes for the NDP. The socialist left (small that it is), for the most part, votes for the NDP, in the absence of any genuine left party. This is hardly the stuff of a radical shift.

The NDP itself hardly ran a left-oriented campaign. It relied on the personal appeal of Layton. It called for moderate tax increases on corporations and some new and positive social spending. It appealed to “families” and the “middle class”; played down its programmatic opposition to the war in Afghanistan; and certainly seemed to appeal the centre. There is little socialist in who they are.

TA: What can we expect from the NDP in opposition? It is regarded as social democratic or socialist here in the U.S., but the party’s record in provincial government has been rather centrist, even neoliberal at times.

HR: Who knows that the role of the NDP will be in opposition? Unlike the US, the opposition has no power when faced with a majority government. Will the NDP call on the labour movement and other supporters to “tone it down”, in order to be able to supposedly win over queasy Liberals, so it can get elected in 4 years? Or, will it support the kinds of on-the-ground resistance that working people need to organize against Harper and his business friends? Will they simply call for a “return to the good old days”, or will they support more radical demands to create jobs, oppose militarism, rebuild cities, etc.?

Their track record on this isn’t good. When they have been in power in different provincial governments, they acted as “responsible” defenders of the status quo, often pitting themselves against labour and social service recipients, supporting tax cuts, reduction of social services. The former NDP Premier of the Province of Manitoba was named by Harper as the ambassador to the US. And, Layton has already taken pains to tell the business community that an NDP government and opposition would respect their rights and would be “responsible”.

Let’s be honest here: this IS what social democracy is in the 21st century. Like American liberals, British Labourites, and French Socialists or the German SPD they accept the limitations imposed by the need to accommodate the competitive success of private employers, embrace trade and investment liberalization and are unwilling to challenge the social structures informed by neoliberalism. Social democracy offers no alternative in the current era.

TA: Is there any sign yet of how the Liberals will respond to their fall from grace? Michael Ignatieff has stepped down as party leader, but should we also expect any major changes in their political orientation?

It’s hard to know what will happen in the Liberal party. There have been calls by some folks who want to see a realignment of sorts – with a kind of merger or working relationship between the NDP and Liberals – but it is hard to see the Liberal base accepting this. The party has over 100 years of traditions, the strongest of which is political opportunism and survival and as one of the historical options for the capitalist class it isn’t going to go into the night so silently. Much of the business-oriented elements in Canadian society reject the NDP, regardless of its moderation. A significant number of Liberal voters also voted Conservative in this election, in order to prevent the NDP from winning.

The Liberals will most likely try and rebuild, starting with the selection of a new leader. This shape-shifter of a party can end up taking a number of identities, all geared towards attracting a softer neoliberalism than their Conservative adversaries.

TA: Going forward, what are the prospects for the Canadian Left? Does the electoral success of the NDP reflect the emergence of a mass Left constituency or will Canada continue to slide further to the right?

I think you have to make a distinction between the Canadian Left and the NDP. The kind of left that the NDP represents is extremely moderate and isn’t much different than American liberals.

The socialist left is different. It is very much apart from the NDP. It is small, based in different cities across the country and argues for a political project that both rejects neoliberalism and the continued dependence on private accumulation. It calls for a transformation of the existing social system, and argues for structural reforms in the medium term such as nationalizing the financial sector, and shorter term demands such as a surtax on the wealthy to pay for the bailouts of the banks and corporations. It tends to be eco-socialist and calls for an end to the tar sands and the reliance on fossil fuels. It currently has no political parties, but exists as a series of small movements and groups. The crisis, rather than creating what we all hoped would be an opening for the left, has instead created an environment of austerity, with most ordinary people unable to see an alternative.

Hopefully, the emerging resistance to the ongoing calls for austerity from governments of just about all political stripes will build – such as through the labour movement and some of the social movements in urban centres – creating openings for the development of a mass left constituency.

The NDP has links with the labour movement, and it is difficult to see whether those links will help or hinder moves towards greater resistance to austerity, or the development of a greater constituency for left politics and ideas. As I said in an earlier answer, they could very well having a dampening effect on resistance movements, looking for some kind respectability which they might see as helping them get elected in the future. Whatever move they make here, one can hardly see them as anything more than a moderate reforming left.

There is also another tendency within the NDP that sees the party becoming the only political alternative to the Conservatives – a kind of centre-left replacement for the Liberals. Clearly, those folks are not likely to see themselves fostering a mass left constituency of any kind.

It is interesting that even in Canada a lot of progressive people are excited about the vote spike of the NDP and their new role as the official opposition. Some of the leading elements in the Canadian labour movement see this as pointing towards an electoral victory at the end of the Tory mandate.

More likely, it might open up some new avenues to challenge the austerity agenda coming down the road. On the other hand, it can never serve as a base for a move to a socialist orientation.

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