Is voting out Harper enough?

October 15, 2015

Jeff Bale writes from Toronto on what's at stake in next week's Canadian elections.

CANADIAN FEDERAL elections set for October 19 will decide whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party and its politics of austerity and scapegoating will continue to lead the government.

The main challengers to the Conservatives are Canada's social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), which became the official opposition party after coming in second in parliamentary elections in 2011, and Canada's once-dominant Liberal Party. They hope to benefit from the "Anybody But Harper" sentiment among many Canadians who are fed up with Harper's government. This and social strikes and protests rocking the streets of Québec provide the backdrop to the elections.

October's election was called in early August, making it an 11-week campaign. While this is extremely short by U.S. standards, it will have been the longest federal campaign in Canadian history. And it's only been made only worse by the politics of the parties jockeying to run the Canadian state.

HARPER'S CONSERVATIVE Party has led the government since 2006, and has had an outright majority in parliament since 2008. The Conservatives only won 22 percent of the vote in 2008, but a combination of historically low voter turnout that year and the winner-take-all system in Canada gave them a majority of seats.

Canadians have had enough of Conservative Party Prime Minister Steven Harper
Canadians have had enough of Conservative Party Prime Minister Steven Harper

Harper used this false mandate to push official politics far to the right on every front.

Harper's government has functioned in no small part as an executive committee of the oil and gas industry. Since Harper is from Alberta, home of Canada's tar sands, this should come as no surprise. The neoliberal restructuring of the Canadian economy has expanded rapidly under Harper, placing a greater emphasis on oil and gas, and making the jobs that remain in other sectors even more precarious.

Now that oil prices have collapsed internationally, however, the Conservatives' strategy has come back to haunt them. While the party had ruled in Alberta for over 40 years, for example, it lost in provincial elections earlier this year to the New Democratic Party.

The Conservatives have lowered taxes to justify cuts to social spending and waged a steady attack on unions and their right to strike. They have also put foreign policy back on a Cold War footing by staunchly supporting Israel, sending warplanes to support the U.S. campaign in Iraq and Syria, relying on right-wing sections of Canada's sizeable Ukrainian-heritage population to saber-rattle against Russia, passing Bill C-51 (essentially the USA PATRIOT Act for Canada), and using Canada's "third coast" in the Arctic to project its power internationally.

This power applies just as much internally, too, with respect to First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) peoples, whose territories and rights continue to be threated by a Canadian state pressing for greater "access" to resources.

Perhaps most telling is the Harper government's response to the crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. Since 1980, almost 1,200 FMNI women and girls have been murdered or gone missing. Harper's response has been complete indifference. Dismissing the issue as a "criminal" problem, not one tied to historical and ongoing oppression of FNMI peoples in Canada, Harper has refused to call a national inquiry.

COMPOUNDING THIS atrocious track record is Harper's turn in the second half of the campaign to outright Islamophobia and racism to rally his base.

Harper has justified the pitifully low number of Syrian refugees being admitted to Canada as a "security" issue, implying that Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants might claim refugee status to enter the country. At the height of the crisis, his office screened files to find applicants who belong to Christian minorities in Syria and Iraq for quicker processing.

Harper's photo ops with Christian Syrian refugees have had one sole purpose: to whip up racist fear of Muslims. Lest its message not be clear enough, the government announced last week the creation of a "barbaric practices hotline" for people to call to report on their neighbors.

Most revealing of all, however, has been Harper's targeting of the niqab as a threat to "Canadian values." The issue is tied to Zunera Ishaq's efforts to invoke her right to be sworn in as a Canadian citizen while wearing a niqab. Although government policy established this right some years ago, Harper used the court system to challenge it. The dispute went all the way to the Supreme Court, which reaffirmed one's right to wear whatever religious attire during citizenship ceremonies.

Harper continues to criticize this ruling, and has vowed to extend a ban on the niqab to all women working in or receiving federal services.

As a direct consequence of this racist fear mongering, physical attacks on Muslims--especially Muslim women--have recently spiked.

NINE YEARS of Harper coupled with this outright racism have fueled tremendous sentiment in this election for "Anybody But Harper" to win.

Activists in the U.S. will be familiar with the refrain, "This is the most important election of our lifetime." Such hyperbole about what elections are believed to accomplish, along with deep demoralization about what has felt like an unstoppable Harper government and frustration with the NDP's politics as it shifts ever more to the right, have made for a fairly brutal political situation.

It also raises fundamental questions for socialists about how to relate to elections overall:

-- When we wake up on October 20, will it matter who won? And if so, how and how much?

How different are the parties' platforms, and how much do those differences matter in guiding our response to the campaign?

Should socialists engage in strategic voting--voting for whomever is leading in your district as long as they aren't Conservative? Even if that means for the Liberals, the other historic party of Canadian capital?

Should socialists actively campaign for the NDP, Canada's social democratic party, no matter how much to the right it has shifted, or just "hold our noses" and vote NDP with no illusions, or neither?

There has been much progressive analysis of the elections written so far in this campaign. While these articles tend to focus on one of the above questions over the others as the most important, most--but tellingly, not all--end in the same place: hold your nose and vote NDP.

This article ends there, too. But it seems to me that how we arrive at that conclusion matters as much as the conclusion itself.

For example, basing our analysis of the elections on how people may or may not feel once the results are in seems to me a losing proposition. Emotions are running high in this election, so this approach certainly fits the mood.

But there are no hard-and-fast rules that when Conservatives win, the only political response is further demoralization and disorganization. There is also no guarantee that an NPD win would lift political spirits and make it easier to win reforms from the government, especially given the party's commitment to balanced budgets and given the weak state of social and trade union movements in most of Canada.

Related to this claim about an NDP win raising political spirits is an assumption that activists will learn the right lessons when the party breaks whatever meager promises they made during the campaign.

Similarly, using a comparison of the party's political platforms as the main way to guide our actions can disorient as much as it helps. As Alan Sears has described so clearly, the NDP has become a neoliberal party, despite--or maybe because of--its roots in the political traditions of social democracy.

It's true that NDP leader Thomas Mulcair launched this election campaign by focusing on a national child care scheme, promising to create 1 million new spots for $15 per day. He has supported raising the federal minimum wage and come out steadfastly against Bill C-51 and Harper's racist fear mongering about the niqab.

It is on this basis that the NDP was leading in the polls early in the election and even seemed to stand a chance of winning.

But whatever support Mulcair and the NDP had gained on this basis is undermined by their obsession with balancing budgets, a focus on small business owners, and a refusal to raise taxes on the wealthiest Canadians and corporations in any meaningful way. Moreover, the NDP doubled down on its long-standing support for Israel by policing its candidates in this election, ensuring that none are pro-Palestinian, even removing those who are as candidates.

THE NDP'S lurch to the right has opened up political terrain to the left. This is territory that the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau has moved in to claim. Trudeau has promised three years of deficit spending--$9 billion next year alone--to increase infrastructure spending. And he has made much hay out of a 2.5 percent tax cut for the "middle class"--although there is much less there once you dig into the details.

Both promises, as well as Trudeau's rejection of Harper's racist fear mongering, have proven to be very effective: the Liberals are now leading in the polls.

Taken together, these promises put the Liberals to the left of the NDP on key questions. This means if socialists were to base our engagement in the elections mostly on comparing party platforms, a vote for the Liberals might make sense.

But this approach forgets that the Liberals are the other party of Canadian capital. As Jesse McLaren has noted, since Confederation in 1867, the Liberals and Conservatives have essentially taken turns managing the Canadian state for the benefit of capital, with all the colonialism, imperialism and exploitation that goes along with this.

It was Jean Chrétien, the Liberal prime minister from 1993 to 2003, who made the most significant spending cuts in Canadian history. Chrétien laid the groundwork that made Harper's attacks more viable and more devastating. Also, the incredible social strikes and demonstrations taking place in Québec right now all have one clear target: Philippe Couillard and his Liberal provincial government (more about that below).

But with Trudeau and the Liberals staking out territory to the left of the NDP, calls for strategic voting to kick out the Conservatives have grown even louder. LeadNow is just one expression of this Anybody But Harper sentiment, going door to door in the most closely contested districts to get people to sign pledges to support the candidate most likely to win, irrespective of their actual political convictions.

This approach to the elections is equal parts disorienting and demobilizing. Strategic voting suggests that how we vote on a single day is more important than the political movements we build in between elections, and it encourages us to vote for parties and platforms we actually disagree with.

Worst of all, there's no guarantee that it works. Not only is the entire project based on opinion polls, which usually don't tell us very much. But also, even when we broker our votes to support the presumed winners, there is no guarantee they will come through for us.

This was the deal made by the teachers' unions in Ontario in the last provincial elections--to back the Liberals as the most likely victor. The payback? Working without a contract for over a year as the provincial government imposes "net zero" contracts, high class sizes and other cuts. Most of the unions have settled as of this writing, but had to threaten province-wide strikes to get the province to the bargaining table. The elementary teachers' union is still without a contract, even as their work-to-rule campaign continues.

AS IS often the case in Canada, Québec and FNMI communities require specific analysis. In terms of Québec, the development of large social strikes and demonstrations while a federal campaign is underway has been the most intriguing aspect of the campaign to me as a newcomer to Canada.

In the U.S., labor and movement leaders would likely do everything in their power to prevent such mobilizations during a campaign, as that would threaten the Democratic candidate (according to their logic).

Two unique features help explain why these movements have been so large during the election campaign, and why they have had almost no impact on how the election has played out.

One has to do with the reality of "two solitudes" in Canada, an ongoing political and social division between Québec as a distinct society and the "Rest of Canada." This means that very little of what happens in Québec is reported on in the English media.

More consequential in this case, though, is that there's a greater formal division between federal and provincial politics in Canada than between the federal and state levels in the U.S. In terms of austerity, the sectors impacted by the province's cuts are precisely those sectors that are the province's domain, not the federal government's, such as education. In that sense, even though austerity affects every part of Canada, the protest movements in Québec have focused on the provincial government.

With respect to the federal election, there are different sets of parties that operate provincially and federally in Québec. While the left wing party Québec Solidaire has grown to capture more of the progressive vote provincially, it has no federal presence. In the last federal election in 2011, these voters shifted overwhelmingly to the NDP, effectively giving the party its strongest base in that province.

However, the mainstream media have explained the NDP's declining support this time in relation to Mulcair's defense of the niqab. While there is certainly a kernel of truth to that explanation, unmentioned is how disappointment with the NDP's shift rightward politically also contributes to declining support for the party in Québec.

By contrast, Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois has solidified that party's degeneration by doubling down on anti-Muslim identity politics and joining Harper in calling for a ban of the niqab.

With respect to First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities in this election, a number of historical and political factors are at play. It was not until 1960 that First Nations peoples were allowed to vote at all without expressly giving up their treaty rights and renouncing their legally protected status under the Indian Act.

The association between voting and sovereignty lingers to this day, in the sense that many FNMI activists argue that participating in Canadian state elections further supports that state while undermining FNMI rights and sovereignty. At the same time, this election includes growing numbers of FNMI candidates: a total of 53, with 22 running for the NDP and 18 for the Liberals. Finally, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its long-awaited, historical report earlier this year, yet the demands raised in it have gone all-but-ignored in the actual campaign.

IF PREDICTIONS about voters' moods after the elections, comparing party platforms and strategic voting aren't useful to guide socialists in responding to this current election, then on what basis should we take action?

One part of the answer is returning to the ABCs of Marxism in terms of the role that elections play in capitalist democracy. As Paul D'Amato has noted: "Throughout their political lives, Marx and Engels always argued that the working class--whatever its size and state of development--must organize itself independently as a class "and consequently into a political party," as they wrote in the Communist Manifesto."

This is the role that the NDP has played historically in Canada, emerging from struggles by working-class and oppressed people to form an independent political formation to the left of the two corporate parties.

As Alan Sears summarized recently, "This democratic participation [through the NDP] included both the right to vote and wider social rights such as access to education, social assistance, health care, human rights codes, and the elimination of certain specifically repressive laws." In this sense, the choice in a given election was obvious: a vote for the NDP was a "class vote," irrespective of whatever shortcomings in their platform or past performance in government.

But it's not enough to simply look to the past for guidance. Rather, we have to apply those principles to current conditions. And while it's true the NDP is still an independent political formation, it remains an open question how much it stands to the left of Canada's two corporate parties.

In this sense, the NDP has gone down the same path as other social democratic parties around the world by adapting to, not halting, neoliberalism. The neoliberal transformation of the NDP calls into question whether it is still viable as a vehicle for progressive change, no matter how limited within the constraints of capitalist democracy.

While that question is difficult to answer without looking into a crystal ball, the fact remains that that the NDP is still rooted in the labor movement, no matter how weak unions have become in Canada. And the recent rise of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in Britain suggests that there may still be room even in the most corrupted and deformed social democratic party to push things back to the left.

APPROACHING THE elections from this perspective leads me to two conclusions: to vote NDP in this election absent any meaningful alternative, but also to understand that it is the state of social movements and socialist and other left-wing organization that is far more decisive and consequential.

That second conclusion in particular can seem abstract, especially given how weak social movements, unions and the left overall is right now. But there is a recent and ongoing example of combat to draw on for guidance--namely, the anti-austerity movements in Québec, no matter how distant they might feel in other parts of Canada.

The point is not to hold up the anti-austerity battles as a simple formula to be repeated, not least because of long-standing questions about the extent to which anti-austerity and anti-racist organizing have overlapped there. Rather, the point is to understand how a commitment to independent, combative movement-building has transformed the political landscape in a relatively short period of time.

These movements have fueled the development of new political formations, both at a more electoral level with Québec Solidaire, but also in terms of revitalizing socialist organization, with the formation of the Front d'Action Socialiste.

Perhaps the recent initiative of the Leap Manifesto can spur similar developments elsewhere in Canada. The manifesto is an effort to unify FNMI struggles with climate justice and economic justice movements.

Importantly, the initiative was published in 10 languages, including Cree and Inuktitut. At this point, it remains a signature campaign, but already in a few short weeks has gathered over 28,000 signatures. While the initiators' stated intension is to turn a statement into a movement, this remains only a goal as of this writing.

In the end, it is our efforts to rebuild independent, fighting movements for climate justice and against austerity and oppression that will be the most decisive factor in undoing nine years of Harper, no matter what the outcome of next week's election may be.

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