The outcome of the October 19th federal election which drove the Harper government from power marked a significant victory for the working class, for indigenous peoples, for women, youth and students, for the unemployed and underemployed, and for the LGBTiQ communities. It was a victory for all those dedicated to peace and disarmament, for immediate action to combat climate change, and to the struggle for social equity and social justice. After almost a decade of Conservative rule, a large majority across Canada used their franchise to ensure that the Tories’ tenure in office came to a definitive end.
The strong desire to unseat the Harper Conservatives was reflected in a substantial increase in voter turnout at the polls. Participation reached 68.5% – the highest since 1993 – especially among youth and in First Nations communities, in some cases more than doubling previous turnout rates.
The electoral demise of the Conservatives had been anticipated for some time. The imposition of a vicious austerity agenda at home, together with increased militarism and pro-war, imperialist policies abroad, had turned a substantial majority of the people against them. The intensified attack on public and social services, and the failure to create full-time, well-paying employment, to prevent job losses and plant closures and to stimulate growth, had increased poverty and widened disparities between the bloated balance sheets of big Capital on one hand, and the economic hardships facing working people, on the other. Other important issues, including the Tories’ assault on the rights of labour (strike-breaking injunctions, C-377, etc.) and on democratic rights and civil liberties (C-51), its racist treatment of Aboriginal peoples, and its abysmal record on protecting the environment and fighting climate change, also contributed to the growth of anti-Conservative opinion.
Nevertheless, there were concerns within the anti-Harper camp that due to the distorted “first-past-the-post” electoral system, the redrawing of electoral boundaries, and the government’s attempts at voter suppression through changes imposed by the (Un)Fair Elections Act of 2014, the Tories might still manage to survive, depending on how the vote split among the mainstream opposition parties. The Conservatives also had swollen coffers with which to outspend the others during the record-long 78-day campaign period that they had arranged precisely for that purpose.
Despite these advantages, the Harper Tories were unable to swing momentum to their advantage. In a desperate bid to cling to power, the Conservatives then resorted to a crude, racist fear-mongering campaign, claiming that Canada must close the “floodgates” against refugees who would overwhelm our shores and undermine Canadian society. They incited Islamophobia among sections of the population by reviving the bogus niqab issue, and announcing the establishment of a snitch-line to inform on those guilty of “barbaric cultural practices” not in tune with the values of “old stock” Canadians.
In the end, those sordid tactics failed to stem the tide of defeat. Still, the Conservatives managed to hold onto a core base of 30% support among the electorate, and were overwhelmingly endorsed by the corporate-controlled media.
More alarming is the fact that overtly racist positions have now intruded into public political discourse across the country, just as it has been elevated into the “mainstream” in many European countries by ultra-right and neo-fascist parties and groups. No doubt the Conservative party – now relegated to the Opposition benches – will use its ruling class connections, its base among so-called “social conservatives”, and its majority in the non-elected Senate, to undermine attempts to reverse the reactionary and imperialist policies imposed over the past decade.
As events turned out, it was not the social democratic NDP, but rather the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau which became the main beneficiary of the electoral backlash against the Tories. The Liberals ended up capturing 147 additional ridings, giving that party a comfortable majority in the new Parliament with 184 out of 338 seats. They swept the Atlantic Provinces and the Far North, and captured new seats in virtually every major urban centre, especially in the Greater Toronto area, on the island of Montreal and B.C.’s Lower Mainland where they won almost all ridings.
The Liberal gains came at the expense of both the ruling Conservatives and the New Democrats, whose party has now lost its “Official Opposition” privileges and been reduced to third party status in the House of Commons.
As the Ontario Liberals did last year, the Trudeau Liberal victory came by skillfully exploiting the popular desire for change, positioning themselves as the only party which could ensure the defeat of Harper and his cronies. They out-maneuvred the NDP, promising “real change” by shedding (actually just postponing) Harper’s austerity agenda in favour of stimulus spending, and by pledging to reverse many unpopular decisions of the previous government (e.g., the increase of retirement age from 65 to 67, the end of home delivery by Canada Post, budget cuts to CBC, etc.). The Liberals successfully postured as the only “real” alternative among the mainstream political parties.
This ruse is belied by the reality that the Liberal Party remains a thoroughly bourgeois, big business party; it has not changed its political colouring or class orientation. It remains committed to neoliberal economic doctrine at home, and to an imperialist, pro-war foreign policy abroad. The failure of the other opposition parties to fully expose the false character of the Liberal “alternative” is rooted in the fact that both the NDP and the Greens essentially share this bourgeois, status quo consensus.
The dismal campaign of the NDP, and the resulting collapse of its electoral support (both in terms of seats and popular vote), was particularly striking. At the beginning of this 78-day campaign, the NDP was at the top of the polls, and widely expected to capture the bulk of the anti-Harper vote. But instead of advancing a clear and comprehensive alternative, Thomas Mulcair and his backroom strategists presented a tepid platform of minor reforms, one essentially designed to reassure ruling capitalist circles that the NDP posed no serious threat to their interests. They even offered increased “investment incentives” to large corporations and major tax cuts to small business, and pledged continued support for military spending and to NATO. This approach failed miserably to galvanize support among working people looking for a real break from the pro-corporate and pro-war agenda of the Harper Tories.
The turning point triggering the NDP’s decline came when Mulcair announced the NDP’s intention to “balance the books” in every annual budget, and that its commitment to balanced budgets would trump all other financial considerations and allocations. Not only did this policy shift signal that a Tony Blair-style NDP government would continue the Tories’ neoliberal austerity program (widely dubbed as “Harper-lite”); it also reinforced prevailing bourgeois propaganda in favour of “fiscal restraint”, and allowed the Liberal party (and also the Greens) to out-flank the NDP on the left.
This rightward policy shift of the NDP is hardly new, nor particularly surprising; indeed, like most other social democratic formations, the NDP has been gradually repositioning itself toward the “centre” of the bourgeois political spectrum for several decades, discarding its advocacy of “ballot-box socialism” and jettisoning many of its traditional social democratic policies. It has distanced itself from the labour movement and instead appealed to the ‘middle strata’ of professionals and small business people (i.e., the petty bourgeoisie), while accommodating the interests of monopoly capital.
The NDP’s rightward shift during this campaign however was especially pronounced, leading many – even long-time supporters and party members – to abandon the party in favour of a more “left”-sounding Liberal party. As polling results worsened during the final weeks of the campaign, the anti-Harper vote strategically migrated elsewhere. This was especially the case in Quebec, where the NDP lost over a half-million votes, primarily to the Liberals.
Now that the initial euphoria over the defeat of the Conservatives is receding, the labour movement, the left and democratic forces need to reorient on contending with a new Liberal majority in Ottawa. Liberals have a notorious tradition of campaigning from the left, and governing from the right. The main challenge today will be to mobilize the popular forces to pressure the new government to implement promises made during the campaign, and to make further, more advanced demands for fundamental change that serve the interests of working people, the environment, and the cause of peace and disarmament.
The Trudeau Liberals committed to a long list of policy changes on the campaign trail, including: to end Canada’s combat mission in the “war on ISIL” in Iraq & Syria; to raise taxes on the wealthy; to launch major infrastructe projects; to revamp child benefits; to restore home mail delivery; to increase the flow of Syrian refugees; to set ambitious emission-reduction targets; around pension reform; to introduce electoral reform, replacing the “first-past-the-post” system; to restore funding to CBC; to repeal Bill C-24 which created two classes of citizenship; and not least, to launch a full public enquiry into the 1,181 missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada.
Experience teaches however that in the realm of bourgeois politics, there is inevitably a great divide between what people expect to get, and what they actually end up receiving. It is therefore imperative to re-energize and strengthen the mass extra-parliamentary movements of the people to hold the Liberals’ “feet to the fire” to demand that these commitments are met in full.
This is particularly the case around the issue of democratic electoral reform and the fight for proportional representation (PR). Measures are also urgently needed to reduce campaign spending by political parties, both during and between elections, and to repeal the anti-democratic changes imposed by C-23 (the Conservatives’ “Fair Elections Act”).
Other crucial battles also need to be waged, including the struggle to defeat the dangerously pro-corporate Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement which must be ratified by every provincial legislature; the continuing campaign to repeal, rather than superficially amend, the anti-democratic C-51 (anti-terrorist law); the fight to repeal anti-labour legislation; the campaign to cut military spending and to exit NATO, etc.
In many respects, the objective terrain to win these and many other democratic, economic and political demands has improved with the demise of the Harper government. Resistance however will not be built by relying on spontaneity, but rather through a conscious political and organizational struggle to invigorate the extra-parliamentary movements, and an ideological struggle to shed illusions about the bourgeois role and character of the Liberal government.
The Communist Campaign
Overall, we can be very pleased with the efforts mounted by our Clubs, local campaign committees and our 26 candidates during this election. We take this opportunity to acknowledge the excellent work of our candidates, and to thank them and all of our members, friends and supporters who contributed to our electoral work over the past several months.
Our Party realized from the outset that this would a difficult campaign to wage, considering the obstacles facing us. Once again, the mainstream corporate media virtually blacked out coverage of our party and its candidates. Once again, our size and meager resources limited our ability to reach a larger audience with our platform and political perspective. Once again, our candidates were excluded from local all-candidates debates in a number of instances. And the “first-past-the-post” system, combined with an intense desire to defeat the Conservatives and the impact of campaigns – at least among some sections of voters – to vote strategically to achieve that end, made it very difficult to increase the size of our vote at the polls. Despite these circumstances however, we made some modest but notable gains, especially in Vancouver East, Vancouver Kingsway, Calgary Forest Lawn, and Davenport, where our candidates won very respectable vote counts.
While fighting for every possible vote, our Party’s objectives were not primarily focused on the vote tally itself. Rather, our main political goals were: (1) to sharpen the political criticism of the Harper/Conservative record, and to help build momentum to ensure their defeat; (2) raise substantive issues and alternative policies and a new direction away from austerity and war towards peace and jobs, and curbs on corporate power; and (3) to expose the systemic crisis of capitalism itself and advance the socialist alternative, and to build the ranks of our Party and the YCL in the process.
In our view, the Party was quite effective in achieving these goals. At public meetings, through increased door-to-door canvassing, and a much improved use of social media, we succeeded in reaching many more people and in injecting our ideas into the political debate. The task now will be to build upon these advances, to continue to increase our visibility, and to grow our party, press and YCL.