Conferencia de Prenza – Primer Ministero de Canadá Justin Trudeau| Photo: G20 Argentina – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article Conferencia de Prenza – Primer Ministero de Canadá Justin Trudeau| Photo: G20 Argentina – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

The Canadian federal election is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cynical attempt to delay a crisis of legitimacy for the neoliberal centre, argues John Clarke.

A Canadian federal election will be held on September 20 and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared, with his customary shallow cynicism, that it is all about “giving Canadians an opportunity to weigh in at a really pivotal time.” He grandly suggested he was duty-bound to consult the country at a moment that is “maybe the most important since 1945 and certainly in our lifetimes.”

As opposition politicians and political commentators have pointed out, Trudeau’s real motives are considerably less noble than he would have us believe. In 2019, the Liberals had a tough time hanging onto power and emerged from the last election without a parliamentary majority. It didn’t help that their leader’s carefully crafted progressive credentials suffered a reverse when it was revealed that he had a history of participating in the form of racist mockery that is referred to as ‘blackface.’

Now, the Liberals have decided to try for a fresh mandate with a working majority, not because conditions are entirely favourable for them but because the challenges and uncertainties that lay ahead could further undermine their electoral prospects.

It is not hard to see the problems the Trudeau government will have to confront if it emerges intact from its present political gamble. A fourth wave of the pandemic, driven by the Delta variant, is now underway and cheery official assurances that present levels of vaccination will allow for continued reopening are going to be put to a severe test.

It is also true that the Biden-like ‘build back better’ view of the next few years that the Liberals are putting forward is not likely to transpire. With economic recovery highly uneven, ‘many of the jobs wiped out by the pandemic aren’t coming back at the same rate of pay.’ The Liberals are winding down the temporarily enhanced social benefits provided during the lockdowns and leaving workers vulnerable before a gathering employer offensive. As their real agenda becomes clearer in the months ahead, the Liberals will be anxious to avoid ‘giving Canadians an opportunity to weigh in’ for as long as they possibly can.

Discredited neoliberal centre

Trudeau’s days as the popular and photogenic face of a revived Liberal Party are over and his hold on power has much more to do with the limitations of his rivals than with any lingering confidence in his earlier promises of ‘sunny ways.’ Though the Liberals, representing the neoliberal centre, may face diminished credibility, the electoral alternatives to the right and left of them have their own problems in this regard. Each of the parties, in their own way, are being impacted by the crisis-ridden and politically volatile times we are living through.

Social democracy in Canada is represented by the New Democratic Party (NDP) and it has never formed a government at the federal level. Over the last several decades, it has been subjected to the same rightward influences as other social democratic parties and this is especially unfortunate in a country with a relatively robust Liberal Party. The attempt to follow the example of the Blairite project in Canada comes up against the obvious problem that the ground being sought at the political centre is already occupied by the Liberals.

As in other elections, there are media reports this time around of growing interest in the NDP but the fundamental failure to pose a real left alternative remains unresolved and, indeed, becomes even sharper under the impact of the pandemic crisis and the sense of grievance and anger it has generated. In the absence of a seriously bold and radical alternative, the infamous ability of the Liberals to ‘campaign on the left and govern on the right’ means that they can almost always outflank the timid NDP.

The Tory Party here is also beset with problems that weaken its prospects of unseating the Liberals. The Tories seek to present themselves as a mainstream conservative option but they are saddled with a core political base that has embraced ideas much closer to those of the far right. This was expressed clearly when the party’s policy convention last year clownishly voted to reject the idea that climate change is real. It was a substantial embarrassment for a Tory leadership looking to take moderate votes from the Liberals and appear as a credible alternative. The need to simultaneously appease and limit the influence of its base of hard right and overtly racist zealots is a worsening problem for the Tory party establishment.

The situation in Canada can be compared to that which exists in the United States. There, the Obama years were ones in which an administration in which such great hopes had been placed embraced both the neoliberal agenda and the pursuit of endless war. The erratic Trump presidency, and the hard right base of support it drew around it, seriously alarmed the bulk of the US capitalist class and the Biden restoration took place with the overwhelming support of that class.

Yet, for all that, it is striking that the electoral race to the White House was an excruciatingly close call. In the US, as in Canada, an uninspiring and fragile political expression of the neoliberal centre clings to power by default yet, in neither case does such a formation offer a viable way forward.

Beyond electoralism

The future looks very threatening for parties of the political centre. They may some buy time with empty promises of a New Deal and stop-gap measures but that is all. They offer no means of containing the growth of the right or of satisfying demands generated by the period of economic and social crisis we have entered. Those demands have to be taken forward by the left and this can only be done to a very limited and partial degree by electoral means.

It is well that governments like that of Justin Trudeau should face tough questions in parliament and the strongest possible challenge from the left on the election trail. The most important part of the fight against their attempts to impose the burden of the crisis on workers and communities, however, will have to take place on the streets and in the form of militant workers’ struggles.

Trudeau’s ‘fourth wave’ election, called as climate change driven wildfires burn in various parts of Canada, may not bring him the parliamentary majority he hopes for. It may be that the Liberal gamble will be seen as just too cynical and self-serving. Already there are voices being raised that drive this home and a backlash is possible that would be most likely to translate into gains for the NDP.

However, whether the Liberals emerge with a majority of seats in the House of Commons or must continue to broker deals with their political opponents, the pandemic triggered crisis that forms the backdrop to this election will continue to intensify. The question of who pays for that crisis will not be settled according to the rules of parliamentary etiquette. 

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.