With Canadian neoliberalism safe in parliament, real progress must come from the streets, writes John Clarke
Canada has not avoided the deep sense of grievance and the political volatility that decades of austerity have generated across the world and the recent federal election here expressed those tensions. When the dust settled, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had managed to hold on to power. However, they dropped 29 seats and retained only 157, losing their overall majority. Their main rival, the Conservatives, on the other hand, gained 23 seats and actually led in the popular vote. The political forces at work in this election will play out in the period ahead and they are worth taking a look at.
Firstly, the waning fortunes of the Liberals are very much part of the loss of political legitimacy that the neoliberal centre is experiencing on an international scale. For the image conscious Justin Trudeau, this decline in credibility has been particularly jarring. I have written previously about the fake progressive credentials of the Trudeau government that seemed so convincing and durable when the Liberals took power in 2015. However, the days when admirers lined up for selfies with the Prime Minister and he could count on trouble free public events are now long gone. Trudeau’s efforts to shield Canada’s largest engineering construction firm, Montreal based SNC-Lavalin, regardless of its corrupt dealings, seriously compromised his reputation for open and above board honesty. His government’s pursuit of environmentally destructive pipeline initiatives, in total disregard of the rights of Indigenous people, has led to ongoing protests.
Even as the present election unfolded, photos emerged of Trudeau, the supposed champion of multiculturalism and ‘inclusiveness,’ engaging in the form of racist mockery known as ‘blackface’, putting the Liberal campaign very much on the defensive. These scandals only served to drive home the realisation that, behind a progressive image, lay the cynical and damaging political agenda of the neoliberal mainstream. The Liberals went into the election with that reality already clear to millions of people.
Both the domestic situation and prevailing international trends seemed, given the lack of a sufficiently powerful alternative on the left, to work in the favour of the conservative right. However, if Trudeau was able to salvage a narrow escape in the face of likely electoral disaster, his saving grace lay in the stumbling performance of the Tories. Their hapless federal leader, Andrew Scheer, ran a lacklustre campaign dogged by astounding blunders. He told an interviewer that he had once been an insurance broker yet it emerged that he had never obtained qualifications, leading to a theatrical Liberal call for an official investigation into this false claim. Blowing on his racist dog whistle, he held a press conference at the US border to denounce those he falsely referred to as ‘illegal’ asylum seekers. Then, having previously questioned the choice of the governor general (the Queen’s representative in Canada) because she held dual citizenship, Scheer had to respond, right in the middle of the election, to the revelation that he held US citizenship as well as Canadian. Making things even worse, he then claimed not to have a US passport which, it was pointed out, would make his frequent trips to that country ironically illegal under US law.
The Tory campaign at the federal level was also hindered by an ugly demonstration of just what their right wing austerity driven policies look like. The Ontario Tory government, headed by quirky populist, Doug Ford, had become so unpopular that, in an act of damage control, the Ontario Legislature was recessed until after the federal election and Ford kept the lowest profile possible.
The core political base of the Tories is moving to the right and embracing overt racism and Andrew Scheer reflects this, both in what he says and in the far right company he keeps. Not the most nimble
political operator, his ability to tack to centre and win Liberal votes was further limited by the emergence of the xenophobic Peoples’ Party in this election. Scheer’s failed rival for the Tory leadership, Maxime Bernier, set up this formation and its mission seemed to consist of bringing right wing extremism into accepted political discourse. Bernier and his cohorts thundered against ‘mass immigration’ and multiculturalism at every opportunity. In the course of the campaign, Bernier replaced Scheer as the point of interface between the far right and mainstream conservatism. He became a veritable photo-op magnet for fascists and it didn’t seem to bother him a great deal. Bernier’s hateful political venture didn’t gain a single seat in Parliament but the base it stirred up was considerable and the role it played in providing legitimacy to explicit racism will have a lingering effect on Canadian political life.
The social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) finds itself in an challenging situation in a country with an enduring party of the political centre that cultivates a progressive reputation. The problem has intensified during the neoliberal years, as social democratic parties have found a place within an austerity consensus. We should deplore the Blairite project but Tony Blair and his accomplices were looking to occupy political space that was available. The NDP has no such options because the Liberal Party is already in possession of the neoliberal centre. The kind of directions taken by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, then, not only correspond to the needs of working class people in Canada but are the only viable political option for the NDP.
In this election, the NDP held on to only 24 seats, a reduction of 18. However, while it would be absurd to deny this was a serious blow, the situation is somewhat nuanced. First of all, the bulk of the loss was in Quebec and was hardly unexpected, given how historically weak the NDP is there and how fragile its base was. A reworked nationalist Bloc Québécois, running candidates for federal office only within Quebec, made major gains that likely had more to do with racism and Islamophobia than with separatist sentiment.
The two factors that ensured the survival of the Liberals were a strong sense that the Tories would be worse and, linked to this, the widespread moderate left tactic, shamefully promoted by some trade union leaders, of ‘strategic voting.’ There are probably few places in the world where so many people hold their noses and vote for the ‘lesser evil’ as Canada. This only adds to the need of the NDP to present itself as, not as a somewhat more ‘progressive’ version of the Liberals, but as a real working class alternative. Fortunes were low enough at the outset that predictions of loss of official party status abounded and the NDP campaign constituted a vigorous but belated game of catch up.
On the campaign trail, NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, did actually provide a glimpse of the possibilities. If you compare the ‘New Deal for People’ the NDP took into the fight to the election manifesto of Corbyn led Labour, you are struck by how nebulous the first is while the latter document proposes alternatives to the austerity consensus. In the cut and thrust of campaigning, however, Singh did inspire people with something different to the cynical politics of the Liberals. Positions he took on the right of Indigenous communities to clean water and a national pharmacare programme had a huge and positive impact. In an election that was marked by the above mentioned Trudeau ‘blackface’ scandal, Singh (with a very strong background as an anti-racist activist) challenged Canadian racism in a way that struck a chord with many. Yet this real sense of momentum could not overcome the lack of a clear cut break with the politics of the neoliberal centre and the NDP’s internal divisions and weakness on climate issues ensured votes went to the Greens.
Many here who look with respect and hope to the developments that have taken place in the Labour Party in Britain wonder if this could occur within the NDP. In my view, a comparable move to the left can neither be predicted nor entirely precluded. In terms of the immediate future, the notion that the NDP will be highly influential by reason of ‘holding the balance of power’ is significantly overstated. The Liberals are close enough to a majority in Parliament that formal coalition arrangements are unnecessary. They can form voting blocks of convenience and, certainly, rely on Tory votes when they want to build pipelines or boost military spending.
At this point, the election has been settled and a weakened but still relatively secure regime of the neoliberal centre is in place. At the same time, a series of hard right provincial governments are proceeding with their attacks on workers and imposing deep social cutbacks. This unfolds as the dismal post 2009 economic recovery goes over to conditions of global slump. For now, the focus returns to the resistance we can build in our trade unions and on the streets to an agenda of austerity, endless war and climate disaster that Justin Trudeau puts a 'progressive' face on.
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.
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