by David Bush and Doug Nesbitt
So there we have it. Harper is gone. The Liberals surged from third place to win in this marathon election. The NDP, which was leading in the polls in August, slowly lost steam after they promised to prioritize balancing the budget and refusing to tax the rich. Ever the opportunists, the Liberals seized on this opening and ran a campaign that rode of a wave popular discontent with the Harper government, drilled home the message that they would tax the rich and spend money on infrastructure to pull the economy out of recession.
The Harper agenda has been dealt a severe blow this election. There is no question a majority of Canadians expressed their desire for change. But the election campaign and Liberal majority victory has proven pretty hopeless at clarifying what sort of change is needed. The airwaves are full of shallow analysis and shiny sales pitches. The media has been complicit in this ugly affair, rarely probing promises or pushing the parties, and generally letting the Tory and Liberal spin machines set the agenda. And while the election saw the Tories thrown out, so were a lot of good NDP MPs who expressed the interests of labour and the social movements in parliament. This election has been a damning indictment of the pro-Liberal logic of “strategic voting”, and the cautious centrism of the NDP’s campaign.
The NDP and Green Party had some political interventions of note from the leadership, but their national campaigns did not break the typical public relations approach to politics that was more about selling a product than channeling a widespread anti-austerity, stick-it-to-the-rich mood – like what has happened around Corbyn in the UK and Sanders in the United States. This is a major reason why the NDP has been unable to displace the Liberals as a vision for change.
We need to take a breath now that Harper is out of office, and commit to building a political project based in the labour movement and wider social movements that can throw its weight around against governments, corporations and the 1%. Rooted in unions, activist and research organizations, independent media, and issue-based activist campaigns, we have to organize and persuade with a patient, long-term approach.
There are several struggles that offer us an opportunity to build in this direction. The new political situation in Canada will create openings for the left and labour to begin to set the agenda through mobilization and rebuild their power through on-the-ground organization.
Save Canada Post
The Liberals have not committed to reversing the service cuts and job losses at Canada Post. They have only committed to temporarily halting the cuts pending a review. This is not a victory but a stay of execution. With bargaining in December and January for both urban and rural/suburban postal workers on the horizon, the fight to save this public service is far from over. We need to build a joint activist movement around saving home delivery and a solidarity movement around Canadian Union of Postal Workers bargaining that gives posties and their union leaders the courage to fight like hell. Otherwise, a defeat for CUPW in bargaining and the death of home mail delivery is going to be a major setback in our ability to not simply fightback but move forward.
Can we do this? The Tories were unbending on letting Canada Post management destroy the public service, but even then they were still weak on Canada Post with a majority government. Even entire sections of the establishment, especially at the municipal level, have been compelled to move against the Canada Post cuts. With so many people hoping for change, the Liberals are going to be a whole lot weaker than the Tories on this pro-privatization, service-cutting agenda, and we have an opportunity to land some early blows that will give us some new energy and might even put a new government on the back foot.
Some timely protests and well-organized Liberal riding office occupations within the next month would be a wise move. We can send a clear message to the Liberals to get off the fence, save home delivery, save thousands of jobs and turf the pro-privatization Canada Post management. Actions like this could land an early blow on the Liberals and will help us regain some confidence and energy, shaking us out of the inevitable hangover from this exhausting election. And in preparation for CUPW bargaining, we should find ways of building solidarity with our local postal workers through save home delivery activism, putting together action plans within our unions, and linking up with like-minded groups in other towns and cities to discuss coordinating actions. Let’s build up inter-union cooperation and sink deep roots into neighbourhoods through the fight to save this crucial public service.
Repealing anti-union legislation, Bills C-377 & C-525
We shouldn’t stop seeking the repeal of Bill C-377. A starting point is heckling and harassing the new government over this issue, whether picketing riding association offices, holding rallies, and crashing the government’s press conferences and public events. Meanwhile we can be organizing within our unions to pass motions to not comply with and support other unions not complying with C-377’s ridiculous anti-union burdens. We have an opportunity at the upcoming Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Ontario Federations of Labour conventions to put forward motions for these bodies and affiliates to provide legal, financial and protest backing to unions who choose non-compliance. The Liberals have told some unions they will repeal these bills, but waiting around for them to do so is not enough. They need to be pushed so this is a priority. We know the Liberals have a habit of making promises and never carrying them out.
The Fight for 15
The fight for a $15 minimum wage also provides an opportunity to reinvigorate our movements. The Liberals at the federal level have slammed the idea of reintroducing the federal sector minimum wage at $15/hr. Because a federal minimum wage doesn’t directly benefit millions of workers operating under provincial labour laws, Trudeau seems to think helping combat poverty among 100,000 workers is pointless. Meanwhile, in Ontario, Nova Scotia and British Columbia, the provincial Liberals have been fighting tooth and nail against increasing the minimum wage. This includes the Ontario Liberals who actively endorsed and supported Trudeau. A coordinated national campaign that strings together provincial campaigns to fight for a $15/hr is an obvious starting point to pressure the Liberals and polarize the debate around inequality in the country. This can put pressure on both the federal and provincial governments and shift the debate back towards inequality and labour rights and re-energinze our movements from the bottom up.
The Trans Pacific Partnership
The new Liberal government enthusiastically supports the Trans Pacific Partnership, negotiated by the Harper government behind closed doors and selling out the democratic rights and economic security of huge sections of the population. The TPP will be a job killer in important sectors like auto and farming. But more importantly it will empower corporations in other areas like copyright, patent protection, investment state lawsuits and internet freedom. The deal is an unmitigated disaster for the working class in Canada in all the countries involved. but it has not passed yet. The TPP can be challenged on the streets and through mass mobilization only. If it passes with little opposition other terrible trade deals, like CETA, will surely follow.
The Liberals, for all their warm and fuzzy ads about Trudeau, actually have a terrible platform on climate change. They have made no commitment on emissions targets, and they will continue building pipelines like Energy East and Keystone XL to ship tar sands oil. In a fine example of shirking its leadership responsibility, the federal Liberals will leave all caps on emissions up to the provinces. Like the Tories, the Liberals are in bed with Big Oil. In the dying days of the election campaign one of their campaign coordinators got busted leaking info to oil companies about how best to lobby the government. The Liberals represent a marginal improvement in the Tories rhetorically but will maintain the status quo on the issue. With COP 21 negotiations coming up in Paris, this issue will surely be ripe to push the new government on. The staggering lack of leadership and plan on climate change by the Liberals means labour and the left need to figure out to put a new green deal on the agenda. The Leap Manifesto made a number of good points on this. The question is can we build the actual power to shift away from the fossil economy.
We have a bit of a reprieve from the Harper agenda. The Harper government was the most ideologically-committed neoliberal government we’ve ever had in Canada. They set themselves apart in their deliberate and vindictive targeting of political and ideological opponents in an effort to push the logic of the neoliberal regardless of resistance. Perhaps what really sets Harper apart from the neoliberal governments of Chretien/Martin and Mulroney, is a trashing of democratic beliefs, practices, and structures of Canadian society.
But we can’t be under any illusions with the Liberals in power. Harper only continued the work of Martin and Chretien in starving social programs, battering collective fightbacks through anti-union laws and mass layoffs, transforming EI into a slush fund to claim bogus budget surpluses, and financing anti-progressive tax cuts that benefited businesses and the rich.
We already know the provincial equivalents of the new federal Liberal government: parties that present themselves as reasonably centrist, even progressive, compared to the more openly right-wing party. In some provinces, this is actually the NDP. These “centrist” parties find less confrontational means of implementing neoliberal restructuring, but the longer they rule, the more aggressively right-wing they have become. This is especially true in Ontario where the Liberals have ruled since 2003. The federal Liberals will rule in similar fashion until a crisis. Like Trudeau the Elder, the new Trudeau Liberals will crack down hard on strong opposition to their agenda.
What can be said about the NDP under Harperism? With its historical roots and ongoing ties with organized labour and social movements, the NDP sets itself apart from the Liberals and Tories. But the NDP has a serious problem. The politics of the party activists operating at the level of the riding association is well to the left of the politics set out by the national leadership, the parliamentary caucus, and the staffers who design the campaigns. It is these dynamics that explain why the national campaign was unable to maintain its big lead in August and unwilling to take an aggressive position on the economy. The NDP saw the electorate as static: groups of people whose ideas don’t change. As a result, the NDP moderated its election promises to appeal to people in the political centre, rather than engaging them with different ideas and arguing for a different direction. The NDP’s national campaign was more concerned with not scaring people than exciting people and transforming what people thought was possible. And despite the best efforts at the local level, the national campaign undermined so much of the work of riding associations.
With so many major defeats, the post-election debate about the NDP’s collapse from runner to third place will be hotly contested. Some strategists will blame Mulcair’s principled stand on the niqab issue as costing them votes, notably in Quebec. They will say the party went too far left by offering childcare and pharmacare. But the truth is the move to the centre on refusing to tax the rich, committing to balanced budgets before seeing the books, and retreating from a politics that drew clear battle lines, allowed the Liberals to out flank them. If they had created a strong pole on the left they would have shifted the debate left and might have ground down the opportunistic Liberals.
The Tories identify different social groups and target them with an issue that they think will turn them against the Liberals and NDP and towards the Conservatives. But the Tories use the politics of fear, racism, and miserably selfish individualism. The Liberals are always seeking to capture NDP voters to keep the right at bay. So they often campaign left and present themselves as a moderate, reliable alternative. They use leftist campaign promises as a wedge to carve off erstwhile NDP voters into a coalition with a section of the establishment. A remarkable example of this would be the unions in Ontario that have and continue to support the Bay Street Liberals of McGuinty and Wynne.
The Liberals deserve no quarter from us
It is essentially left to us: people in organized labour and activist social campaigns, to wage the struggle using wedge politics: but on the basis of principled politics, of transforming people’s ideas, practicing democracy, working together, and building a movement for social change. In doing so, we can begin to break down the ideologies and logic of the politics on offer from both the Conservatives and Liberals.
The days ahead will be a time of reorientation. It might be comforting to say our work is done, but it isn’t. The Liberals will continue to pursue the Bay Street agenda. This means we have to pick-up the pieces from years of attacks and demoralization that occurred under Harper and build the movements and organizations we desperately need. Now is not the time for a victory lap, now is the time to actually get organized.