Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Political crisis exposes Canada’s national, class divisions

by Richard Fidler

OTTAWA – In a classic 19th century work, English journalist Walter Bagehot divided the Constitution into two parts. The “efficient” part — the executive (cabinet) and legislative — was responsible for the business of government. The “dignified” part, the Queen, was to put a human face on the capitalist state. Bagehot noted, however, that the Queen also had “a hundred” powers called Prerogatives, adding: “There is no authentic explicit information as to what the Queen can do….”[1]

On December 4 Canadians learned, many to their dismay, that those Prerogatives, borrowed from England in their Constitution,[2] included the power to shut down the elected Parliament. Using her discretionary authority, Governor General Michaëlle Jean, the Queen’s representative, allowed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request to “prorogue” or suspend the proceedings of Parliament until January 26. This enabled the minority Conservative government to avoid certain defeat in the House of Commons in a vote scheduled for December 8. At the same time, the Governor General rejected a formal request by opposition MPs from two parties to form a new government which, with the promised support of a third party, would have a clear majority in the House.

As one wit commented, Canada has now become a “pro-rogue state”. It is no laughing matter, however.

No recession?

The Parliamentary hiatus means that Canadians enter a deepening financial and economic crisis without even the promise of early government assistance that might provide emergency relief from mounting unemployment, vanishing credit and evaporating private pensions. Employment statistics released December 5 revealed the loss of 70,600 jobs in November alone, the biggest monthly job loss since the 1982 recession.

The economic crisis is now a political crisis — and threatens to become a “national unity” crisis — as government and opposition parties fan out across the country to rally public opinion behind their respective agendas.

The crisis was touched off two and a half weeks earlier when Parliament met for the first time since the October 14 general election. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty presented an economic statement that incredibly predicted that Canada would avoid a recession, projected a budget surplus, promised to privatize and sell off government buildings and other assets and imposed significant cuts in government spending. The government also announced it would drop pay equity measures for women in the federal public service, reduce the overall wage bill for federal government employees and ban their right to strike. And to add insult to injury, state funding of political parties was to be cut back sharply.

The Harper government had already earmarked $75 billion to take mortgages off the books of the banks and is providing tens of billions in other forms of support and liquidity to the financial industry, with few conditions.

It seemed the right-wing Tories had forgotten they were a minority. Less than two months earlier, they had been elected in only 143 seats, 12 short of a majority.

NDP beds down with Liberals

Flaherty’s statement caught the Opposition off guard, as the government had been hinting for weeks that it would propose economic pump-priming measures even at the cost of a budget deficit. Normally, so soon after an election, a defeated Opposition would be expected not to try to overturn the government. But to the government’s surprise, the two major Opposition parties now moved to defeat the Tories in a parliamentary vote and form a coalition government to replace them.

Within days, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion had cobbled together a deal with the New Democratic Party, Canada’s traditional social-democratic party. Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton agreed to form a joint government “built on a foundation of fiscal responsibility” to rule for at least three years. Liberals would hold the key positions of Prime Minister and Minister of Finance as well as 18 of the 24 cabinet posts, the other 6 going to the NDP. It began to look as if the NDP had rescued the Liberals, who only six weeks earlier had emerged from the election with their lowest voter support since Confederation in 1867.

Since the Liberals, with 77 seats, and the NDP, with 37, could not muster a majority, they got the pro-sovereignty Bloc Québécois, which holds 49 of Quebec’s 75 seats, to pledge not to support motions of non-confidence in the Government for at least 18 months. Voilà, a government with a working majority of 163 seats, to be led by outgoing Liberal leader Dion until May, when he was to be replaced by whoever won the scheduled Liberal leadership race.

The political content of the Liberal-NDP coalition agreement[3] was, to say the least, rather modest. It featured vague promises of increased spending on infrastructure investments, housing and aid to troubled manufacturing industries; easier eligibility for unemployment benefits; improved child benefits; pursuit of a “North American cap-and-trade market with absolute emission targets” and unspecified “Immigration Reform”.

Perhaps more significant were the things it did not contain — most notably, no reference to Canada’s military intervention in Afghanistan. The NDP’s promise to end Canada’s “combat mission” in that country was one of the major planks that distinguished it from the Liberals and other parties in the recent election.

Nor was there any reference to the North American Free Trade Agreement or other trade and investment deals that the NDP had previously opposed or pledged to reform in workers’ interests. There was nothing in the agreement that would in any way mark a Canadian departure from its close alignment with U.S. economic or foreign policy and military strategy.

Best case scenario?

The coalition proposal struck a responsive chord, however, among many trade union and social movement activists. On-line pro-coalition petitions were swiftly organized, attracting tens of thousands of signatures in support. Media talk shows and email discussion lists buzzed with favourable commentary.

Prominent left critics of neoliberalism volunteered their support. Naomi Klein, setting aside her autonomism for the moment, envisaged a “best case scenario”: “one, you get the coalition, and two, the NDP uses this moment to really launch a national discussion about why we need PR [proportional representation]….”[4]

Socialist Register editor Leo Panitch, while expressing reservations about the anticapitalist potential of the coalition, hailed the “courage” of the coalition proponents and saw some promise in the NDP’s role: “In Canada, as the New Democrats prepare themselves for federal office for the first time in their history, the prospect of turning banking into a public utility might be seen as laying the groundwork for the democratization of the economy that the party was originally committed to when it was founded….”[5]

Even some Marxists saw merit in the Coalition. The International Socialists, in a special supplement to their newspaper Socialist Worker, opposed giving a “blank cheque” to the Coalition, but said “The key question now is what demands we make on the Liberal-NDP Coalition and how we mobilize to win them.”

There were a few lonely dissenting voices. One that attracted some controversy in left circles was that of John Riddell, a co-editor of the web journal Socialist Voice.[6] Writing in Rabble, a popular web journal of “progressive” opinion, Riddell asked “Have the advocates of coalition forgotten that it was the last Liberal government that originated most of the hated ‘Harper’ policies, including the gutting of social services, attacks on civil liberties dressed up as ‘anti-terrorism’ and Canada's disastrous war in Afghanistan?” He went on:

“The aim of progressive policy must not be to enhance the power of capitalist governments but to increase that of working people….

“The only force we can depend on is the pressure of independent popular and labour movements. In a situation of social and economic crisis, these movements can become an irresistible force.

“And here is the fatal weakness of the coalition government scheme. Locked inside a Liberal-dominated coalition, the NDP would be unable to campaign against capitalist attacks. Accepting responsibility for the anti-labour measures of such a government could rapidly discredit the NDP and end its ability to continue as the bearer of popular hopes for social change.

“At the same time, labour leaders' current pledges of unconditional support to a coalition will undermine the unions' ability to act independently in defence of workers' rights and needs.

“Tying ourselves down in this manner is particularly dangerous in the midst of an economic crisis that is unprecedented, and shifting rapidly in unpredictable ways.” [7]

This warning rang like an echo of a period — not so long ago, in fact — when there was a workers movement that would have no truck or trade with bourgeois parties like the Liberals. The seeming unanimity of support for the Liberal-led coalition voiced by what passes today as Canada’s “left” was a sobering reminder of just how deeply the neoliberal TINA mantra (There Is No Alternative) has penetrated popular consciousness.

Labour campaigns for coalition

Among the leading propagandists for the coalition were political commentators Murray Dobbin and prominent feminist Judy Rebick, who had long fought for closer collaboration between anti-Conservative forces and especially during the recent federal election campaign. They were overjoyed that the NDP, which had previously resisted their pleas, had now come on board.

The organizational clout behind the campaign for coalition government, however, was provided by the Canadian Labour Congress and its major affiliated unions. Overnight, the CLC poured money and staff into organizing mass “Coalition Yes” rallies in major cities across the country. “The Liberal-NDP Accord would get Canada working again by providing immediate money for infrastructure projects, transit, clean energy, water, housing and retrofits,” proclaimed CLC literature and web sites.[8]

For weeks the CLC brass had been labouring over successive versions of a draft “Plan to Deal with the Economic Crisis”.[9] The Coalition Accord offered somewhat less than the CLC’s plan, of course, since its bottom line was what the Liberals were prepared to accept. But now, it seemed, the formation of a Liberal-led coalition held out the prospect of sufficient reforms to relieve the mounting pressure within labour’s ranks for effective action by the union leadership in defence of beleaguered workers.

Few doubts were expressed in the ranks of organized labour. For example, a convention of the British Columbia Federation of Labour voted nearly unanimously on November 27 to support the formation of a coalition government.

The Quebec unions, too, were quick to sign up. The major centrals (FTQ, CSN and CSQ) issued a joint statement in support of what it called “the Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition” and urged members to join the Montréal pro-Coalition rally. “Let’s let the coalition, which has committed to implement a genuine plan of support to the economy, do the work,” the statement said.[10]

Impact in Quebec

The governmental crisis in Ottawa virtually eclipsed the final week of campaigning in Quebec’s general election, scheduled for December 8. The sovereigntist Parti québécois came out in support of the Coalition. “We have a sovereigntist party in Ottawa [the BQ] which has acted responsibly when faced with a Harper who crushes Quebec and denies that Quebec has needs”, said PQ leader Pauline Marois, adding that the political crisis showed that Canada does not function and that it is necessary to leave it. Liberal premier Jean Charest, in contrast, argued that the instability in Ottawa was cause to turn his minority government into a majority. The top leaders of the left sovereigntist Québec solidaire, Amir Khadir and Françoise David, issued a statement in support of the coalition. The only comment so far in the on-site journal Presse-toi-à-gauche, the nearest thing QS has to a media presence, has been an article by Pierre Beaudet and François Cyr along the same lines.[11]

Polls showed that the coalition proposal is very popular in Quebec, which voted heavily against Harper’s Tories in October. Despite hostility in the corporate media (the pro-sovereignty Le Devoir is the only newspaper to support it), the coalition attracted little criticism even in nationalist circles, although there was some grumbling about the fact that the coalition was led by Stéphane Dion, the chief architect of the Liberals’ Clarity Act of 2000 hamstringing Quebec’s right to determine its constitutional future.

Former labour leader Gérald Larose, now chair of the Conseil de la souveraineté du Québec, a non-partisan sovereigntist umbrella group, issued a statement entitled “A sovereigntist view on a coalition”.[12] It greeted the Liberal-NDP accord:

“In four pages, Quebec recovers the billion dollars that were to be cut in equalization payments (the Flaherty cuts), the millions that were cut to cultural funding (the Verner cuts), the cuts to regional economic development agencies (the Blackburn cuts), commitments for Quebec’s forestry industry, improved benefits for the unemployed, a program for elderly workers….

“Québec’s sovereignty is a political fight. Half of this politics is at Quebec City. The other is at Ottawa. The one in Québec is key. The one in Ottawa is strategic…. It is the Bloc that prevented the election of a dangerous majority Conservative government. It is the Bloc as well that allows the formation of an alternative coalition government, ensuring in the process that Quebec maximizes the achievement of a number of economic demands.”

Quebec support for the coalition was bolstered by Harper’s venomous attacks on the coalition as a capitulation to “separatists”, and Tory MPs’ characterization of the accord as a “deal with the devil” tantamount to “treason and sedition”. Harper even challenged the legitimacy of representation by the Bloc and Bloc voters (close to 40 percent of Quebec voters) in Canada’s parliament. The virulence of these attacks aroused some concern among leveller heads in the federalist camp, and led the editors of Canada’s leading newspaper The Globe & Mail, among others, to call for Harper’s resignation as Tory leader and prime minister: “Whether he contrives an exit from his immediate travails over the confidence vote, the Harper era appears to be approaching its end. But before that happens, there is danger Canadian unity will be harmed.”[13]

These concerns were reinforced by a surge in PQ support in the final days of the Quebec election, as “soft” nationalists rallied to the party. On election day the PQ won 51 seats with 35% of the vote, replacing the less nationalist right-wing party, the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) as Official Opposition and coming within a few seats of the governing Liberals. (Another notable result was the election of Québec solidaire co-leader Amir Khadir as that party’s first member in the National Assembly.)

Real change?

The coalition accord is also attacked as “socialist”, and indeed the NDP (along with the Bloc) is widely perceived as the driving force behind it. This in part explains the enthusiasm for the coalition among many working people. They see the NDP as a fetter on the Liberals, a potential restraint on the latters’ predictable attempts to implement their own neoliberal program.

That is also a major reason why the corporate rulers on Toronto’s Bay Street oppose the coalition. They know the NDP poses no threat to their system, and they have had little difficulty accommodating to the provincial governments the NDP has administered from time to time. But they also understand that the NDP is the actually existing political expression of the trade union movement and thus, in that sense, it is a destabilizing influence in Canada’s politics. They prefer to keep it at one remove from the corridors of power. They don’t see the need at present to call on the NDP as a direct partner in preserving their system.

Above all, however, the popular support of the coalition is a manifestation of how low expectations are among working people after close to three decades of neoliberal assault during which real wages (adjusted for inflation) have stagnated overall and even declined for many. The pro-coalition enthusiasm has expressed a real craving for some kind of change, any change, at the top in government. For many, the modest improvements in the coalition platform over Harper’s agenda are sufficient to constitute change they can believe in.

Tories fan anti-Quebec hatred

This is not Canada’s “Obama moment”, however. The pro-coalition rallies in the immediate wake of Parliament’s prorogation mobilized only a few thousand in Canada’s largest cities, while counter-rallies called by Tory operatives were in some cases almost comparable in size. Public opinion surveys indicate a country deeply divided on the coalition proposal, with a majority of those outside Quebec registering opposition. Mass media opposition has no doubt played a role in this.

Some of the pro-Harper counter-rallies staged in major cities were remarkable for their overt Canadian nationalist hostility to the Québécois. Media talk shows featured rants against the coalition as an undemocratic power grab by a cabal of opportunist socialists and separatists. According to polls, support for the NDP and Liberals has declined.

The Tories are mobilizing their supporters in the streets and church basements in high hopes of breaking Liberal support for the coalition. And indeed, the coalition looks quite shaky. On December 8, only four days after Parliament was prorogued, Liberal leader Dion, the putative PM in the coalition arrangement, agreed under party pressure to resign as soon as the Liberals could choose a new leader.

Although one major Liberal leadership contender, Bob Rae (a former NDP premier of Ontario) began campaigning actively for it, the major contender, Michael Ignatieff, is reported to have serious reservations. Ignatieff, known internationally for his support of Washington’s foreign policy as “Empire Lite”, has indicated he would be prepared to support a Harper budget that contained similar measures, but says the coalition is “the only tool that’s got us anywhere” in trying to force concessions from Harper. Call his position “Coalition lite”.

Quebec a destabilizing factor

At bottom, the current political crisis is an expression of the deepening dilemma posed to the Canadian political system by the rise of Quebec nationalism and its independence movement since the 1960s.

Until the mid-1980s, the federalist strategy epitomized by Pierre Trudeau of promoting French and English official bilingualism, coupled with occasional shows of force (as in the War Measures crisis of 1970), kept the “separatist” monster at bay. However, Quebec’s alienation from the federal state increased when Trudeau moved in the wake of the 1980 referendum defeat to unilaterally impose constitutional changes featuring an amending formula that seemed to rule out a constitutional path to Quebec sovereignty while imposing a “charter of rights” consciously designed to override popular legislation in Quebec to protect and promote French language rights.

The Conservative party under Brian Mulroney replaced the Liberals for a period by forging a delicate coalition of “soft” Quebec nationalists with Western provincial rights militants around support of “free trade” agreements with the United States. Most Quebec sovereigntists saw such agreements as a means of lessening Quebec’s dependence on the pan-Canadian market and undermining the economic influence of the Canadian state. However, pro-sovereignty sentiment mushroomed when Mulroney failed to get the other provinces’ agreement to constitutional recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society”. Nationalist Quebec Liberals and Tories, in collaboration with the PQ, formed the Bloc Québécois in the early 1990s, and since then the BQ has taken a majority of Quebec seats in the federal Parliament in six consecutive elections.

Following the extremely narrow defeat of the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty, the federal Liberals, back in office, moved to limit Quebec’s right to secede; Stéphane Dion was brought into the cabinet to pilot the “Clarity Act” through Parliament. The Bloc redefined itself; no longer an intermediary at the federal level to facilitate Quebec’s accession to independence, it now saw itself as simply a promoter of Quebec’s interests within the federal regime.

Although both the Bloc and the Parti québécois continue to enjoy mass support in Quebec, the sovereigntist project itself has languished since 1995, unable to win compelling majority support for Quebec independence.

The developing economic crisis has put an additional crimp on the neoliberal “sovereignty” promoted by both parties. “Québec Inc.”, the once-vaunted flourishing of Quebec firms and economic institutions owned and managed by Francophone entrepreneurs, has likewise suffered some hard blows in the financial crisis. For example, the Caisse de dépôt et de placement, a financial behemoth that manages Quebec’s public pension funds, is in difficulty today owing to heavy exposure to the meltdown in asset-backed commercial paper investments. With the federal state and its control of banking and money serving as the lender of last resort, it is no accident that the Bloc Québécois now proposes to become a surety for a Liberal-led government in Ottawa!

However, the national question continues to simmer, fueled above all by the weight of the language issue in a Francophone province that represents almost a quarter of Canada’s total population but only 2 percent of North America’s, as well as the constant tension with the centralizing dynamics of Canadian federalism.

Seemingly banal incidents can easily rekindle expressions of Québécois national sentiment. The federal Liberals discovered this in the 2006 election when their remaining support in Quebec was decimated by disclosures of massive illegal spending in the province through a program to “sponsor” federalism. Harper’s Conservatives now seem destined for a similar fate as they vent their anger at the Bloc (and their rejection by Quebec voters in the October election) in venomous attacks on the Québécois.

NDP shut out in Quebec

As for the NDP, it has historically proved incapable of relating positively to Quebec nationalism and as a result has never enjoyed mass support in Quebec. A social democratic party, the NDP favours a strong central state as the vehicle for income redistribution and the administration of social programs. It is uncomfortable with the regional dynamics of a robust, assertive Quebec nationalism, and the party has been reluctant even to accept special status for Quebec within federal programs.

Furthermore, the NDP has from the beginning been seen by its union sponsors as a vehicle for potential liberal-labour regroupment that would eventually replace the Liberals as the major federal alternative to the Conservatives. This orientation is not facilitated by any sympathy for Quebec self-determination; as the “natural governing party” in Canada for most of the 20th century, the Liberals are the party of centralist federalism par excellence.

Shunned by progressives in Quebec because of its identification with the federal regime, the NDP has been unable to build a base in that province, although its identification with social democracy has led some to favour it over the BQ.[14] The NDP’s only hope for federal office in Ottawa, then, lies in forging some alliance with the Liberals. Which it is now doing. Ironically, the present configuration of parliamentary seats means that the two parties cannot make a credible case for government without a pledge of neutrality from the Bloc Québécois! The BQ, for its part, could not join such a coalition without jeopardizing its role as a harbinger of Quebec independence.

The Bloc stands as Quebec’s continuing reproach to the rest of Canada for its failure to recognize the Quebec nation in reality — and not just in non-binding words, as did Harper’s motion two years ago to recognize the Québécois as a “nation within a united Canada”.

Coalition falters

It is likely that when Parliament resumes as scheduled, on January 26, the Liberals will be headed by Michael Ignatieff, and the coalition as a formal power-sharing agreement will be dead, at least for the time being.

Harper will likely bring in a budget that incorporates most of the proposals in the Coalition Accord, or at least enough to win Liberal support and ensure the survival of his government. But he will no doubt try to embarrass the Liberals and their Opposition allies with numerous “confidence” votes in the House. Unless the NDP or the Bloc vote with the Tories, the Liberals will be faced with a choice between voting down the government — almost certainly precipitating a general election, this time — and voting with the government or abstaining, a humiliating dilemma for the new Liberal leader. It is probably safe to predict another election in 2009.

Where does this leave the NDP — and, more importantly, the main body of its supporters in the unions and social movements?

The NDP clearly emerges much weakened from this episode. Just weeks ago, NDP leader Jack Layton claimed to be running to be “prime minister”, arguing that there was no fundamental difference between Liberals and Tories and that the NDP was the only party that offered real “change you can believe in”. Now that the NDP has demonstrated its willingness to cohabit in government under Liberal leadership, that claim looks pretty unconvincing. The party may even have trouble justifying a vote against a Harper budget based on the coalition proposals or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Since the NDP is the party of organized labour in English Canada, a weaker NDP lessens labour’s influence in the Parliament.

In any event, Harper’s budget, whatever its content, will not address the needs of working people in the economic crisis. Labour and its allies will have to go back to the drawing boards and hammer out a coherent and effective program of action, one that is not contingent on Liberal or Tory — or, for that matter, NDP — support but goes far beyond the extremely modest proposals in the coalition accord.

Critical balance-sheet needed

It is important, too, that militants press for a critical balance-sheet of the coalition episode. If the coalition were to hold together, labour would be mortgaging its ability to adopt an independent agenda and actions capable of advancing workers’ interests. The discussion within the mass movements needs to get outside the straitjacket of devising a parliamentary agenda acceptable to the Liberals.

Canadian labour has not been defeated in major industrial struggles. In a series of important confrontations in recent years, militants have demonstrated their willingness and capacity to resist attacks on their living standards and organizations. In British Columbia, a number of struggles have come close to turning into general strikes: health workers (2004), teachers and Telus workers (2005), forest workers in 2004 and 2007. In Quebec, workers fighting the Charest government’s antilabour legislation twice came to the verge of general strikes. Even the enthusiastic reception at pro-coalition rallies for speakers advocating more militant action is a promising sign of the mood in labour’s ranks.

Labour in English Canada will also have to find ways to construct a pan-Canadian alternative to the crisis that includes the Québécois. The solidarity expressed with BQ leader Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc at pro-coalition rallies may signal new openness in the labour movement to collaboration with the “separatists”. An anticapitalist coalition between grassroots activists in the two nations could pose a real challenge to Canada’s capitalists and their governments. A coalition with one of the traditional parties of big business points in the opposite direction.

December 8, 2008

[1] Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (Oxford, 1961), p. 52.

[2] The Preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly the British North America Act) states that Canada has “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.”

[3] “A Policy Accord to Address the Present Economic Crisis”, http://tinyurl.com/6yk4ox. See also the “Accord on a Cooperative Government”, http://tinyurl.com/6pe49t.

[4] Naomi Klein, “We Can’t Lose This Moment”, Rabble, http://www.rabble.ca/news/naomi-klein-.

[5] Leo Panitch, “From the Global Crisis to Canada’s Crisis,” The Bullet, a Socialist Project e-bulletin, No. 164, http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/bullet164.html.

[6] http://www.socialistvoice.ca/.

[7] “Coalition? Let's not give away the store”, http://www.rabble.ca/news/coalition-lets-not-give-away-store.

[8] CLC, “The Best Plan for Canada”, http://canadianlabour.ca/sites/clc/files/shared/Rally-Flyer-EN.pdf.

[9] Successive versions have appeared on the web. Here is one of the more recent ones: http://www.progressive-economics.ca/2008/10/27/clc-response-the-full-version/.

[10] “La FTQ, la CSN et la CSQ invitent la population à appuyer la coalition afin de faire face à la crise”, http://ftq.qc.ca/modules/nouvelles/nouvelle.php?id=1810&langue=fr.

[11] “Dehors les voyous”, http://www.pressegauche.org/spip.php?article3043. An English version by Beaudet was published in Rabble, at http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/pierre-beaudet/throw-bums-out.

[12] Le Devoir, December 5, 2008, http://www.ledevoir.com/2008/12/05/221040.html.

[13] “Fanning anger toward Quebec”, December 4, 2008, http://tinyurl.com/5oj3r9.

[14] See “Election 2008 — the Quebec left’s challenge to socialists in the Rest of Canada”, Socialist Voice, http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=340.

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