[Marxism] Conservative Canada PM seems to weather challenge from Lib-NDP coalition

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Tue Dec 16 21:20:03 MST 2008

Socialist Voice: Marxist Perspectives for the 21st Century
December 12, 2008 
The Coalition: Its Nature, Its Future and Our Perspectives
By Bernard Rioux. 

An intolerable economic statement. The formation of a coalition of
opposition parties claiming they want to bring down the government. A
shuttered parliament, MPs flushed from it for two months at the prime
minister’s whim. The House of Commons has been the setting for a
parliamentary crisis the likes of which have never been seen in Canada. How
should we analyze what has just happened and its consequences? 

The Context 

The world economic crisis is imposing its share of suffering on the people
of Canada and Quebec: job losses, greater insecurity, household debt,
decline in purchasing power, erosion of savings accumulated over the years
by small investors, etc. And the most devastating effects of the crisis are
just arriving at our doors.

Harper’s Conservative government with all its partisan and doctrinaire
projects provoked a parliamentary crisis

Insensitive to the angst and difficulties of working people, the government
gave priority to weakening the opposition and crushing the main opposition
party, the Liberal party of Canada. Prime Minister Harper wanted to take
advantage of the leadership crisis in the Official Opposition to force it to
accept the unacceptable while cutting off its financial lifeline. So Finance
Minister Flaherty’s economic statement proposed to put an end to public
funding of political parties; it attacked pay equity for women; it
prohibited the right to strike in the public service in coming years and
proposed some economic measures characterized by the Conservative obsession
with deficit-fighting. Flaherty announced cutbacks of four billion dollars
in government spending that may further dampen economic activity and speed
the onset of recession.

Opposition parties form a coalition

In an act of self-preservation, the opposition parties joined in a coalition
— denouncing neoliberal rigidity, calling for a needed boost to the economy,
and proposing themselves as an immediate alternative to the Harper
government. Hoping to head off this possibility, the Conservatives retreated
on party funding and the prohibition of the right to strike.

It was no use, for the perspective of overthrowing the Tories responded to a
genuine democratic feeling among the Canadian people who, in their majority,
did not vote for a Conservative government. They want to do away with a
government that seeks to make working people pay for a crisis they did not

The Harper government used the State institutions to avoid being overthrown

But the government was not overthrown. Using some institutions of the
Canadian state established to protect the governing party, Harper asked
Governor General Michaële Jean to prorogue Parliament until the end of
January 2009. In responding to the prime minister’s request, she was simply
performing her institutional duties, [constitutional lawyer] Henri Brun
argues. This meant there would be no non-confidence vote on the economic
statement on December 8.

To legitimize this call to shut down the Canadian parliament for two months,
the Tory leader launched a media campaign designed to undermine the
legitimacy of the coalition, claiming that it included the Bloc Québécois.
It was a horrifying prospect, he said, to give a coalition including a
“separatist” party control of the Canadian government, even if that party
would not be an actual part of the government. Harper’s campaign effectively
whipped up hatred against Quebec in English Canada.

His objective was not only to delegitimize the Coalition and its proposed
government but to divide it and make the Liberals in particular pay a high
political price for this alliance with the “socialists” of the NDP and the
“separatists” of the Bloc. He won some serious points on this score.

The Conservative operation was particularly cynical and . . . easy. Didn’t
the opposition forces radically overestimate the depth of the political
crisis? There was indeed a parliamentary crisis, but the legitimacy of a
change in government was not rooted in the population as a whole, especially
in English Canada, and nowhere did these sentiments give rise to a
significant extraparliamentary mass movement. That is what explains the
angle of attack taken by Prime Minister Harper, focusing on Canadian unity
and his capacity to resist the parliamentary crisis, which will reoccur of
course. Judging from opinion polls, he emerges a winner from the crisis.

The nature of this coalition and its program

The Liberals entered this coalition for self-preservation and out of
opposition to Harper’s doctrinaire non-interventionism at a time when all
other Western governments have already rejected this economic abstentionism.

The Liberals have imposed a program on this coalition that is fully
consistent with the logic of the G-20 governments. “The new Government is
committed to working with the international community, particularly with
G-20 partners, in pursuit of an effective new global financial
architecture.”[1] But the G-20 plans do not question the deregulation of the
financial industry in any way whatsoever. The G-20 have assigned the job of
extricating them from the present crisis to the IMF and the WTO, the
promoters of an unjust and unviable model. The only proposed solutions
defend the interests of the major creditors. Poor peoples and countries
continue to be denied a say.

The Coalition’s common plan aims to “provide active stimulus for the economy
over the next two years, with a shared commitment to return to surplus
within four years.”[2] This is the principle of fiscal responsibility and it
promises future attacks on existing gains of the people. Even the promised
support to families is limited “as finances permit.” Not much, then. 

The NDP and the Bloc are asking for measures to help people affected by the
economic crisis, to protect pensions and employment insurance benefits, and
to support cultural activities through cancellation of the budget cuts
announced  by the Conservative government. But there are very few clear and
itemized commitments in the coalition’s founding agreement. That is
understandable, as it is led by a party that cut back on unemployment
insurance, attacked democratic freedoms through its anti-terrorist laws and
initiated the disastrous intervention in Afghanistan.

And then there is what is not explicitly written. “In order to sign the
coalition agreement with the Liberals, on Monday, NDP leader Jack Layton
renounced his party’s call for the cancellation of a proposed reduction in
corporate taxes.”[3] Even more serious: “The NDP’s deputy leader Thomas
Mulcair stated Wednesday that the party would no longer oppose Canada’s war
in Afghanistan while it was teamed with the Liberals. This was a significant
concession for a party that was the standard-bearer of the country’s peace
movement. Mr. Mulcair, the only New Democrat MP from Quebec, stated that
‘the NDP is setting aside the differences that have always existed with the
Liberals on issues such as Afghanistan’.”[4] 

This is a minimalist agreement given the scope of the crisis, and it
essentially replicates, as its framework, the positions elaborated by the
G-20 countries aimed at maintaining a development model that has led us to
this crisis, adding to it an interventionism that is oriented entirely
toward support to big business. It is an agreement that says not a word
about the withdrawal of Canadian troops, the colossal sums that are being
spent on them, and the unacceptable nature of that intervention.

Will this coalition hold together?

The federal Liberal party has a crisis of leadership. Stéphane Dion has been
ejected from his position as leader. The Liberals have already decided not
to develop an alternative budget to the one that the Conservatives will
present next January 26. Will they participate in the budget preparation
consultations being proposed by Stephen Harper? No doubt.

For the NDP, the coalition is still a governmental alternative, and if there
are some good ideas in the Tory budget, they say, the Coalition should adopt
them and include them in its own budget. Taking power as a coalition remains
the party’s perspective. For the NDP, there is no going back.

The Bloc will be the only party to benefit from the Coalition episode. Its
participation in building the coalition was not the expression of any
confidence in the Liberals, but reflected its understanding that consistent
opposition to the Conservatives is the source of its strength among the
people of Quebec. Duceppe has clearly understood that all the manoeuvres
designed to dislodge the Tories could only reinforce his own legitimacy and
his base in Quebec. This does not mean he is setting out a clear strategy
that can actually protect the people against the crisis. That’s another
matter altogether.

The Coalition is already being torn by the contradictions among the
Liberals, and the internal dynamics of the Liberal party will no doubt lead
to its implosion.

Two scenarios that merge into one

Several scenarios are possible, but they lead to the same conclusion. The
Coalition’s days are numbered.

The Liberals vote for the budget and refuse to defeat the government. This
theory is based on the fact that many Liberal supporters on Bay Street were
not happy with the party’s alliance with Layton’s NDP and the separatists of
the Bloc. This is reflected in the questioning of the coalition in the
Liberal caucus, the scope of which is currently masked by party discipline.
Voting for the budget would give the Liberals time to rebuild under a new
leader. Also, recent polls indicate that Harper has to this point been the
main beneficiary of the crisis in English Canada, with the Liberals far
behind. Some Liberals are already arguing that the door is not completely
closed to possible support to Harper’s budget even if, they say, he will
have to make many concessions. In that case, the coalition will be over. 
 If the Tories don’t shift much the government could be defeated and
elections called. Would a coalition hold together in an election? The answer
is clear. The Liberals could not accept an electoral agreement with the
Bloc. The NDP likewise, given the national polarization that could be
manifested during the next federal election campaign. 
What coalition should be built to confront the crisis, the Conservatives,
and all the federalist forces?

The unions have chosen to line up behind the coalition and ally with a party
that has led a major offensive against the majority of the working
population in recent years. The only perspective before working people and
their organizations is not a coalition without a future, it is class
independence and the unity of the workers and popular forces at the level of
the Canadian state in a united struggle against the parties of big business.
The NDP must stop tying its hands to the Bay Street Party and assist in the
organization of this coalition of workers and popular forces. Only repeated
mass actions can block the attacks being prepared to make the people pay for
the economic crisis of the capitalist system. It is important that the
unions and the popular, feminist and ecologist forces retain their freedom
of action and coalesce on their own bases.

We must build campaigns to demand a complete revision of employment
insurance in favour of the workers, the construction of social housing and a
better public system of transport, strengthened public pensions, strict
regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and the immediate withdrawal of
Canadian troops from Afghanistan.

The parliamentary crisis in Ottawa has not produced a nationalist upsurge
comparable to the one provoked by the rejection of the Meech Lake accord.
But Harper’s campaign has been an unacceptable provocation for many
Québécois. The independence perspective, however, will broaden only if it is
rooted in a strategy that can articulate a social agenda capable of
contending with the coming crisis. There are no shortcuts. The only way to
do this is to develop a party that makes the link between the social and
national struggles, in place of a party whose elitist leadership uses
sovereigntist sentiments to monopolize provincial power, a party content
with managing as the Parti québécois has been doing for a long time.

Bernard Rioux is a leader of Gauche socialiste, a collective within the left
sovereigntist party Québec solidaire. QS won its first seat in the Québec
National Assembly in the December 8 election. This article was published in
the web journal Presse-toi-à-gauche, on December 9. Translation by Richard


[1] A Policy Accord to Address the Present Economic Crisis, a Coalition
document dated December 1, 2008.

[2] Idem.

[3] La Presse, December 3, 2008.

[4] Idem.

More information about the Marxism mailing list