May 10, 2011

Struggle shifts to outside parliament

Commentary by the Central Executive Committee, Communist Party of Canada

The May 2nd federal election gave Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party an absolute majority in the new Parliament. But to do it they had to hide their real agenda, and spend millions in payoffs and promises they may never deliver. They haven’t convinced a majority of Canadians to privatize medicare and social programs, and they haven’t sold Canadians on their sky-high military spending, the wars in Afghanistan and Libya, or their war on civil, democratic and labour rights. The outcome did not reflect a political swing to the right among voters, and Harper has no real mandate to impose his reactionary agenda on the working class and the peoples of Canada.

In fact, the Conservatives garnered less than 40% of votes cast, and only 24.3% support among all registered voters. There was no seismic shift to the Conservatives; rather, the Tory majority came about primarily due to vote-splitting between the Liberals and the social democratic NDP in key ridings, especially in Southern Ontario and British Columbia.

This election revealed yet again the archaic, undemocratic nature of the “first-past-the-post” electoral system, which always distorts electoral outcomes and in this case negated the anti-Tory sentiments of the majority of the Canadian people. The struggle for democratic electoral reform, beginning with some form of proportional representation, has become more urgent than ever.

While support for the Harper Conservatives rose just 2%, there were substantial shifts in voting patterns for the other large established parties. Most significant was the growth in both popular support (30.6%) and seats (102 out of 308) for the New Democrats, earning the NDP the status of “official opposition” for the first time. These gains came particularly at the expense of the pro-sovereigntist Bloc Québécois, and the Liberal Party in English-speaking Canada.

The collapse of the BQ was dramatic, with its popular vote in Québec sliding to 23.4% (from 38.1% in 2008) and its seats reduced from 49 to only 4, with a corresponding massive increase in support for the NDP. A certain fatigue with the sovereignty debate among Québec voters helped caused the Bloc vote to collapse, in favour of the anti-Harper alternative presented by the NDP. It would be wrong to conclude however that this signifies a marked drop in support for the sovereignty option, considering Layton’s public commitment to respect the results of a future referendum vote on separation, and the Québec NDP’s shift to support “asymmetrical federalism.”

The increased vote for the NDP, and its enlarged caucus which includes many young first-time members, is a welcome development, reflecting a growing trend among working people to break away from the grasp of the old-line parties of big business. Clearly, a larger proportion of electors, especially among youth and students, were attracted by NDP leader Jack Layton’s call for “change”. Québec is now the NDP’s main base, which may push them to take stronger positions on the national question, on war and militarism, and on protection of medicare and social programs. It must be said however that although many identified the NDP as a left-progressive alternative, the party under Layton’s leadership has in fact moved steadily toward the “centre” of the political spectrum as part of their long-held strategy of supplanting the Liberals as the official opposition.

Also noteworthy and welcome was the breakthrough election of Elizabeth May as the first Green Party representative in Parliament, even though the overall popular vote for the Greens slipped compared to 2008.

Both the Liberals and the BQ emerged from the election badly mauled, and their respective leaders (Ignatieff and Duceppe) have resigned. The post-election crisis in both these camps could take the form of further political realignments in the future.

Not surprisingly given the continued media blackout, votes for the Communist Party of Canada’s 20 candidates remained low. But the Communist campaign helped to inject the anti-war views of millions of Canadians into the debates, and to win support for radical new policies to put people’s needs ahead of corporate greed.

The most immediate outcome is the catastrophic reality of a Harper Tory majority in Ottawa for the next four years. The carefully orchestrated Conservative campaign (heavily financed by its big business patrons) convinced at least a section of the electorate that they had somehow moderated their radical, right-wing political agenda and could therefore be “trusted” with the immense power of a parliamentary majority. But this scripted image is belied by the facts. The Tories’ first two terms in office – even as a minority – revealed much of their militarist, pro-corporate, anti-environmental and anti-democratic policies, carried out by the most arrogant, dictatorial and secretive government in Canadian history.

The Harper Conservatives’ full-blown program will quickly come to the fore: their “law and order” agenda (starting with the “omnibus” crime bill), the further imperialist drive to militarization and war, and a sharpened assault on labour, democratic and social rights and services, not unlike the vicious “austerity” policies being imposed by right-wing governments across Europe, and by Republican-controlled states in the U.S. Workers in the federal public service are likely to be among the first targets of Harper’s “plan” to eliminate the deficit within three years.

The so-called “social conservatives” are already raising demands to “reopen” the debate on women’s reproductive rights and to strip away other gender and equity-based gains, and to eliminate Human Rights Tribunals.

Given the new balance of forces within Parliament, the capacity of the NDP and other opposition parties to counter this agenda will be significantly weakened; they will offer up their critiques and may succeed in delaying various pieces of legislation, but with the Tories in full control of both the Commons and the Senate, the possibilities of actually blocking or defeating government bills by parliamentary means alone have all but disappeared. In such circumstances, the focus of resistance and struggle against this reactionary agenda must shift decisively to the extra-parliamentary arena. This is where the next battles will be fought and where victories can and must be won.

The trade union movement has a critical and central role to play in initiating and leading a broad-based, pan-Canadian fightback movement against a renewed “Tory majority” onslaught. The Canadian Labour Congress is currently meeting in Vancouver, to be followed shortly by the congress of the Québec-based CSN labour central. The Communist Party of Canada urges delegates at these key labour conventions to seize upon this opportunity to set those wheels in motion.

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