Are the Liberals an Alternative?

(Article 2 of 4) Harper and the Tories are unfit to govern, and should be shown the door. Unfortunately, the alternative we were offered December 3, after Harper’s broadcast to the nation, was not very promising. The Liberal-NDP coalition would be headed by outgoing Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. Along with Harper, Dion was offered ten minutes of air time on national television to present his position. In a strange piece of melodrama, Dion’s tape was delivered late – so late, that it only appeared on CBC, and was not aired by CTV.

For those who saw the video, the effect was depressing. The message Dion put forward was confusing and hesitant (as well as looking as if it had been produced by a webcam). Many who watched it and had supported the Liberal-NDP coalition, had second thoughts after seeing his performance.

Dion is a lame-duck leader of a Liberal Party that was deeply wounded in the last election. The Liberals received their lowest percentage vote ever, getting the backing of just 26% of the electorate.[1] It is only because they are so weakened that they have been forced to turn to the BQ and the NDP for support.

The role of the NDP and the recently ex-NDP is in fact extremely important in this drama. The origins of the coalition idea seems to have come from current NDP leader Jack Layton in consultation with former NDP leader Ed Broadbent. Layton – far more popular with the electorate than Dion – is centrally important in giving the coalition credibility. And in the dramatic radio coverage of the decision to prorogue Parliament, the CBC had Ed Broadbent on the phone for the NDP, and for the Liberals – former NDP premier of Ontario Bob Rae, and former NDP premier of B.C. Ujjal Dosanjh, both of whom are now senior members of the Liberal Party of Canada, one of whom (Rae) is a leading candidate to replace Dion.

But make no mistake – if the NDP is central to the formation of the coalition, this will be a Liberal government. The prime minister will be Liberal. The finance minister will be Liberal. Most of the cabinet seats will be Liberal. And these Liberals are a known quantity, a party little different from the Tories in both their fiscal and foreign policies.

Harper is hated because of his neoliberal policies. But the bitter truth is, there is nothing to choose between the Liberals and the Tories in terms of neoliberalism. One way of measuring this is in the support given by the federal government to the provinces. In the Canadian system, it is the provinces that deliver the bulk of Health, Education and Welfare. But given the much greater taxation powers of the central state, they are very dependent on transfer payments from the central state to finance these “social wage” activities. One of the key aspects of neoliberalism is launching an assault on this social wage. The chart on this page shows the record here for both the Liberals and the Tories.[2]

The neoliberal era in Canada is usually seen as beginning with the Mulroney Tories in the 1980s. The chart shows that social wage transfers did stagnate through much of the 1980s under Mulroney’s watch. But the years of devastating cuts were 1995 to 1998, years of a Liberal government. The critical moment was the 1996 budget authored by then finance minister Paul Martin, working with then prime minister Jean Chrétien. That is the budget which collapsed long-standing programs for delivering money to the provinces (Established Program Financing and Canada Assistance Plan) into the Canada Health and Social Transfer. Disguised in this bureaucratic shuffle were cuts in billions to the transfers necessary to sustain the social wage – more than $1 billion in the first year, more than $2 billion in the second and almost $3 billion in the third. In Ontario in those years, we could see the open neoliberals – Mike Harris, Jim Flaherty and Tony Clement – launching horrible attacks on hospital and public school funding. But their open neoliberal attacks were made possible by the “silent” neoliberalism of Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien. The fact that those transfer payments go up in the last years of the Liberal tenure should give none of us comfort. The first years of the 21st century saw an unprecedented world-wide economic expansion, which filled the federal coffers with billions of tax dollar windfalls. So transfer payments increase in the last years of Chrétien and Martin – but they have also increased in the last two years of the Harper Tories. This is not because either became wedded to protecting Canadian workers – it is because of the economic boom, a boom which has now come shuddering to a halt.

This division of labour between the Tories and the Liberals has long defined Canadian politics. Their policies are virtually indistinguishable – Liberals playing the soft cop as a counterpoint to the Tories’ hard cop. Social policy is not the only place where this is visible. In foreign policy, the Liberals love to portray themselves as the party of Lester Pearson, the party of peacekeeping – contrasting themselves to the hawkish Tories. And in fact, Harper’s Tories have openly relished increasing the militarization of the Canadian state. This year, Harper has boasted about his plans on these lines. In May, the National Post gave a “sneak preview” of the plans.

Over the next 20 years, the Tories want to commit Ottawa to spending $30-billion more on the military. Mr. Harper foresees an expansion of our Forces to 100,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen. Troop strength will include 70,000 regular forces, up from 65,000 today, while the reserves will expand from 24,000 to 30,000. Ageing warships will be replaced, and new transport aircraft and armoured vehicles wibe purchased. New medium-lift helicopters will be bought immediately to ferry our troops over and around roadside bombs and snipers in Afghanistan.[3]

This was confirmed on the evening of Thursday June 19, 2008 – “the night before Parliament adjourns for the summer”[4] – a major document appeared on the National Defence web site, announcing a 20 year, $490-billion “Canada First” Defence Strategy to steadily upgrade Canada’s military capacity over a generation.[5] But the chart here documents that this increase in spending on war did not begin with the Tories – it began with the Liberals.[6] Under Liberal Paul Martin’s watch between 2003 and 2006, military spending increased more than $1 billion, in real terms, every year. Under Harper, those increases actually slowed for two years, before returning to Martin era levels in 2007-08. There is nothing to choose between the Tories and the Liberals in terms of Canadian militarism.

The “Canada First” increase in Canada’s militarism, builds upon a generation of moves by both Tories and Liberals to move away from the peacekeeping moment. In 1991 under the Tories, Canada was a full participant in the first Gulf War. Canada’s 1993 intervention in Somalia looked to the Somalis more like occupation than peacekeeping.[7] In 1999, under the Liberals, Canada was one of the principal contributors to NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. And from 2001 to the present, it has been a central component of the war in Afghanistan. It was not the Tories who sent Canada into this overseas adventure – it was Jean Chrétien, and John Manley, and Paul Martin, and John McCallum, and Stéphane Dion – the very Liberals we are now told are an alternative to the Tories.

The Harper Tories are a threat to peace, a threat to social programs, a threat to the interests of working people in Canada. But the record of the Liberal Party over a generation should make us soberly assess the chances of a coalition – a coalition they dominate – being any better.

Previous article:
Harper’s Tories: Attacking Quebec to Save Neoliberalism
Read next:
Liberals and Tories – parties of corporate power
Harper out of Ottawa, Canada out of Afghanistan

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] According to Nodice, www.nodice.ca
[2] Department of Finance, Canada, “Fiscal Reference Tables, September 2008: Table 11 – Major transfers to other levels of government,” adjusted into 2008 dollars based on Statistics Canada, Canadian Socio-Economic Information Management System (CANSIM) “Table 3260020 – Consumer Price Index, 2005 basket, monthly” accessed December 5, 2008.
[3] “Bolstering our Forces,” National Post, May 14, 2008
[4] David Pugliese, “Parliament in the dark on major weapons purchase,” Canwest News Services, June 19, 2008, accessed June 20, 2008
[5] “Canada First Defence Strategy,” National Defense, Canada, June 18, 2008, accessed June 20, 2008.
[6] Department of Finance, Canada, “Fiscal Reference Tables, September 2008: Table 7 – Budgetary expenses (millions of dollars),” adjusted into 2008 dollars based on Statistics Canada, Canadian Socio-Economic Information Management System (CANSIM) “Table 3260020 – Consumer Price Index, 2005 basket, monthly” accessed December 5, 2008
[7] Sherene H. Razack, Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004)

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