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)

Harper’s Tories: Attacking Quebec to Save Neoliberalism

(Article 1 of 4) Stephen Harper won a seven week reprieve December 4, the Governor-General granting his request to prorogue Parliament until January 26. But the events of the past week have pushed him into a corner and he is fighting for his political life. The fight has revealed something many people already knew. Behind the fuzzy sweater donned during the last election, behind the “fireside chat” chumminess that he was trying to cultivate, behind this façade of polite civilized behaviour, there resides the same man who was cadre for the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance. That political formation built itself on a combination of polarizing attacks on Quebec and neoliberal dogmatism. Harper in a corner, with his fangs bared, has showed himself not to have changed one iota.

The anti-Quebec politics he has unleashed are appalling. In Question Period December 3, Tory member after Tory member repeated the same two words over and over again – “separatist coalition” – 36 times to be exact, if the official record is to be believed.[1] Harper used the same language in his address to the nation December 3, saying that a time of crisis is “no time for backroom deals with the separatists.”[2] At various times, Tories were using the words “treason,” ” and “deal with the devil” as they carried their polemic against the proposed coalition.[3] This was clearly a planned, coordinated strategy, the most blatantly open anti-Quebec politics to come from the federal stage in years.

Just a few months ago, Harper was trying to woo the voters of Quebec, hoping to re-create the Brian Mulroney coalition of the 1980s. He had surprisingly supported the idea of calling Quebec a nation – something that angered many of his old Reform Party comrades. But pushed into a corner, he needs to rally his base – and nothing energizes the old Reform Party more than attacks on Quebec.

“In the space of just a few days” said one commentator, “the phobia of ‘separatists’ has reappeared in Ottawa and in English Canada, with a force we haven’t seen in years, since the referendum in 1995, since the Meech Lake controversy.”[4] It has become legitimate again to speak about Quebec with outright hostility and bigotry, made legitimate by the irresponsible rants of Harper and the Tory caucus.

Harper is aware just how inflammatory is his language. In the French version of his address to the nation, he translated the loaded word “separatist” into the much less value-laden “souverainiste”.[5] But this transparent ruse is unlikely to fool the people of Quebec, who are rightly recoiling in shock at the display of venom coming from Harper and his followers. As one radio commentator put it, the price for Harper rallying the troops to his anti-Quebec flag, was to put “scorched earth” between the Tories and what had been their developing base in Quebec.

Harper’s target is the Bloc Québécois (BQ), which has indicated it would support the proposed coalition between the Liberals and the NDP. Harper’s attack is ridiculous. First, the BQ is not part of the coalition – it has only indicated that it will give the coalition 18 months to govern. Second, this is not unusual. The BQ was, after all, central to keeping Stephen Harper’s last minority government alive in its early months. And these parliamentary details are beside the point. The Tories are focussing on the fact that the BQ supports sovereignty. That is their right. They are also the party supported by 1.3 million Quebeckers in the last election. The BQ is a legitimate part of the political spectrum in Canada. It has a long record of operating in the House of Commons – including being the official opposition in 1993, a party which has “contributed to debates outside matters of Quebec’s status and powers, on everything from climate change and Afghanistan to efforts to repatriate Omar Khadr” as even the editorial writers for The Globe and Mail have to admit.[6]

But Harper is teetering on the edge of losing his office, and will use every weapon at his disposal to say in office – even if that means fanning the flames of anti-Quebec bigotry. What brought Harper to this impasse was his stubborn commitment to neo-liberal orthodoxy, even in the face of the economic storm sweeping the world economy. In country after country, governments have turned their back on the neoliberal allergy to the state – and begun the process of rediscovering Keynesianism and state intervention – indispensable in the face of the horrors of the unfettered free market. But Harper and his finance minister Jim Flaherty – the latter trained in the neo-liberal era of Ontario’s Mike Harris – had delivered an economic update that instead of stimulating the economy, would have further depressed it. They are dogmatic neoliberal ideologues, very reluctant to abandon the old, failed orthodoxy.

Flaherty has been trying to argue that he has already stimulated the economy through previously announced tax cuts. The Department of Finance depends on four firms to help with the preparation of budget documents. One of these is the Centre for Spatial Economics. Flaherty’s view “is a fantasy” according to the Centre’s Robert Fairholm, quoted in The Globe and Mail. “Most of the short-term stimulus from these measures have already boosted economic activity, and so will not continue to provide [a] short-term jolt to growth.” The tax cuts coming January, 2009 put $2.5 billion into the economy. But the update was going to cut $4.3 billion, “so the net effect is contractive, Mr. Fairholm explained.” In fact, instead of stimulating the economy, Fairholm estimates that the impact of Flaherty’s “update” would be to turn a 0.3 per cent annual growth rate to a decline of 0.1 per cent.[7]

Harper has revealed his colours – first as a neo-liberal dinosaur who has no understanding of how to respond to the economic crisis, second as a politician willing to go to any lengths – including irresponsibly provoking an anti-Quebec backlash in English Canada – to consolidate his base and keep his job. No wonder that his actions have disgusted thousands, and that the three other parties in the House of Commons are trying to push him out.

Read next:
Harper out of Ottawa, Canada out of Afghanistan

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] “40th Parliament, 1st Session: Edited Hansard: Number 012,” Wednesday, December 3, 2008, www.parl.gc.ca
[2] “Full text of Harper’s televised address,” www.thestar.com, December 3, 2008
[3] “Fanning anger toward Quebec,” The Globe and Mail, December 4, 2008, www.theglobeandmail.com
[4] Translated from Vincent Marissal, “Situation désespérée, stratégie du désespoir,” La Presse, 04 décembre, 2008, www.cyberpresse.ca
[5] Graeme Hamilton, “Old bogeyman usurps real crisis,” National Post, December 4, 2008, www.nationalpost.com
[6] “Fanning anger toward Quebec,” The Globe and Mail, December 4, 2008, p. A22.
[7] Cited in Heather Scofield, “Flaherty’s plan prolongs the pain, forecaster says,” The Globe and Mail, December 4, 2008, p. A4.

Transit strike exposes fault lines in labour movement

The Ontario legislature convened at 1:30 pm, April 27 – the first time in history that the august body had met on a Sunday. In 35 minutes, the politicians had time to have prayers, make a few speeches and, oh yes, give three readings to a bill called the “Toronto Public Transit Service Resumption Act.” By 2:05 pm it was finished, with the support of the NDP and its leader Howard Hampton, his “reservations” notwithstanding.[1] Workers in Ontario will be living with the repercussions of these actions for some time.

Unionized workers at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) had been on legal strike since midnight, Friday April 25, and the strike had caught most by surprise. The Toronto Star of April 24 carried a short article headlined “TTC contract expected to pass vote.”[2] Tense negotiations had resulted in a tentative agreement between the Toronto Transit Commission and the 8,900 strong Amalgamated Transit Union (Local 113) that most saw as a victory for the union. TTC drivers won a wage increase of 3 per cent a year in each year of a three-year deal. On top of that, in what became known as the “GTA clause” drivers received the right to remain the highest paid transit drivers in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). What it means is that if, at the end of 2009, city of Toronto transit drivers are earning less than transit drivers in Mississauga or any other municipality in the GTA, they would “get an increase of 5 cents an hour above the other drivers’ wage.” The Mississauga example is key, because “TTC drivers have been earning 5 cents an hour less than those in Mississauga.”[3]

Conservative members of Toronto City Council were outraged at the deal. “I think it’s a mistake … We’ve turned over control. It’s not wise,”[4] said Councillor Doug Holyday. “I don’t know where we are going to get the money from,” said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong.[5] But if the right-wing was dissatisfied, so was the rank and file – but for completely different reasons.

First – one of the key areas of disagreement, the treatment of workers injured on the job, had not been fully addressed. Under the old contract, workers injured on the job received 85% of their pay while they were away from work. The union wanted that raised to 100%, and while they made some headway, “obviously, we didn’t get everything we wanted,” said local president Bob Kinnear.[6] The importance of the issue was graphically demonstrated April 20, when two TTC workers were injured, one seriously, after two subway cars collided in a maintenance yard.[7]

There were other issues. While drivers were awarded the “GTA clause,” no such agreement existed for other sections of the local, including maintenance workers who represent about 1/3 of the locals’ membership. Skilled trades workers were also dissatisfied. They had wanted a 10-cent an hour premium raised to 50 cents, but were offered only 25 cents. Tensions around these issues were so high, that seven members of the local’s 16-member executive refused to sign the tentative agreement.[8] In this context of a division at the top, and a feeling that drivers were being treated differently than non-drivers, rumours began to swirl through the membership – most starkly, that there were plans afoot to contract out much of its maintenance work.

But to really understand the events, the entire context has to be seen. City workers – including transit workers – have lived through years and years of budget crises, cuts to services, threats to wages and threats of attacks on conditions such as contracting out. But this year, for the first time since the creation of the amalgamated City of Toronto in 1997, the City came forward with a balanced budget. With Canada’s labour party (the NDP) dominating many of the key positions in the City (including in the mayor’s office, held by David Miller, a long-time NDP stalwart), and with the threat of a budget deficit finally removed from over the heads of the city’s workers, there was a sense that now was the time to make up ground lost in the difficult years of the 1990s. There was developing what labour historian Stuart Marshall Jamieson called in earlier times, a “momentum of rising expectations,”[9] expectations that it was time to make some progress. In that context, we should not be surprised that maintenance and other workers should want to be treated just as well as drivers in the new contract. That is the context in which the tentative agreement was rejected, 65% voting it down.

The rejection of the transit deal was announced late afternoon, Friday April 25. By midnight, the transit system was shut down, the local leadership having called its members out on legal strike. But it was a strike of a special kind. There were no picket assignments, no picket signs, no picket lines, no activity of any sort. At midnight, the doors were locked, the union’s members were sent home and the “strike” was on. The rank and file had spoken, decisively, and the union leadership responded by showing absolutely no leadership.

The workers had been put in an incredibly vulnerable position. Their leadership had announced up and down throughout the long negotiations that any strike would happen after 48 hours’ notice. Instead there was none, maximizing the possibility of a backlash against the union. And with no picket lines, the striking workers were expected to take on their boss, the city and the anti-union media by staying at home – a recipe for failure and demoralization. Perhaps Kinnear and the rest of the ATU leadership were too divided to come up with a plan. Perhaps they were so surprised at the rejection of the deal that they were paralyzed. Perhaps Kinnear was himself “on strike” against the rank and file – pulling them out after the vote, but refusing to do anything to give shape and structure to the strike. In any case, the effect was total confusion.

It did not take long for anti-union forces to enter into the vacuum created by the local leadership’s inaction. Shamefully, it was mayor Miller, flanked by TTC head Adam Giambrone (former head of the federal NDP) who led the charge, calling the strike “unacceptable and unnecessary.”[10] This set the stage for the provincial NDP to help out the Liberals and the Tories in making the strike illegal. So as quickly as it was over, the strike was done.

There is now talk of declaring the TTC an “essential service” and completely stripping its workers of the right to strike. It is not clear that this will happen without a fight. Sid Ryan, Ontario president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) said in a press release: “We successfully mobilized labour throughout the province when [former Tory premier] Mike Harris tried to suspend the right to strike during amalgamation, and we are prepared to do that again. The right to strike is a fundamental right in any democracy … If you take that right away, workers are little more than indentured servants.”[11]

The whole experience has shed light on the fault lines that exist inside the labour movement in this country. The rank and file showed surprising militancy, rejecting a deal that most saw as a victory – saying that they deserved more. The union leadership showed itself incapable of providing a lead to this new sentiment of militancy. And social democratic politicians showed again, that – when forced to choose between working class militancy and being good corporate managers – it is their management hat that often carries the day.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] “Hansard Issue: L034,” April 27, 2008 http://hansardindex.ontla.oon.ca
[2] Tess Kalinowsky, “TTC contract expected to pass vote,” Toronto Star, April 24, 2008, www.thestar.com
[3] Tess Kalinowski, Vanessa Lu, “Critics slam deal’s GTA clause,” Toronto Star, April 22, 2008, www.thestar.com
[4] Kalinowski, Lu, “Critics slam deal’s GTA clause
[5] Jeff Gray, “Miller opponents say TTC deal is too generous,” The Globe and Mail, April 22, 2008, p. A8.
[6] Katie Rook, “TTC deal averts transit strike,” National Post, April 21, 2008, www.nationalpost.com
[7] 680News staff, “Two TTC workers injured after subway cars collide,” 680 News, April 20, 2008, www.680news.com
[8] Jeff Gray, “Coup at TTC union blamed for strike,” Globe and Mail, April 29, 2008, p. A1
[9] Stuart Marshall Jamieson, Times of Trouble: Labour Unrest and Industrial Conflict in Canada, 1900-66 (Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services Canada, 1976), p. 418
[10] CityNews.ca Staff, “Visibly Angered Mayor David Miller Calls Sudden TTC Strke ‘Unacceptable And Irresponsible,’” www.citynews.ca
[11] CUPE, “Expect province-wide labour unrest,” April 28, 2008 http://cupe.ca