When Justin Trudeau called the election on August 15, both he and pundits believed that the Liberals would be able to cruise to victory and secure a majority government. Despite some public consternation that calling an election as the fourth wave of COVID-19 appeared on the horizon, Trudeau and his handlers felt confident that Conservative Erin O’Toole would not appeal to many beyond the party’s core and that the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh would be unable to carve progressive votes away from the Liberals.
Two weeks in, the campaign has hardly gone along with these presumptions. The healthy Liberal lead evaporated and the Conservatives and NDP have already made enough gains in the polls to put a Liberal majority into question. Although Conservative votes are not the most efficient—requiring them to win by several points nationally in order to win the most seats—there is a growing fear that Trudeau’s hubris in calling the election, and the generalized disappointment in his government’s actions, could result in a Conservative government.
Liberal let down
Trudeau was elected with much fanfare in 2015, promising to be the most progressive Prime Minister ever, promising real action on climate change, embracing feminist rhetoric, and promising that the 2015 general election would be the last one to be first-past-the-post.
In terms of climate, Trudeau’s government talked a big game, signing onto the Paris Agreement and instituting a carbon tax, but they have done so while also propping up the oil and gas industry, including shelling over $4.5 billion to pay for the Trans Mountain pipeline. Predictably, the carbon tax had a negligible impact, with Canadian carbon dioxide emissions actually growing in the first year after the tax was implemented (the most recent statistics we have).
Trudeau also made big overtures about appointing the first gender-parity cabinet, but conflicts with women cabinet members (most notably Jody Wilson-Raybould and Celina Caesar-Chavannes) have undermined his claim that his government is welcoming to women politicians, especially women of colour.
Initial overtures to electoral reform went to committee but by February 2017, Trudeau’s government abandoned efforts to change the voting system when they couldn’t ram through a system that would have inevitably benefited the Liberals only.
The let down on each of these policies helped erode support and by the time the 2019 election came around, Trudeau scraped out a minority while losing the popular vote to the Conservatives.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada in early 2020, the Liberals made some political gains with the implementation of the CERB that helped millions navigate the economic devastation, although it also had serious shortcomings especially for those who had not made income in 2019 but intended to in 2020. The Liberals eventually transitioned CERB into an enhanced Employment Insurance that produced some positive (although temporary) changes to EI eligibility, also saw a reduction in the benefit amount.
Even more problematic was the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program, a program championed even by the NDP and filled with problems, namely that it was a no-strings-attached handout to business that unsurprisingly resulted in lots of abuse as recipients cried poor to the government while continuing to pad profits, pay dividends to shareholders, and reward executives with hefty bonuses.
The Liberal’s failure to advance a true reconciliation program with Indigenous communities, offering crocodile tears while refusing to settle longstanding civil actions around the residential schools we now know were home of genocidal acts against Indigenous children, has helped remove much of the progressive credibility Trudeau has tried to claim.
Despite these problems, the Liberals have mostly avoided the ire of the population when it comes to the handling of the COVID crisis, with the provincial governments facing most of the blame. The Liberals felt confident they would be seen as prudent leaders in this crisis and, combined with popular childcare and minimum wage promises, felt ready to coast to victory.
Tory wolves in sheep clothing
The Tories, in contrast, entered this election in disarray. Despite efforts to distance himself from the relic of Stephen Harper and the far right of his party, the new leader continued and continues to be incredibly unlikeable—certainly hurt by right wing governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario handling the COVID-19 pandemic horribly. The punditry class saw disastrous results as the likely outcome of this election.
Despite an awkward start, O’Toole has attempted to portray himself as softer than Harper and has pushed some policies that the NDP has championed, such as giving pension plans priority status in bankruptcy proceedings and making room for worker representation on corporate boards. He has even attempted to appeal to workers in the gig economy, offering a mechanism for them to access a mediocre version of EI and CPP, which may sound like an improvement but in reality is a gift to corporations that want to continue to exploit gig workers more than traditional workforces already are under current employment legislation.
Behind these policies are also traditional conservative positions, including throwing out the very popular daycare plan that the Liberals are championing. O’Toole is eager to embrace private for-profit companies entering the health sector (a position he’s tried to walk back) as well as opposing stronger regulations and national standards for Long Term Care homes that were the source of so much death during the height of the pandemic.
Only a few months ago O’Toole was caught on camera defending the educational goals of residential schools and has joined the far-right chorus decrying “cancel culture” as protests have targeted the statues of racist Prime Minister John A. MacDonald and other architects of the genocide of First Nations people. His cabinet would be filled with the worst ghouls from the Harper era, such as Michelle Rempel and Pierre Poilievre.
Despite efforts to soften his image, O’Toole will certainly rule like Harper and there is much to fear. Worried that voters will be reminded of the monster underneath the suit, they’ve been quick to ask Doug Ford to keep away.
An NDP rebound
Despite having a relatively strong campaign in 2019, Jagmeet Singh’s first time before voters resulted in significant vote and seat losses, losing all but one seat the party had in Quebec—though this was blamed on both Singh and Quebec rather than the failure of NDP policies to challenge the status quo. But the party’s fortunes appear to have improved, especially among young voters terrified by the prospects of climate change and an economy in tatters post-COVID.
The NDP has offered some bold policies that certainly are resonating, like proposing a wealth tax and a promise to build 500,000 new affordable housing units, a move that would do a lot to increase access and act as a counter to the out of control housing market. With the Liberals staggering out of the blocks, Singh has been effective at pointing out that many Liberal promises could have been implemented without an election. Singh’s campaign has been quite confident, with polls showing the possibility of significant gains.
That said, the NDP program is not without problems. Their good housing policy is paired up with calls to stop foreign ownership, which feeds into xenophobic explanations for housing prices skyrocketing and is an approach that will never turn voters toward the NDP. And with more folks are open to radical economic solutions, such as nationalization, the NDP still shies away from raising the possibility, although they do entertain the idea of crown corporations playing a larger role in sectors like telecommunications. It also doesn’t help that the BC NDP government has been a disappointment when it comes to some key issues, such as its support for the Site C Damn Project and its failure to pass paid sick days during the worst periods of the pandemic (although on this latter point they have been pushed to promise it by the end of the year).
The NDP is engaged in an exciting campaign that potentially will build its momentum, pushing the Liberals further left in hopes of holding onto power. Many on the Left, including many who identify as revolutionary socialists, will be volunteering on campaigns in the next few weeks—especially with some exciting candidates like Paul Taylor and Alejandra Bravo running. This will pose some questions about what role socialists can best play during this time.
Revolutionaries and elections
The long history of social democratic parties in power has shown the limits of electoralism to bring change. We only have to look at the record of the governing BC NDP to know the kind of radical alternative society needs, especially in the shadow of catastrophic climate change. But this doesn’t mean we should reject elections altogether. Although many socialists don’t believe that electoralism as a strategy can provide radical change, elections are important tactical opportunities: when millions are talking politics, and when discussing political change is temporarily encouraged, socialist ideas can find larger audiences.
Recognizing both the limitations and the possibilities of elections under capitalism also shapes how socialists intervene. Elections are typically based on choosing a party to support based on their platform and then cheerleading them, while hoping the other parties don’t win. But socialists can intervene in elections to amplify the movements outside Parliament that can push the whole terrain on which parties are campaigning further to the left both during and after the election. During the last federal election in 2019 there were mass climate strikes in the middle of the campaign—which challenged the Conservative’s climate denialism, exposed Trudeau’s hypocritical rhetoric, pushed the NDP to the left and gave momentum to the movement beyond the election.
The reason the Liberals have been forced to lead with promises on paid sick days and universal subsidized daycare during this election is because of the role these movements have played in making those programs incredibly popular and a vote getter. The movements have also pushed the NDP to advance bolder policies—from supporting 5 paid sick days during the last Ontario provincial election, to now supporting 10 paid sick days in the federal election.
Campaigns around climate change, Indigenous sovereignty, migrant justice, and decent work for all can help focus on issues that offer real alternatives, and that are based on movements that have built broad audiences. Advancing these issues while canvassing, making them items that the media and leaders debates have to cover, can play a role in isolating the Conservatives, exposing the Liberals and pushing the NDP further to the left.
This is how revolutionaries refuse to be bystanders during elections: turn anger and disappointment toward Trudeau away from reactionary conclusions by pushing demands we really need and that are rooted in broad movements.
Beyond the election
Whichever party wins this election, the problems of Canadian capitalism will not disappear, especially those that have been accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The fourth wave has already begun to disrupt business as usual, and the possibility of outbreaks in schools as kids return is very real. Inflation, and banks trying to inflate their profits with higher interest rates, will put even more pressure of families trying to make ends meet. The climate crisis is intensifying, having witnessed the growing heat during summer and the out-of-control wildfires causing devastation across the country. The continued horrible treatment of Indigenous communities and the failure to offer any meaningful reconciliation will be a continued theme whether Trudeau or O’Toole (or Singh) are Prime Minister. The bloated police budgets will continue to be used to attack and marginalize racialized communities across the country. Even if the NDP were ever able to win government, we know from experience that the outcomes would fall short of expectations and need.
As long as we live in capitalism, our democratic institutions will be curtailed and undermined by the forces of capital, who help shape policy to suit their needs and rarely give workers an inch. To build a genuine democratic society, we need to imagine the possibility of organizing the economy around human need and bending political priorities to meet those needs. We need to imagine a society that democratically plans how to face the challenges of climate change and is able to break away from the colonial legacies that inflict Canadian society. An election is a good time to start having those conversations but we need to be able to continue them well after the parties disappear from the street.
We need to build a socialist movement that is rooted in campaign across the country, and which can amplify and connect these campaigns. This includes using elections as a tactic, but the overall strategy is to build movement and organizational power outside of the colonial and capitalist institution of Parliament, and to lay the foundation for a new democratic society. That is the best way forward beyond September 20, starting with the global climate strike on September 24.
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