by Robbie Mahood / May 2005 issue of Socialist Action
It might be argued that the frequent scandals that erupt during the tenure of bourgeois governments divert attention away from the real underlying class
issues. But crimes and misdemeanors in high places can also be quite revealing of the fault lines in the capitalist political order. This could not be truer
than in the case of the current scandal gripping the federal minority Liberal government in Canada.
The so-called sponsorship scandal dates back to the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence. Fearing a possible separatist victory (in the end, narrowly averted), the Liberal cabinet, under then Prime Minister Jean Chretien, engaged in a number of manoeuvres to subvert Quebec’s stringent law on campaign spending.
Amongst these was a scheme to secretly funnel public monies into ad agencies close to the Liberal Party in Quebec, ostensibly to raise the profile of Canadian unity. This much of the story had already broken prior to the June 2004 federal election.Voter revulsion, especially in Quebec, was enough to deny the new Liberal leader, Paul Martin, his widely anticipated majority.
Prime Minister Martin was subsequently forced to appoint a public commission of inquiry under Justice John Gomery. Amongst the witnesses called to testify was former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who
symbolically thumbed his nose at the commission.
For a time it seemed that Martin would succeed in limiting the damage. But a key beneficiary of the sponsorship money revealed that he was obliged to
channel a portion of the funds back into the coffers of the Liberal Party. That has re-ignited the scandal, and in all likelihood the government will go down to
defeat, precipitating an early election, possibly sending voters to the polls in late June.
The Liberals stand to lose electoral ground to the opposition Conservatives in English-speaking Canada and to the nationalist Bloc Quebecois, which is
nominally committed to Quebec sovereignty. The labour-based New Democratic Party may also benefit. Opinion polls point to a possible Conservative majority government based on only 36% of the vote. NDP
support to the Liberals, in exchange for reversal of the corporate tax breaks promised in the Feb. 23 federal budget, may buy some time for the Martin
government. But this is far from certain.
The sponsorship scandal highlights once again the difficulty the Canadian bourgeoisie has in containing Quebecois national aspirations and in preserving at least one party with a strong Quebec representation as
a springboard to national (pan-Canadian) power.
In the past, the Liberals were the most successful in deploying this strategy, with the Conservatives occasionally stepping in to the breach. Since the
constitutional crisis of the early 1990s, however, the Conservatives all but lost their Quebec base, reflecting the absorption of the old Progressive Conservatives by right-wing forces based in Western Canada under the leadership of far-right ideologue and current Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper.
The sponsorship scandal is a direct blow to this system of political domination, therefore, because it strikes directly at the integrity of the Liberal Party, the sole remaining pretender to the role of bi-national unifier. Nationalist sentiment in Quebec increasingly gravitates to the bourgeois nationalist Bloc Quebecois, which, federalist hopes to the contrary, is not just a transient phenomenon.
The Quebec provincial Liberal government of Jean Charest has also run into heavy weather. It is encountering mass resistance to its aggressive neoliberal agenda, most recently in the successful mass strike of university and junior college students against the privatization of the student loan system. It turns out that some of the sponsorship money also found its way back to the provincial Liberals, so the stain has spread beyond the federal arena.
The next Quebec election, which is two years away, could see the return to power of the pro-sovereignty Parti Quebecois, with the prospect of another
referendum on independence. This is a nightmare scenario for the Canadian bourgeosie, but Paul Martin’s ability to play this card to stave off defeat
has been effectively crippled.
A Conservative majority government in Ottawa will be based on only a weak plurality of the popular vote and can only accelerate both the national and class
divisions within the Canadian state. This is not to say that the election of this retrograde party would in any way be desirable. But it is unlikely to bring
the kind of stable class rule that the Canadian bourgeoisie has traditionally enjoyed with the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives of yesteryear.
As for the New Democratic Party, its support appears to be rising from 15.7% of the vote last June to 20.5%, according to an EKOS opinion poll in early
April. This may increase further if the Liberal vote continues to fall.
The current parliamentary crisis presents the NDP with an opportunity to break the lesser-evil allegiance of urban working-class voters to the Liberal Party,
particularly in Ontario. But this will depend on NDP leader Jack Layton’s willingness to campaign on issues that clearly differentiate the NDP from the Liberals in class terms, and to offer an unequivocal defence of Quebec’s national rights.
*Robbie Mahood is a member of Socialist Action/Ligue pour l’action socialiste in Montreal.