by Barry Weisleder / June 2005 issue of Socialist Action
1. Federal Liberals rebound
There will be no Canadian federal election—not for a few months any way.
Prime Minister Paul Martin and his Liberal government narrowly escaped defeat in Parliament on May 19, with the help of millionaire Conservative Party defector (now Liberal Cabinet Minister) Belinda Stronach, plus two of the three independent MPs. Then the Liberals won a bye-election in the remote north-eastern constituency of Labrador on May 24, now giving them 134 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.
With the backing of the labour-based New Democratic Party, plus at least one independent MP, the federal budget seems destined to pass Third Reading in June. The NDP successfully extracted $4.6 billion in concessions from the Liberals, including more money for public housing, environmental clean-up,
post-secondary education and foreign aid, and won a delay of corporate tax cuts.
What the business media likes to portray as sudden Liberal ‘largesse’ barely puts a dent into more than a decade of deep social cuts, and tax gifts to the rich. But the new spending has enabled the government to recover, at least temporarily, from the sponsorship scandal tailspin—everywhere, that is, except in Quebec. That’s where the government spent over $355 million, according to auditors, to promote federalism and ‘Canadian unity’ following the 1995 referendum near-win for Quebec sovereignty. Much of the money was
spent on bribes and kickbacks to benefit the Liberal Party.
A mid-May EKOS opinion poll shows that an election now would give results similar to that of a year ago, producing another minority government. Currently, the Liberals are at 35%, down 2% from the June 28, 2004,
vote. The Conservative Party draws 28% support, down 2%. The NDP attracts 18%, up 2%, and the Green Party is at 6%, a gain of 2%.
The big difference is in Quebec. There the Bloc Quebecois would likely sweep the province with 54% of the votes, while the Liberals have dropped like a
stone to 20%. The Tories and the NDP trail at 13% and 10% respectively.
NDP Leader Jack Layton’s approval rating has soared largely due to his deft manoeuvring on the federal budget, and his careful avoidance of the intense
mud-slinging and silly procedural games that recently wracked Parliament Hill.
But in Quebec, Layton came across as just another English Canadian chauvinist politician when he condemned the Conservatives on the grounds that they were allying with ‘the devil’ separatists in opposing the budget. This indulgence in cheap demagogy echoed what the Liberals were saying, including the turncoat Stronach, and revealed to Quebecois voters a casual
willingness to put the unity of the bourgeois state ahead of other considerations.
NDP officials have also been given to flights of fancy—calling the amended Liberal document an “NDP budget”. One should not lose sight of the fact that
the budget still contains a boost of $12.8 billion in spending on Canada’s mercenary military, alongside vicious cuts to the federal public service.
There’s one more thing not to forget: the NDP will never form a federal government unless it finds progressive working-class political allies in Quebec,
and that necessitates eschewing anti-Quebec chauvinist sentiments, and opposing anti-democratic laws (like the Clarity Act) that curtail the exercise of Quebec’s national right to self-determination.
2. Black feminist for CLC president
Carol Wall, 52, a negotiator for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), is a mother of three and the first African Canadian woman to seek the top job
in the 3.2 million-member Canadian Labour Congress. Wall is a prominent social justice and affirmative action advocate, was the first Human Rights Director for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers’ Union (CEP), and has over 20 years of union movement experience.
She is up against two-term CLC President Ken Georgetti in an election at the triennial convention in Montreal, June 13-17. Georgetti is best known for
pioneering joint labour-management investment funds in his home province of British Columbia, and for the last year urging unionists to stop opposing global
corporate trade deals, like NAFTA and the FTAA, which he said are ‘here to stay’.
While workers’ wages and benefits have been steadily losing ground for over a decade, the CLC has been nearly invisible. Major union affiliates routinely
sign concessionary contracts, and increasingly curtail union democracy to do it. It is not uncommon nowadays for union bureaucrats to collaborate with management on high-pressure sales tactics to promote bad deals, to ‘ratify’ settlements without a proper vote of members, to wink at the unfair dismissal of militants, or to impose dictatorial ‘trusteeship’ on rebellious locals.
Carol Wall’s campaign calls for “a new voice, a new energy, a new vision”, for direct mass action for change, together with labour’s social allies. She
insists on the need to “reinvent the CLC” and to develop “an action plan that responds to the priorities of our members and our communities”. While her critique of the current union leadership and its disastrous course is somewhat vague, Wall reflects the profound alienation and dissatisfaction of millions of
The Workers’ Solidarity and Union Democracy Coalition has joined the PSAC, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, and many local activists in endorsing Carol Wall for CLC president. WS&UD stands on a class-struggle platform. Its aim is to change the direction of the labour movement and to challenge capitalist rule. Its intervention at the CLC gathering will be by means of public forums, policy resolutions, literature and lunch-time WS Caucus meetings to
coordinate the efforts of like-minded delegates on the convention floor. It aims at building a cross-country, multi-union class-struggle labour left wing.
Working with other grassroots groups and individuals willing to oppose concessions bargaining, fight for union democracy, and challenge the current mis-leaders of labour is an important starting point for those committed to radical change. Carol Wall’s campaign is a breathe of fresh air in a stagnant and increasingly stifling union movement. And it’s certainly time for a
3. B.C. voters punish Liberals, back electoral reform
British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell’s right-wing Liberal provincial government was re-elected on May 17, but with a significantly reduced majority of seats.
School and hospital closures, deep social spending cuts, massive public-sector layoffs, and regressive legislation fomented four years of turmoil in the west coast province. In May 2004 hospital workers stood up to the attacks, but a growing general strike movement was scuttled by leaders of the Hospital Employees’ Union, under intense pressure from the B.C. Federation of Labour brass. It appears this betrayal diffused public anger and saved the government’s bacon. The B. C. Liberal Party (really a united front of B.C.
right-wing and big business parties) had candidates elected in 45 constituencies and captured 46% of the popular vote. That’s a decline of 11% from the 2001 provincial election.
The New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Carol James, won 34 seats and received 41% of the ballots cast. Although way up from two seats and 20% of the votes last time, the labour-based NDP actually led the Liberals in polls for several months preceding the May 17 election.
James campaigned “to put balance back into the government”. This was understood as a pledge to the business class that the NDP would not reverse the Liberal cuts and layoffs. She also promised to weaken the link between the NDP and the unions—a regressive move that unionists and left-wing NDPers will strongly resist.
The liberal environmentalist Green Party once again failed to elect a single member. Its vote declined from 12% in 2001, to 9%.
At the same time, British Columbians stunned Canada’s political elite by voting in favour of adopting a proportional representation voting system. While the yes vote was 57.4%, just short of the arbitrary 60% threshold set by the government, the message is clear. A majority thinks it is time to replace the
undemocratic first-past-the-post system.
The only alternative electoral option put on the B.C. ballot was the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Despite being overly complex, hardly publicized for want of funding, and poorly understood, STV won majority support in 77 of B.C.’s 79 ridings. However, a straight Proportional Representation system, whereby voters choose one party, rather than rank several parties by preference, would be at least as popular, if not more so. In a direct PR system, each party would get seats in a legislature directly proportionate to the percentage of the votes it receives.
The movement for democratic electoral reform is gaining momentum. Under popular pressure, both the Ontario and Quebec governments have promised to convene a ‘citizen’s assembly’ or some sort of broad consultative process that leads up to a referendum on a form of PR within the next few years. More democracy, notwithstanding capitalism’s inherent gross inequalities, would aid the workers’ movement and the left to be heard, to be represented, and to
advance the fight for fundamental change.
4. More Canadian troops to Afghanistan
Despite rising hostility toward the occupation, and little improvement in the lives of most Afghans, the Canadian government is sending more troops to
Afghanistan. This is an exercise designed to placate Washington and to shore up Western corporate rule across the oil rich Middle East.
Canadian Defence Minister Bill Graham announced in May that another 1250 soldiers will go—250 landing in August, and 1000 in early in 2006. There are now over 700 soldiers at Canadian Forces Camp Julien in Kabul, but operations will shift to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan in the fall.
Although since 2001 several billion dollars in ‘foreign aid’ have been poured into Afghanistan, 70% of families there still live in extreme poverty. Few
have access to electricity or safe drinking water. Sixty percent of girls receive no education, and 700 children die every day due to a lack of health
President Hamid Karzai’s former development minister recently claimed that many aid and development agencies operating in Afghanistan are more interested in lining their own pockets than helping the people.