Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have surged to power in Canada by promising “real change” after almost ten years of Conservative rule. Despite their position as one of Canada’s two big business parties, the Liberals even managed to outflank the New Democratic Party on the left.
Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper, Prime Ministers of Australia and Canada, shared a similar brand of nasty right-wing politics and what the Financial Review described as a “mutual admiration society”. Now, both are gone.
Of the two, Harper was far more competent and long-lasting, as Prime Minister since 2006. But he faced popular revulsion against the government’s cuts and austerity, racist policies against First Nations, Muslims, and refugees, his climate and pro-war policies and attacks on civil liberties in the name of anti-terrorism. Strong movements emerged on all these issues. Going into the election, it was clear there was a mood for change—but Harper had proved he was a political survivor who was willing to run the nastiest of campaigns.
When the election was called, the official opposition was the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP had shocked everyone in 2011 by tripling the number of seats it held to over 100, its highest number ever. The Liberal Party were reduced to an embarrassing third place, for the first time since the party was founded in the 1850s.
The Canadian Liberals are a corporate party with a progressive veneer due to their introduction of welfare state measures in the 1960s, and lent official support to multiculturalism, bilingualism, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada’s bill of rights.
More recently they presided over enormous cuts to social programs in the 1990s and 2000s and have shown an obsession with budget deficits.
The NDP is Canada’s equivalent of the Labor Party, but has never formed a federal government and is seen as an outsider. They are supported by the union movement and linked to the student movement and many other campaigns.
In the context of 70 per cent of the electorate looking for “change”, at first the NDP led the polls. In May the NDP won the Alberta provincial election in Stephen Harper’s conservative home state. Yet instead of seizing the momentum for change, leader Thomas Mulcair saw the main challenge as proving the NDP’s respectability within the traditional straightjacket of austerity politics: being fiscally responsible and maintaining a balanced budget.
He also distanced himself from key demands of many movements: promising more tar sands mining, silencing pro-Palestine candidates, defending the purchase of fighter jets, promising more police, and scaling back tax hikes for corporations and the wealthy.
The NDP base went into “shock” after Mulcair promised four years of balanced budgets, as Ontario union leader Sid Ryan put it.
Liberals talk left
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau rejected this logic and promised to run deficits of up to $10 billion to build infrastructure and jobs. He even promised to tax the rich and criticised military spending.
The Liberals accused the NDP of planning a “Stephen Harper budget”. The result was that despite many excellent progressive NDP policies, such as a national public $15 per day child care scheme with one million places, Trudeau was able to campaign against the NDP from the left. He effectively questioned how the NDP were going to bring in such an ambitious scheme and balance the budget.
Trudeau grew up in the Prime Minister’s residence when his father was in power, but somehow managed to present himself as an outsider willing to break political rules and bring change.
The NDP promise of a balanced budget was particularly disastrous in Quebec, where unions led anti-austerity strikes during the election campaign. In 2011, the NDP picked up 59 out of 75 seats as voters rejected both the traditionally dominant parties of the Quebec nationalists and the Liberals. They lost 40 of these seats this time, mostly to the Liberals. They also lost all their seats in the east coast provinces and in the left-wing heartland of Toronto. The Liberals made an astonishing comeback, from 36 to 184 seats.
Voting is not compulsory in Canada. Analysis shows that the Conservatives did not lose many votes. What changed the outcome was three million new voters who backed the Liberals’ message of change, and one million who switched from the NDP to the Liberals.
The success of the Canadian Liberal campaign and the enthusiasm that Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have generated show that people around the world are sick of austerity politics and are looking for change.
But real change can only come from mass movements and the working class, not from one or other of the parties of big business.
By Penny Howard