Canadian Elections: The Electoral Circus Northern Style

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Canada’s recent federal election has brought the Conservative Party, under Stephen Harper, to power for the first time in 13 years and sealed the collapse of the Liberal regime mired in corruption scandals. The bourgeois media and political pundits across Canada have been buzzing with anticipation of what changes the new Conservative government will bring to a nation proud of its international reputation for “tolerance,” “openness,” “peace,” and a generous social welfare system.

The ruling Liberal minority government was forced to call the election in December 2004 when it lost a vote of confidence in Parliament after the NDP(New Democratic Party) refused to support its budget proposal following the publication of the Gomery commission’s report into the Quebec “sponsorship” scandal. This report detailed the involvement of high-level Liberal Party figures in a corruption scheme that saw large sums of money diverted from a federal program to promote federalism in Quebec into the hands of Liberal Party hacks.

The Liberal Party, already mired in Quebec corruption scandal, narrowly won a minority victory in the last election during the summer of 2004, and clung to power with the support of the left NDP, as it beat back several attempts by the newly united and energized Conservative Party – with occasional help from the separatists of the Bloc Quebecois—to bring down the government. Faced with a need to rejuvenate its electoral mystification after 13 years of Liberal rule, growing corruption scandals undermining the government’s legitimacy,  and a need to stabilize the government, the Canadian bourgeoisie clearly saw the necessity to change the ruling team, even if it did not see the need for a drastic change in either international or domestic policy.

In order to accomplish this, the Canadian media went to work making sure to stoke enough anger over the corruption scandal to bring the Liberal government down, but at the same time instill enough fear over an unchecked Conservative government (the only other party capable of winning enough votes to form a government) to make sure they did not win enough of a mandate at the polls to enact the most radical elements of their domestic agenda.

In the months leading up to the election, the media and the various opposing parties ran a two-prong scare campaign, which on the one hand fed the anger over the corruption scandal, while on the hand warned sober-minded Canadians that a Conservative government could mean greater restrictions on the right to an abortion, an end to the recognition of gay marriages, the returns of the death penalty, further attacks on the national health system, the possible secession of Quebec, increased subservience to the U.S., and Canadian participation in American imperialist adventures.

Even the media in the United States got into the act, welcoming a new Conservative government as a step toward repairing the two countries’ relationship, which had become severely strained under the Liberal governments of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin and the Bush administration.

The result of the media campaign would seem to be just what the Canadian state ordered: a minority Conservative government –a new ruling team with a new face, but lacking the national mandate necessary to enact its most radical domestic program.

Despite the campaign hype, the ascension of the Conservative Party to power will not change the historic situation of the working class in Canada, nor will it significantly alter the dynamic at work in the  international relations between capitalist states, which is pushing even the Canadian bourgeoisie to increasingly go its own way, to look out for its own interests and formulate its own imperialist policy distinct from its erstwhile allies.

Immediately after being sworn in as Prime Minister it became clear that Stephen Harper possesses little desire to see his nation’s imperialist interests subsumed to the U.S. One of his fist acts in office was to call for the construction of a fleet of military icebreakers to patrol the Northwest Passage –the series of straits and bys surrounding Canada’s Arctic islands that link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans—in order to defend against the incursion of military submarines from other nations, especially the U.S.!

While this may seem like a minor issue in the scope of the imperialist confrontations rocking the globe today, the Northwest Passage is expected to become an increasingly important shipping lane, as global warming melts the ice cap that currently engulfs much of the area for the better part of the year. Canada’s current attempt to assert its sovereignty over these waters represents a clear effort to send a message to all other nations that it will defend these waters in the future, with force if necessary. Harper’s announcement was immediately met with a public rebuke from the U.S. ambassador, who forcefully stated his country’s case that the Passage is international waters.

In fact the row over the Northwest Passage represents a continuity with, and the latest entry, in a growing list of Canadian provocations against the U.S. that began under the Liberal regime. From the dispute over fishing rights in the Dixon Entrance, to Canadian protests against the U.S.’s alleged violation of the NAFTA treaty by imposing duties on softwood lumber; from vocal public outcry over the acquittal of U.S. fighter pilots who “accidentally” bombed Canadian troops in Afghanistan while high on speed, to Martin’s refusal to participate in the Bush administration’s plan for a continent-wide “ballistic missile shield,” the Canadian government has taken an increasingly provocative stance against its southern neighbor in a way that has gotten the attention of an American bourgeoisie, until recently basically content to ignore Canada.

As a result, the U.S. has fired back, banning imports of Canadian beef on several occasions over fears of Mad Cow disease, loudly criticizing Canada’s supposedly lax immigration policies that have allegedly allowed terrorists to infiltrate the continent, and going public with a plan to require Canadian citizens traveling to the U.S. to present passports by 2007.  Canada has not allowed these slights over the border to pass without retaliation. Harper has announced plans to arm Canadian border officials in response to the growing number of “criminals” crossing into Canada from the U.S. Moreover, crossing into Canada is no longer a simple affair for many American tourists, who now often have to undergo extensive questioning at the border.

While Harper has announced plans to cooperate more closely with the U.S. in the “war on terror,” strengthen and re-equip the Canadian military and take a more active role in Afghanistan, this should not be seen as a major reversal from prior Liberal policies. In fact, any increased “cooperation” with the U.S. will in reality only serve as an umbrella under which the Canadian state attempts to strengthen its own hand and play its own imperialist card. In this sense, Harper’s plan to take Canada out of the Kyoto environmental accords is not a capitulation to U.S. pressure, but an attempt to assert Canadian independence against both the U.S. and Europe.

On the domestic level, the new Conservative government is unlikely to take the country in any dramatically new direction either. In fact, the major issues affecting the working class-that the media focused on during the campaign to stoke fears about what might have happened under Conservative rule --were actually policies first formulated by the Liberal regime. Chief among these is the dire warning about the progressive dismantling of Canada’s previous comparatively generous social wage system, primarily through cuts to the country’s expensive national health care system that the Conservatives would supposedly implement. However, what this  propaganda fails to explain was that this attack on the healthcare system, and on other elements of the social wage in general, was already well under way under the Liberals. Harper’s policies, and those of his provincial protégés in Alberta, are little more than advanced expressions of the logic rooted in the very nature of the global capitalist economic crisis itself that forces the bourgeoisie to progressively attack the living and working conditions of the working class throughout the world. Canada is no exception.

The Canadian media was to some degree successful in lining the Conservatives’ policy on healthcare to the ideology of the “right-wing movement” in the U.S., through the themes of “privatization” and “neo-liberalism,” further feeding fears that the Conservative government would accelerate Canada’s assimilation with the U.S. Nevertheless, these policies do not differ in any fundamental way from what a Liberal or NDP government would be compelled by the very logic of capitalism to do: attack the living standard of the working class.

On the social level, the excitement about abortion, gay marriage and crime was used to maximum effect during the election campaign to divide and distract the working class from class issues. On crime, Harper has announced plans to “crack down” on gun crime and other violent offenses that are becoming increasingly more common in Canada’s large cities. These are the same cities hailed as safe, multi-cultural utopias in American leftist Michael Moore’s film “Bowling for Columbine.” In fact, Winnipeg’s violent crime rate is about the same as New York City, while Toronto has witnessed several high profile shootings involving youth, and Vancouver is becoming a central hub for violent Sikh and other Asian gangs.

While growing crime clearly reflects the effects of capitalist social decomposition, it is without doubt that the Canadian state’s attempts to strengthen its repressive apparatus will do little to make the cities safer. In fact, they  will only give the state more tools to crack down on the working class, when the later begins to respond to capitalism’s attacks on its own class terrain.

When all is said and done, the recent Canadian elections mean no qualitative change for the condition of the working class in that country. Moreover, while the Canadian bourgeoisie may have succeeded in reviving its electoral mystification for the short term, it remains in a very difficult predicament. Canada, even more so than the U.S., is a very divided nation, as the election showed. While the Conservatives won a plurality of the vote, and were thus able to form a government, the majority of Canadians voted for “left of center” parties. Moreover, the Canadian bourgeoisie itself is very divided along linguistic and regional lines, and the specter of Quebec’s secession is a serious threat to the country’s very geographic integrity. All this makes the situation for the current Conservative government very precarious. Nevertheless, due to the global nature of the capitalist crisis, it will have no choice but to continue most of its Liberal predecessor’s main policies, attack the social wage, continue to forge an independent imperialist policy and challenge the domination of its southern neighbor. - Henk, 24/3/06