On March 25th, Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government fell, losing a Liberal Party confidence motion in the House of Commons, after having been found in contempt of Parliament by the speaker just days prior. The stage is now set for federal elections to take place on May 2nd, marking the third time in five years Canadians have been called to the polls. Already the media machine is in full swing reminding Canadians of the importance of voting to the health of their nation’s “democracy.”
The battle lines for the campaign are by now pretty well set. The Liberal Party, under former Harvard history professor Michael Ignatieff, will try to make this a campaign about the Harper government’s gross disregard for democracy, its abuse of Parliament, and irresponsible corporate tax cuts, while Harper and the Conservatives will run on their reputation as the best managers of the economy, citing Canada’s relatively strong economic condition compared to other western nations. Meanwhile, the New Democratic Party (NDP)—Canada’s Social Democrats—will urge working-class Canadians to support them as the only party really looking out for the “middle class,” and fighting to protect Canada’s socialized medical system; while the officially separatist Bloc Québécois will call on the voters of Canada’s only majority francophone province to support them in their quest to win more sovereignty for la belle province.
When we last wrote about the Canadian political situation at the time of the 2006 federal elections, we pointed out the vital need at that time for the Canadian bourgeoisie to attempt to revive its electoral mystification after 13 years of corruption laden Liberal party rule that had finally run its course. Burdened by numerous corruption scandals, most notably the Quebec sponsorship scandal, confidence in the Canadian state was nearing an all time low. It had become essential for the Canadian bourgeoisie to dump the Liberal government, even if there was no need for a drastic change of course in international or domestic policy.
To that end, the Canadian bourgeoisie pulled off an immediate success, by bringing to power a new Conservative Party minority government, which could give the Canadian government a fresh face and revive illusions among the populace in the power of electoral democracy to enact change. At the same time their minority government status would serve to keep the Conservative’s more ideologically aggressive domestic policy desires from coming to fruition.
Nevertheless, despite the initial success in pulling off this transition in 2006, after five years of Conservative minority government, we can definitively say that the Canadian bourgeoisie has roundly failed to revive confidence in the nation’s political system and its democratic and electoral mystifications remain fragile. The last five years have been far from a model of stable government, as the Harper regime itself has been plagued by scandal, displaying a contemptuous and cavalier attitude towards “representative democracy” reminiscent of the George W. Bush years in the United States.
The time has come once again for the Canadian bourgeoisie to attempt to give its state a new gloss of legitimacy through another election campaign. However, the challenges facing the Canadian ruling class this time around would appear to make the tasks it faced in 2006 look mild. While there again seems to be little need for a drastic change in course in domestic or international policies, the damage done to the legitimacy of the political system in the last 5 years has been tremendous and, what’s more, it appears that there is no clear consensus among the Canadian bourgeoisie about how to repair the damage.
Should it give the Harper Conservatives a majority government on the grounds of creating the conditions for a stable government skilled at shepherding the still buoyant Canadian economy through the shoals of a perilous international economic environment? Should it keep the Conservatives in a minority government, a possibility that looks less and less viable everyday, or should it try to give the government an entirely new face once again, most likely through the mechanism of a Liberal/NDP coalition?
None of the choices facing the Canadian bourgeoisie at the moment are without their risks, and as a result it is not surprising that its main factions are having a hard time settling on a concerted policy. While we can not say for certain what will happen in May, polling trends currently suggest the Conservatives are toying with winning a majority government without winning a majority of the vote, a prospect that likely frightens all those worried about the health of the Canadian democratic mystification.
In this article, we will attempt to analyze the trajectory of the Canadian national situation, showing that behind all the talk of its buoyancy in the face of international economic chaos, the Canadian economy remains quite fragile, even if its condition does not pose the same level of urgency to launch drastic austerity measures against the working class immediately, in the same way posed in other western nations. While this economic “breathing space” allows the Canadian bourgeoisie to be more flexible in its approach to national politics, it is finding it difficult to exercise this flexibility in the face of a serious political crisis resulting in a dangerous erosion in the populace’s confidence in the electoral process and the “democratic” state.
Behind the Canadian “Miracle”: Economic Fragility
For the last several years now, the Canadian bourgeoisie has roundly patted itself on the back for the swell job it has done mitigating the nation’s exposure to the “Great Recession.” In many aspects, the Canadian ruling class has some justification for its bragging. While the U.S. economy suffers a dramatic economic calamity as a result of the implosion of the real estate bubble in 2007 and Europe continues to face the specter of further sovereign debt crises, the Canadian economy has shown certain signs of resiliency. Canada boasts the lowest debt to GDP ratio in the G7, its banks remain solvent as they were largely unscathed by the sub-prime mortgage and associated collateral debt obligation crises, the domestic real estate market continues to expand and the Alberta oil sands are booming.
On the surface, among the major powers, the Canadian political class appears to have been among the most skilled managers of its national economy over the last decade. By keeping the most destructive impulses of the banking industry in check and eschewing the Anglo-American model of cheap and easy mortgage credit, while quietly streamlining government operations, the Canadian state has managed to avoid the outright economic disaster that has rocked its competitors, in particular its neighbor to the south. It is easy to detect the growing sense of smugness in the Canadian media as they begin to look at the United States with a sense of cold pity after many decades of displaying a profound inferiority complex to the world’s number one power.
Nevertheless, despite the comparative advantages over its competitors, the Canadian economy is not exactly standing on solid foundations. Although the state was largely able to prevent the banking industry from indulging in the most excessive financial games of the last decade, the worldwide recession has not spared Canada completely. Officially going into recession at the end of 2008, the nation suffered its first budget deficit in 13 years that same year. Canada’s federal budget deficit now stands at about $40 billion—small potatoes compared to the woes of the United States, but of enough concern to make reducing the deficit a central focus of economic policy debates in the country.
The official unemployment rate in Canada continues to stand at around 8 percent, only slightly lower than the U.S. The average household debt load in Canada is now at an all time high, further indication of the shallowness of effective demand in the consumer economy. In 2009, the average Canadian family was burdened by $91,000 in debt. In an all too familiar replay of the U.S. real estate farce, many Canadian families are now burdened by high mortgage debt in a real estate market that continues to spiral upward. Although Canada largely lacks the dangerous phenomenon of “liar loans” that was the impetus for the collapse of the U.S. housing market, many young families are stretching their incomes, taking on high ratio mortgages at variable interest rates in order to afford homes. Earlier this year, the Bank of Montreal stated its concern over a potential housing bubble in the nation—prompting the Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to announce tighter rules for mortgages. In many ways, although lacking some of the more outrageous abuses that characterized the U.S. bubble, the Canadian consumer economy has been kept afloat by the same smoke and mirrors of increasing consumer debt spurred by unsustainably low interest rates.
However, perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Canadian economy is that fact that close to three-quarters of its exports must currently find a market in the United States. Continued economic troubles south of the border, coupled with a high Canadian dollar that is currently trading above par with the U.S. greenback, pose the threat that Canada’s relative economic strength will be turned into weakness in short order. Although Canada has seen its share of plant closings over the past several decades (particularly in southern Ontario), it remains a largely resource extraction/industrial oriented economy vulnerable to rapid changes in international—and in particular U.S.—demand.
Moreover, Canada’s provinces—outside of insurgent Alberta still basking in the glow of its oil boom—cannot claim the same level of comparative fiscal strength as the Federal government. By some estimates, Ontario’s debt stands at a whopping $250 billion, while Québec suffers from a 50 percent debt-to GDP ratio, making it one of the most heavily indebted jurisdictions in North America.
The Crisis of the Canadian Political Class
Although the Canadian bourgeoisie does not face the same immediate imperative as the other major powers to launch a frontal assault on the living and working conditions of the working class, the underlying fragility of its economic situation should have its political class concerned about developing a coherent strategy for implementing future austerity and responding to working class discontent. For now, however, the Canadian ruling class is finding it difficult to go beyond a basic struggle to legitimate its electoral and political apparatus in the eyes of a rather disengaged populace.
While the Canadian bourgeoisie may currently display a thinly-veiled sense of superiority towards their American neighbors regarding the latter’s economic woes, they remain envious of the success the U.S. bourgeoisie had in 2008 in revitalizing the electoral mystification accomplished through the “historic” candidacy of Barack Obama. Voter turnout in Canadian elections has been dismally low for some time. The last federal election in 2008 marked the lowest voter participation in Canadian history, with only 59 percent of registered voters casting a ballot. Participation among young voters was particularly appalling, as only 37 percent of voters aged 18 to 24 bothered to show up at the polls. Although the usual non-profit civic groups engage in media campaigns to preach the importance of participation to democracy and the candidates themselves attempt to reach out to the youth through YouTube and Facebook, the Canadian political class continues to find it next to impossible to get many in the younger generation to give a damn about Canadian elections. Watching Canadian television news for an evening, an outsider could be forgiven were they to conclude that Canadians would prefer Obama were a candidate in their elections, rather than Harper, Ignatieff, Layton or Duceppe.
Canadian politicians themselves have certainly not made it easy to revive faith in electoral democracy in their own country. Over the last five years, the Conservative Party in particular has willfully flaunted parliament on numerous occasions, giving the impression that the political class itself could care less about the rules of the game. In late 2008, just months after winning his second minority government, Harper was forced to ask the Governor General to prorouge (suspend) parliament for three months in order to avoid being ousted from office by a Liberal/NDP coalition that would have governed with support from the Bloc. Citing the need for stable government and to save the nation from a coalition that included separatists, Harper decided to forgo parliamentary democracy altogether for a quarter of the year! If Harper would have ended there he may have gotten away with it, but in early 2010 he did it again— this time in order to avoid a parliamentary mandate to turn over documents regarding the Canadian military’s treatment of detainees in Afghanistan. This time, Harper slyly told the public that parliamentary democracy must cease, so the nation could focus on the Olympics, then being held in Vancouver! Still, despite holding the majority of seats in parliament, the opposition parties remained so divided amongst themselves—so afraid of being associated with the Bloc—that they could not at the time find the stones to bring down the Conservative government.
Over the last year, the Conservatives have shown no sign of attempting to repair their image. In March of this year, Minister of International Cooperation Bev Oda was found by the Speaker to have misled Parliament by essentially lying on the floor of the House of Commons regarding documents her office appeared to have forged, overriding career civil servants to deny funding to an international development agency alleged to have anti-Israeli views. This scandal was followed by revelations that Brian Kenney—Minister of Immigration—used his ministerial office to campaign on behalf of the Conservative Party among “ethnic voters.” Further allegations that the Conservatives misrepresented the costs of an ambitious anti- crime bill and grossly and intentionally understated the costs of their plan to acquire sixty-five F-35 fighter jets were the final straws that broke the camel’s back. For the sake of the image of the Canadian state, the opposition parties had to bring the government down.
With such utter contempt for the trappings of parliamentary democracy on the part of the Conservatives, coupled with such utter lack of will on behalf of the opposition parties to defend it for over two years, its no wonder most Canadians are completely turned off to the electoral process in their country. Nevertheless, given the structure of the Canadian state and the balance of power between the parties, it is very likely that the Conservatives will win the most votes in the May election. The only question that remains uncertain is whether they will win enough to form a majority government. Thus, the difficulty facing the Canadian ruling class is that there appears to be no immediate way to give the government a new face without endorsing a Liberal/NDP coalition government that would be quickly painted by the Conservatives as a Liberal/NDP/Bloc coalition, depriving it of legitimacy in the eyes of many Anglophone Canadians from the start.
The Canadian political class finds itself in a tough political quandary. If the Conservatives win a majority government without winning a majority of the vote, it will prove difficult to legitimate it in the eyes of the majority of voters who supported the opposition parties. If the Conservatives form another minority government, more political instability will surely follow. Still more, a Liberal/NDP coalition might prove even less legitimate as it would surely be tinged by the defeated Conservatives with the stench of separatist support, inflammatory rhetoric that would certainly alienate many in Québec.
The Canadian bourgeoisie is currently hampered by the structure of its state that at the present time seems incapable of producing a government that commands much legitimacy. While the somewhat exceptional nature of the Canadian economic situation grants the Canadian bourgeoisie some flexibility to solve this problem, the constant threat of a renewed economic downturn in a fragile international environment increases the urgency of this task.
The working-class in Canada must not be fooled by the attempts of the bourgeoisie to revitalize its electoral/democratic apparatus, nor should it allow itself to be drawn into the campaigns around the legitimacy of particular governments. For the working-class, all capitalist governments are equally illegitimate, as they will all eventually have to carry out the same mandate to attack the proletariat’s living and working conditions.
 See our Canadian Elections: The Electoral Circus Northern Style in Internationalism #138; http://en.internationalism.org/inter/138_canada_elections.htm
 John Spears. “Canadian Household Debt Hits A Record High.” Toronto Star. February 16, 2010.
 The Canadian Press. “Housing Overvalued, BMO warns.” Cited on CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/story/2011/03/03/bmo-housing.html
 Tamsin MacMahon. “The Federal Budget and 50 Years of Debt.” National Post. March 22, 2011. Cited on Social Policy in Ontario webpage. http://spon.ca/the-federal-budget-and-50-years-of-canadian-debt/2011/03/22/
 Amber Hildebrandt. “Elections Missed Mark With Students.” CBC News. April 5th, 2011. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canadavotes2011/story/2011/04/04/cv-election-youth-voter-turnout.html
 ibid. Keep in mind these numbers are of registered voters not eligible voters, which likely underestimates the extent of voter apathy.
 Despite the Bloc’s, official stance in favor of sovereignty for Quebec, the prospect for brining that to fruition is currently remote. In fact, perhaps the greatest threat to the territorial integrity of Canada today comes from Conservative rhetoric itself, which in a quest to demonize its opponents has threatened to revive the separatist boogeyman.