Canadian Voters Step Sideways, Not Forward, in Ousting Conservative Government

The following interview with Roger Annis was translated and published in Russia by the Actual Politics Center, October 20, 2015. The text in English, here below, has been slightly edited from the original.

Introduction by Roger Annis:

On October 19, Canadians elected a new national government, electing 184 candidates of the Liberal Party out of a total of 338 seats in the federal Parliament. The hated Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper came in second place with 99 seats. The other party results were New Democratic Party (44), Bloc québécois (10) and Green Party (1). The Liberals won 39.5% of the vote, the Conservatives 31.9%.

It was a remarkable performance for the Liberals, who finished in third place in the 2011 election with only 18.9% of the vote. There were three main reasons for the Liberal victory:

1. Canadians wanted an end to the anti-social and anti-democratic government of Harper. Nearly three million more people voted in 2015 (68.5% of registered voters, or app. 61% of the adult-age population) compared to 2011. The Liberal vote total more than doubled compared to 2011, to 6.9 million votes. The Conservative vote dropped by 235,000, to 5.6 million. (Canada’s population is 35 million.)

2. The Liberal Party successfully projected a youthful and progressive image of “change”. It said it would increase taxes on the wealthiest people in Canada to better fund government services and it would run budget deficits, as needed, to finance capitalist infrastructure programs and restore some of the cuts to government services made by the Conservatives since 2011.

3. The progressive posturing by the Liberal Party was facilitated by the staid, conservative campaign of the social-democratic New Democratic Party. NDP leader Tom Mulcair campaigned as a fiscal conservative who would not radically change the economic policies of the Conservatives. The NDP vote dropped from 4.5 million in 2011 to 3.5 million in this election. The party lost all its seats in Toronto, Canada’s largest city. Its seat total in the province of Quebec dropped from 59 in 2011 to 16.

There were no significant differences in foreign policy between these three leading parties in the election.

* * *

Actual Politics: Observers of American politics frequently call members of the U.S. two-party establishment “Republicrats”, referring to their allegiance to roughly the same political interests.  Is the Canadian political system, with its three main parties – the Conservatives, the Liberals, and the New Democrats – similar?

Roger Annis: Yes. In both countries, the political system is controlled by large corporate interests. The political parties act as their direct representatives, or they represent them indirectly by way of sharing the same ideology and outlook.

That said, the founding of the social democratic New Democratic Party in 1961 was potentially an important break from this mold. The party was a merger of the main trade union federation of the day with the social democratic Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. The founding of the NDP was a progressive step that could be built upon to provide the working class with its own political party and program.

Social policy was strong in the NDP’s founding program. The party was a voice for the working class population. It advocated a national medical care program and stronger national pension and unemployment insurance programs. It was sympathetic to the language and national rights demands of the French-language people of Quebec, including in October 1970 when it was the only party in Parliament to vote against the declaration of the War Measures Act by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. (The War Measures Act was a measure intended to break the rising Quebec independence movement.)

The NDP also favored Canadian withdrawal from NATO. In general, the party membership was antiwar and pro-peace in its outlook. Unfortunately, the NDP’s ‘out of NATO’ policy was reversed by party leaders some ten years ago.

Over the past 35 years, the progressive policies in the NDP program have been steadily watered down or even abandoned. Today, the NDP still has a moderately progressive social program compared to the Liberal Party. And it defends important civil liberties, which the Liberals abandoned a long time ago. For example, on May 6 of this year, the Liberals voted in favour of the Harper government’s draconian, police-state Bill C51 whereas the NDP voted against it. The Liberals also voted in June for the grotesque Bill S-7, the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act”.

But the differences between the two parties are getting more narrow as the NDP slides to the political right. And importantly, the NDP does not typically fight outside of the Parliamentary chamber for the improvements it says it wants. It’s been many decades since we’ve seen a significant mass rally in the streets of Ottawa for a major social cause with mass trade union, First Nations and other participation.

On foreign policy, the NDP’s policies today are little different from those of the Liberals and Conservatives.

As I have been writing for several years now, Canada needs a genuine party of the political left. I believe that much of the present NDP membership and its trade union affiliates can be won to this. But it won’t happen through incremental change within the party. A distinct, new voice needs to be built. This will influence the discourse in the NDP far more than fractious debate within the party.

How much influence does the United States wield in Canada in political, economic and military terms?  Has Washington applied pressure on Ottawa to join the sanctions regime against Russia? Why was Harper’s government so eager to impose economic sanctions on Moscow?

The U.S. wields a great deal of influence. It is a close economic partner as well as military ally of Canada’s economic elite. Canada’s capitalist economy is hugely dependent on the U.S. market—80 per cent of Canadian manufactures are sold south of the border.

Canada’s precise relationship to the U.S. is one of the most important subjects in Canadian political economy and has been debated throughout the country’s history. I believe the relation between the two countries is fundamentally one of common interest, not of U.S. dominance. The idea of U.S. dominance might seem self-evident, considering the overwhelming size of the U.S. economy and military compared to those of Canada. But Canada is the seventh largest of the G7 countries and wields a distinct role in world affairs, just as do the other five, non-U.S. members of the G7. It was a founding member of NATO in 1949 and was an early member of the ‘Five Eyes’ spying alliance established following World War Two.

Canada’s anti-Russia belligerence is of its own making. The now-defeated government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper joined in creating the anti-Russia alliance for the same reasons as its NATO allies. They refused to recognize and accept the referendum vote in Crimea in March 2014 and they backed the civil war course of the new right-wing government in Kyiv against the people of eastern and southern Ukraine. The same countries have ganged up against the decision of the Greek people to reject the harsh, anti-austerity policies of the European Union.

The big imperialist countries in NATO are no longer content to live with the European consensus embodied in the foundation of the European Union and later in the fleeting consensus in eastern Europe following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Their system is in crisis and they are embarked on creating a new world order of dominance in which independent capitalist countries such as Russia, China and Brazil face aggressive competition and attack and the weaker countries of the consensus zone, notably Greece and Ukraine, become targets for financial colonization.

Are there political parties and movements in Canada that oppose Ottawa’s anti-Russian stance? Do they have a chance in the Canadian political arena? How are they treated in the mainstream media?

There are no parties of consequence which oppose Canada’s support to the right-wing government in Kyiv and its anti-Russia stance. The three large parties mentioned at the outset of this interview share very similar outlooks on the conflict in Ukraine, just as they back Israel’s policies against the Palestinian people. All three support Canada’s participation in the international gangup against the people of Haiti, who are suffering foreign military occupation the umbrella of the UN Security Council since 2004.

With some exceptions, mainstream media has acted as a mere echo chamber of Ottawa’s and NATO’s belligerence. That’s a sign of how undemocratic our political system has become, because once you look into the views of Canadian citizens, you find serious doubts and outright opposition to Ottawa’s belligerent policies internationally. For example, the comments sections of the daily newspapers frequently reflect widespread doubt and opposition to Ottawa’s support for Kyiv. But people with such views have little voice in media or the Parliament.

One of the more widely-read online journals on the Canadian left is Rabble.ca. It publishes articles which challenge the anti-Russia dogma of the mainstream media and political parties. In mainstream media, journalists such as David Pugliese at the Ottawa Citizen, Thomas Walkom at the Toronto Star (Canada’s largest daily), Scott Taylor at the Halifax Chronicle Herald and writers and editors at the Winnipeg Free Press frequently write commentary that challenges the overwhelming, mainstream narrative. But they are the exception. Sadly, cuts to the financing and the editorial independence of the state-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have rendered much of its programming ineffectual, or worse, on foreign policy matters.

What are the main reasons for growing voter discontent with the ruling Conservatives? Do the Liberals and New Democrats offer an alternative that is not congruent with reigning neoliberal dogma?

The immediate answer to the first question is that the majority of Canadians do not share the hateful and militaristic outlook of the now-departed Conservative Party government and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Even in 2011 when the Conservatives won a majority government, only about 20 per cent of the adult population voted for them.

But the deeper answer is that Canadians are waking up from a 70-year sleep in which they thought the post-World War Two arrangements that provided some measure of peace and of sharing of the social wealth were something permanent. They would be improved but never reversed. It has taken three Conservative governments—minority governments in 2006 and 2008 and a majority government in 2011–for that realization to begin to sink in.

Even so, the defeat of the Conservatives in this election cannot be viewed as a step forward for the country, it is a step sideways. We got rid of the hated Conservatives, but in their place is a majority Liberal government that will not act a whole lot differently on the world stage. It will participate in the wars that the big countries are waging or encouraging, it will join more investment (so-called free trade) agreements and it will continue Canada’s reckless economic path that contributes to global warming.

In Russia, elections are held on days when most citizens do not have to go to work and have plenty of time to cast their ballot for the candidate of their choice.  Why are elections in Canada and the U.S. always held on workdays, when most voters have limited time to visit their local polling station? What percentage of Canadians actually take part in the voting?

In both Canada and the U.S., the tradition of holding elections on workdays stems from the Christian tradition of Sunday as a day of rest and worship. Even though the frenetic pace of the capitalist business cycle has made Sunday into just another day of shopping or of work, the ‘no voting on Sunday’ election carries on, if rather hypocritically.

Canadian voting participation rates have declined along with those of the United States, although less rapidly. In the 2011 national election, only half of the adult-age population voted (61% of registered voters). Participation rates in municipal elections are even much lower. There are several reasons for this. Those who do not vote are disproportionately young, working class or First Nation, or all of the above. They don’t see their interests being voiced by any of the parties. On top of that, the Conservatives have changed certain voting laws and procedures to make it harder for marginalized people to vote.

All indications are that voting participation went up in this 2015 election. But the downward trend won’t change until working class people feel they have someone they can vote for who speaks in their interest. A system of proportional representation would be more democratic, but I don’t believe the Liberal or NDP leaders truly want it.

What methods of voter repression are most commonly used in Canada?

Two methods have come into play. The now-defeated Conservative government changed certain voting laws and procedures to make it more difficult for poorer and marginalized people to vote. They also changed the boundaries of electoral districts to give themselves greater advantages. Their aggressive election messaging is designed such that a voter is either convinced to vote for them or becomes discouraged by the whole spectacle and opts not to cast a ballot. We saw a classic example of this in the just-concluded election campaign where the Conservatives built on their “barbaric cultural practices” law by proposing a disgraceful new law whereby women of Muslim faith who wear clothing that covers their face and bodies would be denied certain government services or the right to work in certain jobs.

What role does racism play in the voting repression mechanism?

I would say racism is not as prominent as in the United States. There, state and local government and court decisions in recent years have blatantly disenfranchised Black voters and can fairly be described as racist. But Canada’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit and (northern) populations are victims of a whole range of racist government policies which act to discourage them from taking part in the political process. I think it is fair to call that a racist outcome, if not directly racist policy.

Do you foresee changes in the Canadian establishment’s political outlook that could lead to a more constructive relationship between Ottawa and Moscow?

Sadly, I do not in the short term. The newly elected Liberal Party government is stacked with hard-line, pro-Kyiv and anti-Russia ideologues. Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétiens visit with President Putin in Russia in April of this year raised some hope of a thaw in Ottawa’s hardline policy. But we learned nothing of what Mr. Chrétien said during that visit.

Meanwhile, the Canadian population is very misled and misinformed about Russia. On matters of foreign policy in general, it is disenfranchised. Governments in Ottawa are used to doing what they wish on the international stage without suffering too many consequences at home. They go to war, or they approve so-called free trade agreements, and Canadians have little or no say or influence. The political left in Canada is not much help because too much of it clings to dogmas and clichés that prevent it from properly understanding modern Russia and the NATO-led offensive against it.

But don’t get me wrong, I am optimistic that this will change. The world is facing a huge environmental crisis and growing social inequalities. How on earth can we solve these problems if NATO governments keep threatening the world and wasting enormous resources with their war machines? These wasted resources should be put to constructive use. Growing numbers of people are awakening to this reality, of that I have no doubt.

Roger Annis has written two articles on the 2015 Canadian election prior to voting day. They are here:

Countdown to the October 19 election in Canada: Back to the past if Liberals are elected, by Roger Annis, Oct 16, 2015

The election in Canada and the global climate crisis, by Roger Annis, Oct 6, 2015

Read also:
No one running for Canadian PM plans to scrap arms sales to Saudi Arabia, by Aaron Maté, VICE News, Oct 15, 2015

This election campaign wasn’t about the economy, by Thomas Walkom, columnist, Toronto Star, Oct 17, 2015

More articles by:

Roger Annis is a retired aerospace worker in Vancouver BC. He writes regularly for Counterpunch and compiles his writings on a ‘A Socialist in Canada’. He is an editor of the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. He can be reached at rogerannis@hotmail.com.

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