Northern Lights

by Barry Weisleder

The December 2008 edition of Northern Lights, a regular column from Canada, appears in the San Francisco-based monthly newspaper Socialist Action. To subscribe to the newspaper, please visit the SA web site.

Defeat Harper Tories!
Accord, Yes.

But No NDP coalition with Liberals!

The parliamentary crisis, provoked by Stephen Harper’s sheer arrogance and his utterly reactionary policies, plunged Canada into a political crisis – which was prolonged by the suspension of Parliament. (For the background on how this mess occurred, please see the box below.)

The Conservatives richly deserve defeat. But one way of defeating Harper threatens to destroy the federal New Democratic Party as an independent political arm of the working class and its organizations. Generations of gains are at risk.

Should the NDP vote against the Conservative budget on January 27? Yes. Should the NDP propose to the Liberals an accord to implement specific initiatives, to be enacted by a Liberal minority government — kept on a short, tight leash? Yes, it’s worth a try. Should the NDP enter a coalition government with the Liberal Party? No, never.

Coalition with a bosses’ party (remember, the Liberals have been the main party of capitalist class rule in Canada for the past 100 years) would be a bizarre and historic reversal of the positive direction taken by the latest NDP federal campaign, which explicitly fought for an NDP government.

Coalition with the Liberals, the wet dream of “strategic voting” advocates, would spell the demise of the NDP as a political force which is accountable, to any degree, to the most conscious section of working class voters. In a coalition government, the NDP would be bound by “cabinet solidarity” to defend all government policies (including the war in Afghanistan, regressive taxes, inaction on the environment, etc.), not just the policies it may prefer.

That amounts to NDP subordination to the corporate establishment, on the road to merger with the Liberals. It would be an historic regression to the dismal, cap-in-hand days of Lib-Lab local alliances that pre-dated the NDP and the CCF. It would quicken the unravelling of medicare, public education, environmental safeguards, labour rights, civil liberties and consumer protection.

But some may ask: Why shouldn’t the NDP try to get credit for whatever good might be achieved by a coalition government with the Liberals? Is there really any difference between an “accord” and a “coalition government”?

Well, we can all see the bait. But we really need to see the trap, and its potential victims. In a coalition, the parties involved are responsible for the entire agenda of the government. Not only must the partner parties vote for all the legislation the government presents. They must advocate it, promote it, sell it, defend it against critics (like unions and social movements) and they will be held accountable for it forever.

An accord, on the other hand, keeps a minority capitalist government on a short leash. The labour-based NDP could support the elements of the agreement that are fulfilled, and could speak and vote against anything arising outside the accord that is adverse to the interests of working people. The government stays in office only so long as it fulfills the accord. The NDP and Labour thus retain complete autonomy.

The operating principle of a coalition government, “cabinet solidarity,” would silence the critics of the regime inside the NDP parliamentary caucus and beyond. It would encourage NDP MPs to try to keep the party ranks quiet and in the dark, to limit criticism of the government for which the NDP would tragically be responsible.

Let’s face it, even an accord is dangerous. Remember what happened to the NDP after David Lewis’s accord with Pierre Trudeau: a major loss of votes and seats. It is essential to keep a distance from the treacherous Liberal machine. Credit for PetroCanada, affordable housing and pension indexing was O.K. But for other things that came later, like wage controls, massive social cuts and giant tax gifts to big corporations, not so much.

Layton and company may see a coalition as a career opportunity. Socialists see it as a trap to be avoided. The trap can be avoided via an accord. An accord averts the taint of direct class collaboration in a capitalist government coalition, and it affords grass roots NDP and union members more say as the process unfolds. It worked in Ontario in the mid-1980s. Now, it’s true: the stakes are higher, so it will be more difficult. But it is worth a try. The question is: where to start?

First of all, now is the time to get behind the NDP Socialist Caucus — to do our utmost to oppose coalition with the Liberals, and work to strengthen the NDP’s independence. The clearest expression of that independence would be the fight for a Workers’ Agenda, with public ownership under workers’ control at the centre of it. The answer to the global capitalist crisis is not a labour love-in with the parties responsible for it. The answer is socialism.

Work to defeat the Conservatives by all available means — by a non-confidence vote in the Commons, a cross-country general strike, whatever it takes. Oppose all chauvinist appeals to Canadian nationalism and against Québec self-determination.

Negotiate a time-limited and specific agenda to meet the immediate needs of working people. Then hold a new minority government to it.

Here’s the agenda we really need: Put people before profits. Nationalize the banks. Create jobs through public investment, public ownership, democratic planning and workers’ control. Convert industry, transportation, and homes to green, energy efficiency. Repair disintegrating roads, bridges, railways and port facilities. Make E.I. more generous and more accessible. Raise the minimum wage to $16/hour, indexed to the cost of living. Shorten the work week to 35 hours without loss of pay or benefits. Abolish student debt. Make post-secondary education free. Protect pensions. Fund health care and the arts. No corporate bail-out. Open the books. Get public equity for every dollar of public investment, and exercise democratic control. Tax the corporations, the speculators, and the rich. Abolish the GST. End the occupation of Afghanistan and Haiti. Reduce the military to a disaster relief, search and rescue force. Get Canada out of NATO now!

But no coalition with the Liberal Party, nor with any capitalist party. Not now. Not ever.

Genesis of a crisis

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the G20 countries he favours an economic stimulus plan, even if it takes a deficit to do it. But on November 27 his Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, presented to Parliament a fiscal update full of cuts to achieve a balanced budget. Flaherty proposed to cut programme spending by $2 billion next year, to sell $2.3 billion worth of public assets, and to squeeze $600 million out of public service wages by suspending the right to strike for federal workers. He also pledged to stop pay equity settlement payments to women, announced he would cut by $2.4 billion transfer payments to poorer provinces, and said he would scrap public subsidies to political parties based on the number of votes they get.

Needless to say, none of these measures would create or protect one job, or sustain one pension, or help one jobless or homeless person, as the country descends into economic quick sand.

The opposition Liberal Party, New Democratic Party and Bloc Québécois announced that they would vote to bring down the Conservative minority government.

Staring defeat in the face, the Tories postponed the vote on their fiscal report from December 1 to December 8. In a vain attempt to stop the uproar, the Tories dropped their plan to cut party subsidies and ban strikes. Flaherty promised a new budget for January 27 to include new spending.

On December 3, Liberal leader Stephane Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton announced the formation of a coalition based on an economic stimulus package (though no dollar figures were indicated), and an allocation of cabinet seats (18 to go to the Liberals, plus the PM, and 6 to the NDP). BQ leader Gilles Duceppe agreed to support the coalition for 18 months.

To avoid defeat in the House on December 8, Harper asked Governor General Michaelle Jean to “prorogue” Parliament, that is, to suspend it until January 26. The GG granted the rare and controversial request, just seven weeks following the latest federal election. This buys time for the Tories.

However, Liberal MP s, in the midst of a divisive leadership race to replace the ineffective Dion, already appear to be bolting from the coalition. Ironically, Harper may have saved Jack Layton and the NDP brass from self-amputation by suspending Parliament and exploiting Liberal internal contradictions. But Harper’s vicious attack on “separatists,” implying that the 1.3 million Québécois who voted for the BQ are traitors and devils, has unleashed the dogs of racist chauvinism. While Harper’s demagogy has hurt the Conservatives in Québec, it also undermines solidarity and working class independence across the rest of the Canadian state. The road ahead will be rocky indeed — but passable. Socialists, democrats and progressives should press the NDP and Labour to fight for a programme wrapped in the workers’ flag, not the maple leaf.

Depressing conditions – before the Depression

The current market tailspin was preceded by a so-called “boom” in which workers’ wages actually stagnated or declined, and social benefits shrank. Studies and statistics about that period are now appearing. They make it look more like a “bust” than a “boom” time. And they cast frightening shadows across the future, so far as the vast majority is concerned. Here is what we are learning about the early years of the new millennium.

·         The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) issued a report, “Growing Unequal?”, that says Canada’s growing inequality and entrenched poverty rates are now higher than any other OECD country, except Germany. The OECD noted that Canada spends less than most countries on cash transfers such as unemployment and family benefits.

·         Canadians are in debt as seldom before. In 1984, at the peak of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, Canadian households held 70 cents of debt for every dollar of income. Today, households owe $1.27 for every dollar they bring home. A new Environics poll shows four in 10 Canadians say they are one or two pay cheques away from being poor.

·         The Children’s Aid Society of Toronto sees child poverty rising at an alarming rate across Toronto’s suburbs. In areas such as Mississauga, Markham, Richmond Hill and Oakville, child poverty rates have soared since 1990, coming close to levels formerly known only in downtown Toronto, says the report, based on data from 2006.

·         While Toronto’s child poverty rate (before taxes) is the highest at 32 per cent, up from 24 per cent in 1990, the suburbs have seen more dramatic increases.

·         Toronto Public Health’s “The Unequal City”, found a clear link between poverty and poor health. It reported that the top 20 per cent of male earners live 4.5 years longer than the bottom 20 per cent; females live 2.0 years longer.

·         The results are consistent with findings in other jurisdictions. In fact, a landmark report by the Saskatoon Health Region in late November found a huge health gap between the poor and the rich in that Saskatchewan city.

·         More recently, a team of economists, bankers and food bank directors released a study about the cost of poverty which shows that poverty hurts both the health of those caught in its grip and hits the wallets of almost everyone in society. The study found that Canadians could save $7.6 billion per year in health-care expenditures by elevating the health status of the bottom 20 per cent to that of the next-to-bottom 20 per cent on the income ladder.

The inescapable conclusion of both reports is that to improve overall health and reduce health costs, start by reducing poverty. Unfortunately, that’s something that doesn’t happen in a recession or a depression.

Incidentally, the poorest areas also tend to be the most polluted. PollutionWatch, after a two-year research project, found that many of Toronto’s poorest residents live near industries that spew the highest levels of toxic chemicals and pollutants into the air. The study discovered high pollutants in 17 neighbourhoods, from South Riverdale, to West Hill in the east, to York University Heights in the north and Alderwood in the southwest. Air pollution contributes to almost 9,500 premature deaths each year in Ontario.

Speaking of food banks, across Canada over 700,000 people use them in an average month, says a federal charity called Food Banks Canada. It found that 14.5 per cent of the users are considered “working poor”, up from 12 per cent in 2002.

There has been a 13 per cent jump since last Fall in the number of Ontario residents seeking food aid, according to a report on December 2 by the Ontario Association of Food Banks. The increase in usage is particularly high in depressed auto, mining and forest industry centres, like Sudbury (up 34.4%), Thunder Bay (28.5%), St. Catharines (23.9%), Oshawa (15.3%) and Windsor (10%).

If the trend continues, next year about 350,000 Ontarians will be lining up at food banks each month to get the basics they can’t afford to buy. And as things get worse, it affects donors too. Gail Nyberg, executive director of the Daily Bread Food Bank, said food and financial donations are down 15 per cent this year.

And this is only a glimpse of what’s to come.

Canadian employers slashed nearly 71,000 jobs in November, the worst single month drop in 26 years. 600,000 more jobs are expected to disappear. According to BMO Capital Markets economist Doug Porter, unemployment will rise to 7.5 per cent by the end of 2009. Is Porter even counting those who’ve totally given up looking for work, and the chronically under-employed? Ten years of ‘economic boom’ delivered a 59 per cent increase in temporary and contract jobs. Almost four in ten jobs are now impermanent and part-time forms of work.

For all of this we have capitalism to thank — in “good times,” and current times. As for the future, don’t we deserve something a heck of a lot better than this?

Successful Toronto Trotsky School

Thoughtful, timely, quality presentations. Stimulating discussions. Over thirty people attended, with an average of about 22 per session, during the November 14–15 educational conference at the University of Toronto. The topics addressed were: “How Marx became a Marxist,” “Introduction to Marxist Economic theory,” “Is Trotsky’s Marxism relevant in the 21st Century? ,” and “The Revolutionary Party in the Struggle for Socialism.” Enjoyable social gatherings occurred each evening at a nearby pub. One long-time contact joined SA-Canada. Other friends and contacts drew closer. We sold a pile of literature, one new subscription to the monthly paper, plus one renewal.

SA youth comrades learned a lot. Together they planned to intervene collectively at an NDP youth conference the next weekend. An NDP Socialist Caucus display table at the ONDY gathering sold close to $80 worth of buttons and literature.

The success of the Toronto Trotsky School is largely attributable to Chicago SA comrade Adam Shils’s superb presentations on Marx and Trotsky, his iconoclastic humor, and inclusive style. Tom Baker drew accolades for bringing economic theory down to earth, and helping to explain the unfolding global crisis. Discussion on the revolutionary party wrapped things up nicely. It concretized how theory and practice can unite.

Much thanks goes to SA-US for pioneering the idea of Trotsky Schools. How can we not do this again?