Northern Lights

by Barry Weisleder


The November 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.

Canadian Vote Trips Up Tory Agenda

The October 14 federal election in Canada produced a murky result — which, under the circumstances, is not so bad. It certainly is not what the country’s corporate elite wanted.

In the first place, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper gambled and lost. He violated his own fixed-date election law, declared Parliament dysfunctional, but ended up only with a gain of 19 seats, for 143, out of a total of 308 — a mere 1.3 per cent rise in his share of the votes cast — and heads up another minority government. It is hardly the mandate he sought.

In the second place, Liberal Leader Stephane Dion failed in his attempt to saddle the working class with the staggering cost of an inept climate change programme. Voters rejected his regressive Green-Shift carbon tax plan. West of the Rockies, where the provincial government implemented a similar and very unpopular version of the scheme, British Columbians gave a big thumbs down. Dion led his Liberals to their worst showing in over 100 years ago, losing 26 seats (down to 77) and falling four points to a low 27 per cent of the ballots deposited. The “dead man walking” of Canadian politics, Dion is now reduced to the status of “interim leader” as his party prepares to spend the next six months battling internally over who is to replace him.

Thirdly, the labour-based New Democratic Party under Leader Jack Layton ran its best election campaign in decades, focusing on the fight for government (rather than “lend me your votes,” or to be the “conscience of Parliament”). It targeted tax concessions to major corporations (in a way reminiscent of David Lewis’s iconic 1972 campaign against “corporate welfare bums”). The NDP was hampered by weak policies, especially with regard to the banks and big oil, and by its traditional hostility to Québec’s national aspirations. Layton was forced to abandon his anti-democratic attempt to keep Green Party Leader Elizabeth May out of the TV debates.

Nonetheless, the class character of the NDP as a labour party was reinforced by its pitch to “working families,” its push for green jobs, and its gains in the hard-hit forest industry centres of northern Ontario and other regions already devastated by job loss due to out-sourcing and the onset of recession. The NDP gained eight seats, for a total of 37, and rose nearly 1 per cent to 18.2.

The bourgeois nationalist Bloc Québécois lost votes but held onto 49 seats, thus denying Harper his much yearned for majority. Most of the federalist vote stayed with the Liberals. The NDP, still carrying the can for the undemocratic Clarity Act, made little headway in Québec, but retained a seat it won in a by-election.

The pro-capitalist Green Party won 7 per cent of the votes, but 0 seats. May’s feisty presence in the TV debates was undermined by her subsequent public musings, which included contradictory advice to her own supporters on how best to vote to defeat local Conservative candidates.

Which brings us to the fourth point: with only 59.1 per cent of the electorate voting, nearly one million less than in 2006, this was the lowest turnout in Canadian history. All federally-funded parties except for the Greens attracted fewer total votes than in 2006; the Greens received nearly 280,000 more votes this election. The Conservatives lost about 170,000 votes, the Liberals 850,000, the Bloc 170,000 and the NDP 70,000. The continuing decline in voter participation shows shrinking confidence in the first-past-the-post system. The shut out of the Greens, and the paucity of meaningful political debate about the global capitalist crisis, exemplify and fuel this tendency.

Widespread voter alienation is evident. And there is a growing pool of non-registered voters to boot. For some observers, these facts justify a retreat into non-partisan coalitions, even to local self-help and charity projects. But such an impulse blurs class lines, obscures the culprit system, and de-politicizes participants. It puts social transformation even farther out of reach — just like so-called “strategic voting” and “vote-swapping” weaken the working class electorally by extolling “lesser evils.”

The alternative is to fight for working class political independence and a workers’ agenda with a combination of local and national actions. One component of an action programme for change in the interests of the vast majority is the demand for proportional representation in Parliament. But a more important component is to take the arguments for socialism — given fresh potency by the world economic crisis — directly into labour unions and the NDP. Because that is where discontented masses of working people go when push comes to shove — as demonstrated by the 2.5 million who voted for the NDP on October 14.

Now this question is posed: Given the murky election result, who will make the most of the hazy situation? Will Harper have a two year holiday to press ahead with his hard line? Will he get away with more give-aways to the corporate rulers, more austerity for workers and the poor, and thus a widening of the wage gap? Will there be more repressive, scape-goating laws, more anti-choice, anti-culture, pro-war, and environmentally destructive policies?

With global capitalist recession deepening, the TD Bank predicts a $10.4 billion federal deficit in fiscal year 2009-2010. Will that be the excuse Harper uses to justify slashing social programmes, transfer payments and aid to the jobless?

The prevailing factors, namely, that the Liberal Party is in disarray, the labour union leadership continues to retreat, and election fatigue stalks the land, may mean that the Conservative minority government can press ahead with little fear of losing a confidence vote that would trigger another snap election.

But it would be the height of absurdity (and betrayal) for labour and the left to allow this to occur without a fight. Support for Harper’s agenda has crested. His coldly surreal advice to voters to take advantage of the crash by going now to the stock market to “buy low” struck a raw nerve, and it cost the Conservatives dearly.

The fact is the Tory minority government can be brought down — if not in parliament, certainly in the streets and work places. And this is precisely where unions and the NDP constitute the key arena for determining what comes next.

Will there be mass action against the coming attacks, and demands for public ownership under workers’ control of the big banks, energy resource corporations and the manufacturing sector? Or will it be just a roll over for Harper, the grim reaper?

Despite the weakness of the radical left, the role of socialists and labour militants can be positively consequential if there is a move to unite and fight for a workers’ agenda where it really matters.

“Unwinnable,” Increasingly Deadly Afghan War to Cost $18 Billion

The Canadian cohort of the NATO military occupation of Afghanistan will cost up to $18 billion, according to Parliament’s new budget officer, Kevin Page, in a report released on October 9. To date, direct military costs alone total nearly $8 billion, Page estimates. By 2011, the year Ottawa pledges to bring Canada’s troops home, between $14 billion and $18 billion extra will have been spent when incremental military costs, aid, and veterans benefits are included.

Indeed, that could be a major cost under-estimate of a conflict that is increasingly deadly and evidently pointless. The war is the scene of an ever rising number of civilian deaths, territorial gains by the Taliban and other national resistence forces, and the assassination of Afghan government officials and foreign aid workers. The situation is deteriorating at such a pace that General Mark Carleton-Smith, commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, recently stated that a military victory over the Taliban was “neither feasible nor supportable.”

David Perry, a former deputy director of Dalhousie University’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, says the war will cost Canada more than $22 billion. His findings were discussed at a conference on maritime affairs attended by military leaders and analysts from Canada, the United States and several Asia-Pacific countries on September 17, according to the Ottawa Citizen.

In a separate interview, Mr. Perry said he was not surprised at the numbers he found. “We’re fighting a war on the other side of the world and that takes a lot of resources,” said Mr. Perry, currently in Ottawa. He projected the number of Canadian veterans in Afghanistan to be about 41,000 by 2010. That far exceeds the estimated 25,000 Canadian veterans from the Korean War.

Perry’s figures do not include the cost of “aid” to Afghanistan, or the cost of the occupation for other federal departments, such as the RCMP and Foreign Affairs.

A majority of Canadians oppose the war and occupation of Afghanistan, which has cost the lives of nearly 100 Canadian soldiers and thousands of Afghan civilians. It is a military operation conducted for the sake of propping up a manifestly corrupt regime of war lords and drug exporters barricaded in Kabul. Conservative and Liberal politicians, who agreed to extend the war through 2011, were mostly able to keep the issue low-profile during the federal election campaign. But that didn’t stop NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer from lobbying member states in September for military commitments beyond 2011.

Some figures used in the Perry study came from the Department of National Defence. Other elements were estimated based on cost models of the U.S. military in the Iraq and Afghan wars. The breakdown of the Afghan expenses is as follows:

$7 billion for the cost of the war. This is an incremental sum from late 2001 to 2012. It includes everything from ammunition and fuel to the salaries of regular force military personnel.

$11 billion is the estimated bill for Veterans’ Affairs and DND for long-term health care of veterans and related benefits, including traumatic stress disorder among troops. Veterans’ Affairs Canada predicts an increase of 13,000 soldiers to its client base by 2010. Using U.S. estimates, between 10 to 25 per cent of returning veterans may experience mental health problems as a result of their overseas deployment. U.S. studies estimate that country’s long-term health care and disability costs for its Iraq and Afghan veterans to be between $350 billion to $650 billion.

$2 billion is for the purchase of mission-specific equipment. That includes everything from Leopard tanks, howitzers, six Chinook helicopters, countermine vehicles to aerial drones. Defence officials argue that such equipment will be used on future missions beyond Afghanistan — now that’s a comfort. The figure did not include the latest $95 million lease for additional aerial drones.

$2 billion is for the replacement of the military’s LAV-3 fleet. $405 million is for repair and overhaul costs. The study also shows that the previous Liberal government provided extra funding to the Defence Department to cover 85 per cent of the Afghan war costs, while the current Conservative government is funding only 29 per cent of the cost to DND, with the remainder coming out of DND’s existing budget. In other words, the Tories are providing more funding for the war, but less transparently.

In January, Canadian army commander Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie warned that the military was stretched to the breaking point and replacement stocks of equipment for Afghanistan have long been used up, either destroyed by the resistence or in the process of being repaired.

So, to use “military-speak,” this may be an ideal time to “cut our losses” and “re-deploy forces” from the widening counter-insurgency quagmire in Asia. More useful engagements, such as civilian rescue and natural disaster relief missions on Canada’s land and waterways, can easily be envisioned. And in the process of ending imperialist interventions abroad, a few billion dollars can be re-directed to progressive social purposes at home.

December 5–7, 2008 at Ryerson University in Toronto, the Canadian Peace Alliance biennial convention will take place. Its theme is “Canada’s new militarism: Building resistance at home and abroad.” The gathering will be an important opportunity, not only to discuss military conversion, but to plan united mass actions against the wars of occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, in concert with the U.S. anti-war movement which is heading towards unity for coordinated protests on March 21, 2009.

To get more information and pre-register for the CPA convention, please contact Sid at 416-588-5555 or e-mail: cpa@web.net .

RCMP Criticized on Taser Use

An independent report ordered by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the force did not do “due diligence” when it approved the Taser stun gun for use as a less-than-lethal weapon by its officers.

The report by a group of consultants led by Ottawa-based John Kiedrowski, was ordered after the uproar caused by the death of a Polish immigrant shot with a Taser at Vancouver airport in October 2007. Submitted in June to RCMP Commissioner Bill Elliot, the review was not made public until obtained by the Toronto Star in September under Access to Information.  It says the force relied too much on the Taser’s American manufacturer in developing its policies and training, did not consult widely enough with medical and mental health experts about its impact on people, and did not treat the weapon as a “prohibited firearm” — its proper legal classification since 1998.

The report slams the use of the non-medical term “excited delirium” by police to describe combative, resistant suspects, saying it is an excuse to justify firing the 50,000 volt charge.

Across Canada, 170 police agencies use stun guns, and 22 people have died after being hit by stun guns.

The report urges the federal government to set national standards for Taser use by all police forces in Canada, under its powers in the Criminal Code to regulate firearms.

We have a better proposal. Take that barbaric torture and killing device out of the hands of the cops and put it beyond all use.

Toronto’s First Trotsky School

November 14–15, 2008 at OISE, U of Toronto,
252 Bloor St. W., just above St. George Subway Station

Friday, November 14, 7 p.m.
How Marx became a Marxist
Dialectical materialism, historical materialism, scientific socialism and all that stuff.
Presentation by Adam Shils, Chicago Socialist Action, leading member of SA-US

Saturday, November 15, 10 a.m.
Introduction to Marxist Economic theory
Surplus value, commodities, alienation of labour, imperialism, capitalist over-production, the decline in the rate of profit, economic crisis, and economic planning.
Presentation by Tom Baker, SA-Canada steering committee member, Hamilton

1 p.m.
Is Trotsky’s Marxism relevant in the 21st Century?
Revolutionary Crisis, Permanent Revolution, Socialist Democracy, anti-Stalinism, anti-fascism and the United Front.
Presentation by Adam Shils, Chicago SA

4 p.m.
The Revolutionary Party in the Struggle for Socialism
The integral connection between the vanguard party and democratic-centralism to socialist transformation of society and the rise of a socialist democracy — with some Canadian historical background.

Presentation by Barry Weisleder, federal secretary, Socialist Action / Ligue pour l’Action socialiste

6 p.m.
Social event at a nearby pub

Conference at: 252 Bloor Street West, room 2-212
Registration: $10 (or pay what you can)
For more information, call: 416-535-8779
e-mail: barryaw@rogers.com