Canadian Elections

Leaders’ debates underscores parties have no progressive solution to economic crisis

Canada and the Afghan War

By Keith Jones
4 October 2008

The US financial crisis and impending North American recession were the focal point of the televised debates, held in French and English on successive evenings this week, between the leaders of the five major parties contesting Canada's October 14 federal election.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper sought to downplay the significance of the meltdown on Wall Street. Assuming the pose of a serene, fatherly figure, he claimed that Canada is largely insulated from the convulsions rocking world capitalism--no matter that these convulsions are centered in the country that absorbs fully three-quarters of Canada's exports and that for decades has underpinned the world financial system.

"Canada is not the United States," declared Harper at the beginning of Wednesday's French-language debate. "The situation is very different. The foundation of our economy is very solid. ... We do not have a crisis."

Harper's comments notwithstanding, the Toronto Stock Exchange's composite index plummeted 813 points or 7 percent the next day, the second such fall in a week. Meanwhile, information continues to leak into the pages of Canada's financial press about the extent to which the government, the Bank of Canada, and various regulatory agencies have intervened over the past year, and particularly in the past two months, to provide credit to the country's big banks and otherwise shore up their position.

In Thursday evening's English-language debate, Harper spoke more forcefully about the economic crisis in the US, but only to better draw the purported contrast with Canada: "The economic and financial mess in the United States is disastrous; the policies have been irresponsible. We have made very different choices in Canada. We are not bailing out companies ..."

While downplaying the economic crisis, Harper denounced, as he has throughout the campaign, the other parties for advocating "risky" tax changes and spending proposals--in reality, modest social spending increases.

The leaders of the Official Opposition Liberals, social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), Quebec indépendantiste Bloc Québécois, and the Green Party were united in attacking Harper for subscribing, à la George W. Bush, to the belief that the invisible hand of the market will solve all socio-economic problems.

But all four demonstrated that they, no less than Harper, are implacable defenders of capitalism, of a social order in which basic social needs are subordinated to the profit imperative of big business. At most, they advocated increased government regulation of the financial sector, greater state support for the big auto companies and other manufacturers, and protectionist measures aimed at boosting Canadian big business in the struggle for markets and profits.

Despite their claims of a stark ideological difference between themselves and Harper, none of the four was prepared to defy even the neo-liberal mantra against deficit-spending. Both Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and the NDP's Jack Layton pledged that, if need be, they will abandon platform commitments of increased social spending so as to ensure that the federal budget is balanced. The BQ's Gilles Duceppe, for his part, boasted that his party has long advocated a "no deficit" law.

Dion decried as a quasi-socialist measure the NDP's proposal to cancel the Conservatives' plan to reduce corporate taxes by $50 billion over the next four years. But Layton is only proposing to roll the corporate tax rate back to the level to which the Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin had reduced it by 2006. An NDP government would leave in place the sweeping cuts Liberal and Conservative governments alike have made during the past decade to capital-gains and personal income taxes-cuts which have all but flattened the progressive tax system and resulted in a massive transfer of wealth to the most privileged sections of society.

The first-ever Green Party representative to participate in a Canadian leaders' debate, Elizabeth May, echoed Dion's claim that government action to reduce fossil fuel consumption and promote "green technology" will make Canadian companies more competitive. May positively gushed when she cited former US President Bill Clinton as saying that the environment is the greatest business opportunity of all time.

When a viewer in the French-language debate, having pointed to the huge profits that have accrued to the big oil companies, asked if any of the parties were prepared to nationalize the oil industry, the leaders scrambled to distance themselves from such a "radical" proposal. Dion didn't even deign to answer the question. Layton, Duceppe, and May, all of whom have criticized the Harper government for being in the pocket of Alberta's oil industry, flatly rejected it.

Canada and the Afghan War

The two principal parties of Canadian big business, the Conservatives and Liberals, combined earlier this year to force through a further extension of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) leading role in the Afghan war till the end of 2011.

The NDP initially supported the deployment of Canadian troops to Kandahar, but in late 2006 reversed its stance. However, the NDP has been at pains to otherwise express its support for the US-imposed government of Hamid Karzai and says explicitly in its party platform that it wants the CAF to participate in UN "peace-making" missions, the euphemism used to justify the 1991 Gulf War and the current UN-sanctioned NATO mission in Afghanistan. Layton has refused to make the war a major issue in the election campaign for fear that it would cut across his attempt to cast the NDP as a "responsible" establishment party.

The most significant thing to emerge from the section of the debates devoted to the Afghanistan war and Canadian foreign policy was that Harper for the first time termed the Iraq war a "mistake," while claiming, despite his own call for Canada to join the 2003 invasion of Iraq and his enthusiasm for using the CAF as an instrument for projecting Canadian power on the world stage, that had he been prime minister when the war began Canadian troops would not now be deployed in Iraq.

Harper made his remarks in the wake of the Liberals' exposure of the fact that much of the speech he delivered in parliament in March 2003 urging Canadian participation in the Iraq war was taken verbatim from a speech Australian Prime Minister and close Bush ally John Howard made to that country's parliament.

Harper's lies and equivocations on this issue arise from his awareness of the massive public hostility to the Bush administration and the Iraq war. But like on some many other issues, the actual stance of the Canadian elite is far different from the public posturing of its parties. While it is true that the Chrétien Liberal government did at the eleventh hour pull back from officially joining the Iraq war, the US ambassador to Canada subsequently admitted that Canada did far more to support the illegal US invasion of Iraq than many members of the "coalition of the willing."

It is not surprising then that the Canadian state is now returning war resisters for punishment by the US military as "deserters."

Harper's remarks came in response to a question from Duceppe, who like Barack Obama promotes the Afghan war "as the good war" in purported contrast to the Iraq war. The truth is both wars were launched by the US so as to gain military-strategic footholds in the two of the world's principal oil-producing regions.

All five parties are beholden to the interests of Canadian big business. Just as they will do big business' bidding in imposing the burden of the economic crisis on working people, their electoral pronouncements notwithstanding, so they will, in response to the resurgence of inter-imperialist antagonisms, facilitate the Canadian bourgeoisie's attempts to revive militarism and assert it predatory interests on the global stage.