Canadian elections: NDP platform highlights “fiscal responsibility”

Only 24 hours after releasing his party’s “fully costed” election platform, New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jack Layton pledged to abandon it if Canada’s federal budget threatens to go into deficit. Layton’s pledge was made to appease corporate media and Conservative critics who charged that the NDP platform failed to take into account the world financial crisis and the impending North American recession.  

Last Sunday, on the eve of the biggest meltdown of share values in the history of Toronto’s Bay Street stock market (841 points or 6.9 percent), Layton announced a C$51 billion package of election promises that the NDP is touting as a boost to “ordinary families” at the expense of big corporations. 

But even before Layton’s Sunday afternoon sound bites had completely faded from the early Monday news broadcasts, the NDP leader was hedging his bets. Calling for a closed-door meeting of all the party leaders to discuss the financial crisis exploding on Wall Street and international markets, Layton promised that the priority of the NDP would be “keeping that [federal] budget balanced.”  If spending promises had to be jettisoned in deference to the demands of the financial elite, then Layton would not shirk from his responsibilities.

Layton’s prevarications will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the right-ward lurch of the NDP—and its sister social democratic parties around the world—over the past generation. Repeatedly, the NDP has run on a program of mild reform, only to viciously attack working people upon gaining office.  

Of course, despite Layton’s protestations that he is running for the post of prime minister in the campaign for the October 14 federal election, he is in fact jockeying with the flat-lining Liberal Party to be the next leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to a projected Conservative government led by right-wing Prime Minister Stephen Harper. If Layton’s fondest dreams are realized, his party may even hold the balance of power in a Conservative, or, more improbably, a Liberal minority government. Layton and the NDP continue to promote the last federal Liberal budget, written under the direction of arch spending and tax-cutter Paul Martin, as an “NDP budget,” because the Liberals included some small social spending increases in return for the social democrats temporarily sustaining Martin’s minority government in office.   

Layton and the NDP smell a certain opportunity in the upcoming election under conditions where, according to a spate of opinion polls, the fortunes of Stéphane Dion’s Liberals are at an all-time low. The Liberals, Canada’s traditional ruling party during the twentieth century, have stampeded far to the right in an effort to keep pace with a rejuvenated Conservative Party in the courtship of big business. 

Indeed, such has been the rush of the Liberals and Conservatives to the right over the past period that the mild and “responsible” spending proposals of the NDP in the current election appear, by comparison, to be almost radical. But, in fact, the spending promises bear a striking resemblance to the Liberal “Red Book” of minuscule reforms pushed by Jean Chrétien in the 1993 election and then quickly shredded once the Liberals claimed a majority of parliamentary seats. 

Rolling back the corporate tax rate to 2007 levels

Layton has made an increase in child tax benefits and “baby bonuses,” a phased-in prescription drug program for catastrophic illness, a new child care program, increased funding for aboriginal peoples, student subsidies, investment in social housing, and the creation of various consumer watchdog bodies the populist centerpieces of his platform. 

The NDP proposes to pay for these expenditures principally by canceling the C$51 billion in corporate tax cuts that Harper has promised to implement over the next four years (2009 to 2013). Under the NDP’s fiscal plan, the corporate tax rate would be returned to the rate set in the first two Conservative budgets, 22 percent. This is an extremely modest measure. Countries such as the United States, Germany and Japan—all run by right-wing political parties—maintain much higher corporate tax rates even when the additional Canadian provincial rates are factored into the equation.

In fact, the NDP is proposing to maintain all the corporate tax cuts implemented by the Chrétien-Martin Liberal governments and only cancel Harper’s plan, which is supported by Dion’s Liberals, to further reduce corporate rates to 15 percent by 2012. Moreover, a Layton NDP government would keep in place the drastic cuts to personal income tax and capital gains taxes that have been implemented by successive governments over the past eight years, largely to the benefit of the most well-heeled sections of society.

Prior to the corporate tax cuts initiated by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin and continued by Harper, corporate tax rates were close to 30 percent. 

Of course, what goes around comes around. While Layton derides the latest round of across-the-board tax cuts, he is proposing to funnel billions to corporations in the form of productivity inducements, debt repayments, and dubious carbon-trading handouts. 

The NDP platform also calls for modest fiscal savings to come from the withdrawal of the Canadian Armed Forces mission from Afghanistan—a promise that Layton has soft-pedaled throughout the election campaign. Of course, the support that the NDP gave for the combat mission right up until late 2006 goes entirely unmentioned. Just as significantly, while the NDP speaks of an Afghan “peace dividend,” its platform is utterly silent on the massive military spending increases that are planned over the next decade. In this regard, it is important to note that the 2005 Liberal budget, proclaimed by Canada’s social democrats as “the first NDP budget,” initiated the drive to substantially increase Canada’s military spending.     

The NDP platform is well to the right even of what the social democrats advanced during the 1960s and 1970s. Nowhere does the NDP speak of placing important companies or sectors of the economy under state ownership. It promises to balance the federal budget in every year of its rule. Layton has attacked the Conservatives for “fiscal irresponsibility” for claiming that they can combine increased “targeted” spending on families and the military with significant tax cuts. And whereas traditionally the NDP has called for Canada’s withdrawal from NATO and NORAD, Layton advocates that Canada press for some kind of vague “reform” of the US-led military alliances.

One thing has remained permanent in the NDP’s policy positions even as capitalist globalization has rendered impotent all programs of national reformism—the assertion of an economic nationalist posture that has as its ultimate logic the promotion of protectionism, trade war, and inter-imperialist rivalry. This orientation has only served to weaken the working class in its struggles against capital as it pits workers of one country against their class sisters and brothers internationally in a fratricidal struggle for an ever-dwindling number of jobs, wages and benefits. Invariably, the union bureaucracy has spouted this nationalist poison, while collaborating with employers, in the name of saving “Canadian jobs,” to impose concessions, speed-up and job cuts. Layton’s promises to repeal the softwood lumber deal with the United States, institute “Buy Canadian” federal government procurement regulations, and re-negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is designed simply to benefit certain sections of big business at the expense of others.

The NDP record

For three decades, from its formation in 1961 to the early 1990s, the NDP was the “third party” in Canadian politics, a sometime occupant of provincial office in three of the four Western provinces and an increasingly potent electoral force in Ontario, Canada’s most populous and industrialized province. But it nonetheless has played a pivotal role in Canadian politics. 

As the political instrument of the trade union bureaucracy, the NDP played a vital role in regulating class relations. The union bureaucracy made use of the NDP in pressuring big business Liberal governments for social reforms, the better to head off the development of an independent and anti-capitalist working class political movement. Through parliament and collective bargaining, the profit system could be humanized, or so claimed the social democrats, with a decent living standard for all and a modicum of social equality.

Of course, the social democrats and their allies in the union bureaucracy have always been keenly aware of their responsibility to ensure that the class struggle does not move beyond the boundaries of what the capitalists are prepared to accept. In British Columbia, for example, in 1983, the union bureaucracy strangled a mass movement toward a province-wide general strike against a battery of Social Credit laws that introduced the Reagan-Thatcher model to Canada’s West Coast. As for the NDP, its then leader Dave Barrett deplored the “Operation Solidarity” strike movement as illegal and a threat to “democracy” at least as big as the government’s assault on democratic and worker rights. 

In the early 1990s, under conditions of the worst slump in Canada since the Great Depression, working people brought the NDP to power in Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan—provinces representing more than half the country’s entire population. Their hopes that the NDP would protect them from the slump were quickly dashed. The NDP governments imposed massive public and social spending cuts, as well as wage austerity, and parroted the rhetoric of the right on everything from welfare reform to anti-labour laws.

In Ontario, the NDP government of Bob Rae (now frontbencher for the Liberal Party) attacked public sector workers and was responsible for brutal social spending cuts. In 1995, discredited by their assault on the working class, the Rae NDP gave way to, and was itself responsible for, the coming to power of, the Conservative regime of Mike Harris. Then, when a 1996 series of rotating “Days of Action” general strikes occurred, the trade union apparatus, backed by the NDP, torpedoed the movement. The result was the same in the fall of 1997 when a strike by the province’s public and high school teachers became the focal point of mass opposition to the Conservative government. 

In British Columbia, the 1991-2001 NDP government paved the way for the coming to power of the Campbell Liberals, by accommodating itself ever more completely to the demands of big business. Under premiers Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, and finally Ujjal Dosanjh, the NDP imposed budget and public sector wage austerity, used legislation to break strikes, imposed new restrictions on the teachers’ right to strike, and embraced workfare and the “law and order” rhetoric of the right.

Workers in BC have repeatedly come forward to challenge the current Campbell Liberal government, only to have the unions and NDP leaders isolate strikes and impose concession-laden agreements on the rank-and-file. Especially noteworthy were the December 2003 ferry workers’ and May 2004 hospital workers’ strikes. In both cases, workers struck in defiance of anti-union laws and their militant action threatened to become the catalyst for a province-wide general strike, since large numbers of workers rightly saw them as challenging the hated Campbell regime.

Under these circumstances, key NDP leaders have had no difficulty transitioning to the higher echelons of the Liberal Party and the corporate world. Glen Clark managed to land solidly on his feet after being forced from office in BC and today holds an executive vice president’s position in billionaire Jim Pattison’s sprawling business empire. And Bob Rae is far from the only NDP “star” to pop up on the front benches of the federal Liberals. Former British Columbia NDP Premier Ujjal Dosanjh has sat in Paul Martin’s cabinet and has served in opposition as the Liberal health critic while former Saskatchewan NDP cabinet minister Joan Beatty now stands as a Liberal candidate.

Such are the practical and philosophical similarities between the two parties that this political opportunism has become a two-way street with the recent collapse of Liberal fortunes. Thomas Mulcair, a cabinet minister in Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government, was actively recruited by Layton in an effort to get a foothold in the francophone province. Immediately after Mulcair’s surprise by-election victory, Layton crowned the freshly minted convert as the NDP’s deputy leader and finance critic. A similar hefty promotion apparently awaits Francoise Boivin, a former Liberal MP, who now stands for the NDP in the riding of Gatineau, Quebec.  

Layton and Doer

Last year when Layton called his officials together in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to prepare the party’s election strategy, he took time to praise the local provincial NDP government of Premier Gary Doer. Doer, who has engineered three majority election victories in Manitoba, considers himself a “small l” liberal. His government’s cozy relationship with the “mega-barn” hog factories and meat-packing companies in the province has been so egregious that it has even been criticized within social democratic circles.

Doer has provided more than a billion dollars in tax cuts that are heavily weighted to favour the wealthiest sections of the population, weakened environmental regulations and overseen an alarming increase in poverty. He plans to further reduce corporate taxes in the province from 14 percent to 12 percent by 2012, making them the lowest in the entire country. The province has one of the highest rates of child and family poverty in Canada, some of the lowest average weekly earnings in the country, and an alarming crisis in affordable housing. Said Layton at his party’s conclave, “We’ve all been really impressed by the government of Gary Doer.”

The NDP may be poised to break the elusive 20 percent barrier in the popular vote in the upcoming poll. This current revival of party fortunes is a product of two interrelated processes: a radicalization among broad layers of working people, and a coming together of social democrats, trade union bureaucrats, and identity politics activists behind the NDP in the hopes of intercepting this radicalization, emasculating it and thereby ensuring their own career advancement for services rendered to the Canadian state.

Masses of people have been radicalized in the recent period—by the US’s illegal invasion and colonial occupation of Iraq and the concomitant installation of Canadian combat forces in Afghanistan, by the ongoing revelations of corporate and government corruption, by the escalating destruction of the environment and by mounting social inequality, the meltdown of the stock market and the threat of global recession. 

The union officialdom and social democrats sense in this radicalization an opportunity to regain political influence, but even more importantly, they sense a danger. Indeed, when Layton was installed as the new party leader in 2004, no less a figure than NDP doyen and former leader Ed Broadbent explained why he had chosen to back the “outsider” Layton for the NDP leadership rather than his good friend, NDP MP Bill Blaikie. Broadbent warned that the social democrats “cannot rest on the illusion that all those many Canadians who are fed up with the policies derived from the cutback mania...will inevitably swing to the NDP.… They can swing right past us to any number of other options.”

The WSWS will have more to say about the NDP’s election program and campaign. But for the present, suffice it to report that the NDP—the Janus-faced left-wing of the Canadian political establishment that claims it is possible to pressure big business for reforms all the while reassuring it that it will do them no harm—is in no way a political instrument through which working people can deflect the assault of capital, let alone defend their historic interests. Rather it is an instrument of the ruling class that serves as a safety-valve for social discontent and in times of capitalist crisis to smother the class struggle and impose the agenda of big business. 

The defense of jobs, social conditions and democratic rights requires the construction of a new mass party of the working class that will oppose the subordination of social needs to the profits of the corporate world and unite Canadian workers with workers around the world in a common struggle against the capitalist profit system. It is for this that the World Socialist Web Site and the Socialist Equality Party fight.