Monday, March 28, 2011

Harp-natieff: corporate Canada's coalition

In the upcoming federal election, Canadians face the threat of a coalition: the unofficial alliance between the Liberals and the Conservatives that for years has promoted inequality and social program cuts, civil liberty violations, environmental destruction, weapons and war. Campaigning on these issues can help expose the real coalition threat, and promote alternatives at the ballot box and in the streets.

     Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff are increasingly merging. Ignatieff has even allowed Harper to defeat his own party's initiatives, from Bob Rae's maternal health motion in the lead up to the G20 protest, to John McKay's Bill C-300 that would hold mining companies accountable for human rights and environmental abuses. In fact, Ignatieff is so similar to Harper that he doesn't feel the need to even show up to Parliament: Ignatieff has the worst attendance record of any Member of Parliament, having missed 182 votes between 2008 and 2010.
     But the Liberal-Tory coalition is not based on the personalities of its leaders, but the composition of its base. While the NDP is based in the trade unions and social movements, the Liberals and the Conservatives represent the twin parties of corporate Canada (like the twin parties of corporate America, the Democrats and Republicans). They depend on, and enact policies to benefit Canadian corporations and elites (for more on this check out this article by Stephen James Kerr). It's for this reason that the Liberals and Conservatives have formed such a stable coalition for so many years, to the detriment of Canadians.

     By opposing Harper's corporate tax cuts, the Liberals are trying to appeal to the majority of Canadians while hiding their own history. The Liberals under Paul Martin gave a $100 billion tax cut, while Ignatieff states on the Liberals' own website that "Liberal governments brought the corporate tax rate down from 28% to 19%". The accompanying graph shows a decade of corporate tax cuts by both Liberals and Conservatives, the Liberals only temporarily objecting to further cuts. Who paid for all this? According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives,
"The Liberal government balanced the books in the late 1990s thanks to swift and savage cuts to social programs. Program cuts allowed the government to balance its books, but also left a trail of growing poverty, widening income disparities, and deteriorating public services."  
After 12 years in power, the Liberals left Canada's child poverty rate the same as they found it, despite a boom in the economy. According to Statscan, "Between 1999 and 2005, the median net worth of families in the top fifth of the wealth distribution increased by 19%, while the net worth of their counterparts in the bottom fifth remained virtually unchanged." The Liberal-Tory coalition have continued their policies of serving the rich over the rest, giving, wiping out the $57 billion Employment Insurance surplus, and then defeating a bill to strengthen Employment Insurance.

     Harper is rightly being criticized for spending $1 billion on the G20 summit, including the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. This follows a trend set by the Liberals, from the 1997 APEC summit where Jean Chretien joked about pepper-spraying demonstrators in the face, to the 2001 mass arrests at the FTAA summit, to Bill C-35 and C-36 that criminalized protesters, to the half-billion dollar militarized G8 summit in Kananaskis. As members of the "opposition", the Liberals have joined the Conservatives in passing Bill C-3 to continue secret trials in Canada.

     From his promotion of Tar Sands to his contempt for Kyoto, Harper is rightly considered one of the most environmentally destructive leaders Canada has had. But as Environment Canada indicates, there is a smooth continuity in the dramatic escalation of greenhouse gas emissions over the past twenty years, from Liberal to Tory governments. According to Statscan,
"In 2004, Canada was 35% above the Kyoto target...The 27% increase in total greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2004 outpaced the increase in population (15%). This means that emissions per capita rose 10% from 1990 to reach 24 tonnes per person in 2004, making Canada one of the highest per capita emitters in the world."
In 2009 Ignatieff said opposing the Tar Sands was "the stupidest thing you can do". Later that year, on the eve of the climate talks in Copenhagen, Greenpeace members dropped a banner off of Parliament targeting both Harper and Ignatieff for their collective failure to promote targets to reduce carbon emissions. Last year, Liberal senators voted with their feet and helped Harper kill a climate bill that had already been passed by Parliament.

     As Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade documents,

"For decades, Canadian governments -- Conservative and Liberal alike -- have preached peace and human rights, while facilitating the steady flow of weapons, ammunition, tear gas, armoured vehicles and many other military and so-called 'security' products to repressive, undemocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa...According to official reports published annually by DFAIT  -- which unfortunately only document some of Canada's military exports -- the Canadian government permitted military sales valued at over $1.99 Billion to 16 countries in the Middle East and North Africa between 1990 and 2006."

Official government foreign policy has had the same degree of unity between Conservatives and Liberals--like the foreign policy continuity between Republicans and Democrats. While the Conservatives (with the support of the Liberals) joined the 1991 Gulf War and 1993 "humanitarian intervention" in Somalia--where soldiers tortured a teenager to death--the Liberals (with the support of the Conservatives) joined the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia and the 2001 war in Afghanistan. A mass anti-war movement stopped the Liberals from taking part in the 2003 Iraq War (but didn't stop Ignatieff from supporting it in the press), but in 2004 Liberals Prime Minister Paul Martin praised Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi while overthrowing Haiti's democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand-Aristide. Then it was back to the Conservatives (with the support of the Liberals) to support Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon and its 2009 war on Gaza, the militarization of aid to Haiti following its 2010 earthquake, and the current war in Libya. While the majority of Canadians want the troops home from Afghanistan--as position the NDP has officially had since 2006--the Liberals have joined the Tories in extending Canada's presence in Afghanistan three times.
     In an attempt to appeal to the anti-war majority and hide their own complicity, the Liberals are claiming they oppose Harper's $30 billion fighter jet deal. But it is not the jets themselves to which the Liberals are opposed, but the way in which they're procured. According to a Liberal press release,
"Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said that to prevent further abuse, a future Liberal government will cancel the F-35 stealth fighter deal and hold an open competition to replace Canada’s CF-18s...'We need an open debate about whether these are the right planes, and to make sure we’re getting them for the right price,' he stated." 
Furthermore, it's meaningless to oppose fighter jet deals while supporting their continual use, most recently in Libya. It's only a matter of time before Harper uses the war in Libya to justify the fighter jets, exposing the contradictory position of the opposition parties who support the war.

     The majority of Canadians are against war and corporate tax cuts, and support environmental sustainability and social programs. But the coalition between Conservatives and Liberals, and the lack of an alternative, is keeping Harper in power. As an analysis of the last election pointed out:
"In the wake of the election, Harper claims that he has won a 'strong mandate.' But the figures don’t support him. A clear majority of 62 percent voted against Harper. The Conservatives’ vote only increased by one percent, and their total vote actually dropped by almost 170,000 votes since 2006. That fewer Conservative votes translated into 16 more seats was only possible because of a large collapse of Liberal support. Conservative gains are more a reflection of Liberal losses than a shift to the right. Seen through the lens of “Anybody but Conservative” (ABC), the election results seem to indicate a rise in Conservative voters. But the real story of the election is not a 16 seat gain for the Conservatives. The real story is a dramatic drop in votes for the twin parties of corporate Canada—the Conservatives and the Liberals.
In 2000, the combined corporate vote was 78 percent. In 2004—after the anti-capitalist mobilization against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Quebec City in 2001, the G8 protests in Calgary in 2002, and the historic demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003—the combined corporate vote fell to 66 percent. It stayed the same in 2006, but with growing anger over the war and the economic crisis, it has fallen again, now down to 63.8 percent. Though the Conservatives gained seats, the combined number of Conservative and Liberal seats actually decreased, from 227 in 2006 to 219 in 2008. Most significantly, one million fewer people voted for corporate Canada, a drop of 10 per cent...
Ultimately, the ABC approach counter-poses parliamentary politics with grassroots struggles. The record-low voter turn-out seems to suggest that the public is increasingly frustrated with the electoral process and the lack of real alternatives in federal politics. While the past few years have seen widespread mobilizations on issues including the war in Afghanistan, the environment, Native rights, tuition fees and access to post-secondary education, a women’s right to choose, war resisters, health care, funding for the arts, and others, voter turn-out reached an historic low. Falling below 60 percent, it reflects not apathy, but a crisis in federal politics, when no party campaigns on the issues that affect ordinary people on a daily basis, and that mobilize them to fight back. Voters felt that the parties offered no real solutions. As a result, the $300 million-reconfiguration of a minority government was achieved largely based on who lost the highest number of votes. One million people left the two corporate parties. The resulting Liberal collapse—their worst ever results—allowed the Conservatives to pick up seats, while winning fewer votes. The Liberals also hemorrhaged to the left, allowing the NDP to pick up seats, while also winning fewer votes. The only party to gain votes was the Greens, who successfully portrayed themselves as a real alternative to the mainstream parties—despite the reality of their platform."
     But later that year the NDP appeared prepared to enter a coalition with the Liberals, by dropping their two key platforms: opposition to $50 billion in tax cuts and demanding an end to the war in Afghanistan. By driving a wedge between the ballot box and the social movements the NDP demobilized their supporters, and Harper rode the polls on a backlash, which he's trying to recreate this election.
     The real way to oppose Harper is not by building illusions in Ignatieff and the Liberals but by building the social movements that protect against their policies, injecting them into the campaign, and having the only party linked with these movements--the NDP--campaign on these issues. So it's great timing that there are rallies across the country on  April 9 against the war in Afghanistan, which will give us the chance to expose the corporate coalition while strengthening the campaigns that are crucial to confronting it during and after the election.

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