Saskatchewan Politics and Political Economy | From Democratic Socialist Policy to Neoliberalism
Saskatchewan Politics From Left to Right '44 - '99
by Lorne A. Brown, Joseph K. Roberts, and John W. Warnock
Regina: Hinterland Publications, 1999.
Paperback, $10 , 112 pp.
Cover by Betty Meyers
Saskatchewan has historically enjoyed a reputation as one of the most politically progressive provinces in Canada. Our people pioneered much of what is commonly called the "positive state" or the "welfare state" in this country. The provincial government intervened in the economy on behalf of the population more than in any other province. This began to occur even before the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), forerunner of the New Democratic Party (NDP), was elected as the first social democratic government in North America in 1944. After 1944 this positive intervention increased markedly and would continue off and on until 1982. Many other provinces and the federal government would emulate much of what had been pioneered in Saskatchewan. Our small and, until recently, mainly agricultural province developed a national influence out of all proportion to our population and economic importance.
The list of accomplishments is truly impressive, especially when considering that for much of our history we have been a "have not" province often among the poorest in Canada. The 1940s and 1950s witnessed the modernization of the infrastructure of what had been one of the most backward provinces in our country. The same era saw the introduction of hospital insurance, free treatment for many diseases including cancer, some of the most advanced trade union legislation in North America, the first provincial Bill of Rights and an array of welfare state measures which would culminate in 1962 with the first universal public medicare plan on the continent. Within a few years medicare became a national program and has been considered by Canadians ever since as one the implicit rights of citizenship.
The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation
The CCF-NDP (NDP after 1961) governments also experimented with creative ways to expand public ownership in a province where historically most large corporations were owned by outside interests. This included insurance, bus transportation, telephone, electricity and natural gas, exploitation of timber reserves and limited secondary manufacturing and ultimately include considerable public ownership of resource development such as oil, potash and other resource companies during Allan Blakeney's NDP governments of the 1970s.
This widespread public ownership made it possible to provide a wide range of services to the population, often at a lower cost than private corporations. It also enabled the province to develop in a manner more attuned to the economic well being of the population. Very importantly it allowed governments to capture more of the surplus value and resource rents, kept in the public sector of the province rather than being sent to the shareholders of outside corporations. This meant a relatively poor province could afford medicare and similar programs without an onerous level of taxation. New programs to improve the quality of life of Saskatchewan people continued to be introduced as late as the 1970s. The Blakeney governments added prescription drugs to the medicare plan, introduced a dental program for children, passed progressive occupational health and agricultural legislation, expanded public housing and embarked on a number of other measures made financially possible in part by profits from Crown Corporations. In many areas Saskatchewan remained in the forefront of Canada's provinces until 1982.
In the past seventeen years Saskatchewan has lost its position on the leading edge of social progress. We have fallen behind much of the country. For nearly two decades there have been few social programs introduced for the benefit of the population. The reverse has been the case with social programs in decline and government legislation more often than not favouring corporate rather than community interests.This has occurred through two terms of the Conservatives under Grant Devine from 1982 to 1991 and two terms of the New Democrats under Roy Romanow from 1991 to the present.
Grant Devine's Tory Government
The Devine regime abolished or crippled most social programs and privatized entirely or in part many Crown corporations including some of the most important and most profitable. In many areas they wrecked what had taken four decades to build. They also indulged in an orgy of corruption, mismanagement, waste and incompetence which made Saskatchewan the laughing stock of the country rather than a province to be emulated.
The Devine nightmare has been followed by eight years of the Romanow New Democrats. More competent and certainly less corrupt that the Tories, they have almost totally abandoned the traditional CCF-NDP approach to the political economy. In fact the NDP have adopted a neo-liberal strategy which is almost identical in most fundamental respects to their Tory predecessors and the federal governments of Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien and most Liberal and Conservative provincial governments throughout Canada. Not only have they refused to reverse the Tory privatizations but have extended them. The New Democrats have continued the cut backs to health and social services and made an unfair taxation system worse. The main developmental strategy has been the encouragement of corporate capital. The provincial NDP has become a liberal rather than a social democratic party, like the other parties increasingly financed by corporate capital. Tommy Douglas was never more right when he insisted that "he who pays the piper calls the tune".
Saskatchewan people have historically looked to provincial governments to offer protection from powerful vested interests. This historic belief that governments can improve the lives of people once made Saskatchewan the most political province in Canada. Political debate was at a high level and there was a real choice in politics. This was reflected in the voter turnout which was among the highest in Canada. In recent years many people have given up on politicians. They have become anti-political and cynical about the entire process This was reflected by the drastic decline in the turnout for the 1995 provincial election and three recent 1999 by-elections. It is an unhealthy development which could lead to a disintegration of any sense of community. People could retreat into their exclusive individual lives while the corporate interests and their political pawns impose the neo-liberal agenda to the detriment of the vast majority.
Where do we go from here?
The dilemma facing the electorate in the upcoming provincial election illustrates what has become of our politics. While there will be alternative candidates in some constituencies most voters will have only the three main parties to choose from, and none of them are an attractive choice. The NDP has objectively abandoned its traditional base in favour of the interests who support the neo-liberal agenda. The newly formed Saskatchewan Party is a motley array of recycled reactionaries consisting of the discredited Tories, federal Reformers and renegade right-wing Liberals. The Liberal Party consists of a disunited rump with no consistent strategy other than to survive with the hope of making a try for office at some future date. Some commentators are predicting record numbers of voters will throw up their hands in frustration and decline to vote at all.
How did a once proud and progressive province reach this sorry state of affairs? It is not an historical accident and the reasons go much deeper than a few unimaginative and opportunistic political leaders. It is the purpose of this book to attempt to ascertain the reasons why our small hinterland province once managed to provide a positive example to the entire country and then declined to what some people unkindly describe as a veritable political wasteland. We will briefly examine possible alternatives for the popular movements in the hope of beginning the long and difficult process of reconstruction to get the province back on the road to social progress.
The plan of the book
We have divided the book into four sections. The first is a survey of our history up to the end of the Blakeney era in 1982. It examines what is almost a unique phenomenon whereby a social democratic party like the CCF took root and eventually achieved hegemony in a province which was overwhelmingly rural until the 1950s. The American right-wing referred to Saskatchewan as "the red beachhead in North America". This dominance is attested to by the fact that the CCF-NDP have governed for 39 of the 55 years since 1944. In more than half a century no other party has governed for more than two terms - the Liberals from 1964-1971 and the Conservative from 1982-1991. As rural Saskatchewan and left social democratic populism declined the NDP also transformed themselves into a more conventional urban social democratic party under Blakeney and eventually into a liberal party under Romanow almost indistinguishable from other liberal parties across Canada.
The second section consists of an analysis of the transformation of the world political economy which began earlier but got underway with a vengeance in the 1980s during what has become known as the Thatcher-Reagan era after the British Prime Minister and the U.S. President. By the end of the 1980s neo-liberalism had replaced Keynesianism as the dominant ideology and corporate strategy in all Western capitalist societies. This was a reversal of forty years of history. It has led to "free trade" agreements, the gutting of the welfare state and so-called "globalization" whereby huge trans-national corporations now run the world with little interference from national governments or governments at any level. Saskatchewan was affected by the international triumph of neo-liberalism and the effect has been negative for most of the population. The Devine Conservatives who governed during this period welcomed the new neo-liberal approach with open arms as did right-wing parties everywhere. What surprised many people was that the NDP, like many other social democratic parties, mounted no real resistance to the neo-liberal agenda. In fact England's "New" Labour Party, under the leadership of Tony Blair, and many European social democratic parties adopted a slightly watered down version of the new agenda. By the 1990s the Saskatchewan NDP had adopted the neo-liberal approach almost in its entirety.
The third section comprises an analysis of the record of the New Democratic government since their election in 1991. It examines whether the contention that the Romanow government has managed to balance the budget while maintaining a high quality of education, health, social services and pro-people programs and maintaining a fair taxation system is a myth or a reality. This is a detailed and documented analysis of the provincial government's approach to workers, farmers, welfare recipients, women, Aboriginal people, youth and the environment. Has the NDP governed differently from the governments of neighbouring provinces? The facts speak for themselves.
Our final section discusses possible alternatives for those individuals and organizations who are resisting or would like to resist the neo-liberal agenda. We do not claim any definitive answers but wish to contribute to the debate on the most fruitful alternatives. The political and intellectual spokespersons for capital would like us to believe that there are no alternatives to the "New World Order" mapped out by the trans-national corporations and their captive governments. We beg to differ and we think countless thousands of others agree though few of us claim to have a road map to the future. There has already been resistance around the world including Canada. The recent nurses' strikes in Quebec and Saskatchewan are excellent examples. The nurses have been defending not only their own living standards and working conditions but also the very essence of medicare itself. It is little wonder they enjoyed such overwhelming public support. We heartily endorse Tommy Douglas when he said in the last years of his life: "Take courage friends. It's not too late to build a better world."
Note: Saskatchewan Politics From Left to Right is out of print but is available from Amazon.ca and other used book sellers.
Social Democracy and the Economic Crisis
by John W. Warnock
Act Up in Saskatchewan
November 24, 2011
In the Spanish general election last Sunday, the Socialist Party government was soundly defeated. The rightist Peoples Party won the election but only increased their vote by a very small margin. The Indignatos, the people who staged mass street mobilizations, asked the voters to stay home, spoil their ballot or vote for the numerous smaller parties. Neither of the two major parties were deemed fit to govern, they argued. The Socialists lost three million votes.
The Spanish economy is in the tank with unemployment at 22% and youth unemployment over 40%. Personal and government debt is huge, and investors fear they will default on their bonds. As in the United States, the crisis is the fallout from the collapse of the housing bubble, created by the unregulated finance industry supported by low interest rates and neoliberal government policies.
The decline of the social democrats
All across Europe, the pattern is the same. The social democratic parties in government embraced the agenda of big business. They deregulated the finance industry, cut taxes on corporations and the rich, and privatized state assets. As government revenues fell, they imposed “reforms” to social programs which fell heaviest on the poor and the working class.
* In Iceland the Social Democrats first supported the right wing Independence Party in privatizing the banks and deregulating finance. The banks collapsed. In a governing alliance with the Greens, they tried to make the taxpayers bail out the banks. In two referendums the people overwhelmingly voted “no”!
* In Ireland the Labour Party, then in opposition, supported the neoliberal agenda brought in by the rightist government of Fianna Fail. The banks collapsed, and the government took on major debt to bail them out. Following the February 2011 election, the Labour Party is now in coalition with Fine Gael, imposing a right-wing austerity program on their supporters.
* In Portugal the Socialist Party government was turfed out in the June 2011 election after being forced to accept an IMF/ECB bailout and austerity program. The large government debt was mainly due to the disasters stemming from their Public Private Partnership program.
* In Greece the Socialist Party government adopted right wing neoliberal policies, seeing them as the only way to deal with the economic and financial crisis. A number of governments over the years failed to collect taxes from small business, corporations and the rich. Instead, they borrowed money to cover their hidden deficits. The IMF is now directly running the country. A series of harsh austerity programs is driving the country into a deep recession.
* In Italy, the conservative coalition of parties headed by Silvio Berlusconi has implemented harsh austerity programs to deal with the government debt and the long recession. But the opposition centre-left coalition of social democrats and Greens supports this strategy. As in Greece, the IMF is now directly running the government.
Across Europe the social democrats in office and in opposition have supported the general neoliberal model of the free market and free trade, an end to universal social programs, and the implementation of regressive taxation systems. This is the pro-business right wing package brought in by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan beginning around 1980. The result has been a general withdrawal from participation in politics, a decline in the percentage of the population even bothering to vote, and the rise of right wing neo-fascist parties.
The Anglo-American social democrats
The dramatic shift to the right by social democratic parties began with the New Zealand Labor government (1984-1990). They used “shock therapy” to virtually repeal the Keynesian welfare state. The Australian Labor governments headed by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating (1983-1996) pursued similar policies. Saskatchewan readers might remember that Roy Romanow was a strong supporter of the policy shift by the New Zealand Labor government. Thus it was really no big surprise that the Romanow-Calvert governments (1991-2007) followed the general pattern of these social democratic governments. One could even say that the rightist policies of the British Labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (1997-2010) were patterned after the Saskatchewan model.
The federal NDP moved steadily to the right under the leadership of Jack Layton. The platform in the May 2011 election promised to balance the budget over four years without raising taxes or in any way cutting Stephen Harper’s ever growing military budget. Just prior to the recent election the federal NDP called the media to stress that when elected Jack Layton would follow the model of the Romanow-Calvert governments in Saskatchewan.
The financial/economic crisis which broke in 2007 has demonstrated the failure of the neoliberal model. But with the traditional social democratic parties of the left, and then the Greens, generally supporting this model, what is the alternative?
For Canada this is a time of decision. The federal NDP is now choosing a new leader and has the opportunity of taking a new political direction. But it will take a strong push from the grass roots to shift the party in a more progressive direction. There is little evidence that this is happening.
The Saskatchewan NDP
In Saskatchewan the NDP has just experienced a horrendous defeat. If they continue as in the past 20 years with the leader and the caucus determining everything, we are facing the likelihood that the NDP will be the minor opposition party long into the future.
The NDP cannot be revived in this province unless they re-establish their ties to the many popular organizations which have supported them in the past. To do this they need to seriously try to reach out to them and the general public. They will not succeed unless they develop a new vision for the province, one which puts the human rights and democratic principles of the majority up front and recognizes that climate change is a serious problem. The 35% of the population which is marginalized from everything must be actively supported and brought into the political system. We do not need two major parties whose first commitment is to the defence of the large transnational corporations which control the economy and the business class in general.
I remember well the high spirits which came after the victory of the NDP in the 1971 election. It happened because there had been three years of open debate on policy both within the party and in the general public. A great many people became deeply engaged in the political process.
The major victory of the NDP in 1991 was due to the fact that for three years the Saskatchewan Coalition for Social Justice had been actively confronting Grant Devine’s Conservative government in public actions involving thousands of citizens. Once again, the general public was engaged in the political process. Democratic mass mobilization works.
Given the weakness of the NDP today, and the very low participation of the general public in the political process, it seems to me that it is time for the people in this province who are committed to the democratic ideal to look to the formation of some sort of new, broad extra-parliamentary political organization.
John W. Warnock is a long time political activist living in Regina.
Saskatchewan: What Happened to the NDP?
By John W. Warnock
October 13, 2011
The writ has dropped. There will be a provincial election in Saskatchewan on November 7. Public opinion polls over the past two year suggest that Premier Brad Wall’s conservative Saskatchewan Party will win by a landslide over the opposition New Democratic Party, led by Dwain Lingenfelter. The polls also reveal that the provincial Liberal party is facing total collapse and will likely be replaced as the third party by the Greens.
There are no major issues in the campaign. Wall’s government has not been friendly to trade unions but otherwise has been quite moderate. The Saskatchewan economy is doing well compared to other North American jurisdictions. In a province where home ownership stands at 70%, people believe that their wealth has increased with the housing bubble of the past five years. The vote will be a referendum on the two leaders.
The last two public opinion polls showed support for the Saskatchewan Party running at 58% and 63% with the NDP at 30% and 26%. The most recent poll reports that the Sask Party now has around 56% support in both Regina and Saskatoon. If this turns out to the be case, the NDP will suffer it most serious defeat, perhaps falling to the eight seats it held after the 1982 election.
Premier Brad Wall’s personal support remains high at over 70% in all the polls. In contrast, support for Dwain Lingenfelter stood at only 13% in the most recent poll. Even half of the expected NDP voters stated that they did not want to see him as premier.
The other major development is the collapse of the Liberal Party. In provincial elections since 1991, the Liberals have been a significant factor, winning between 14% and 34% of the vote. It is widely believed that the existence of the Liberals helped the NDP win elections with only around 40% of the popular vote. However, support for the Liberals fell to 9% in the 2007 election. In recent polls Liberal support has dropped to between 4% and 6%, similar to the Green Party.
Ryan Bater, leader of the Liberal Party, recently stated that they may only have 15 candidates nominated and that all their efforts would be put into getting him elected in The Battlefords. But as the writ is being dropped, the Liberals have only nominated Bater. In contrast, the Green Party is close to nominating a full slate.
The other concern is the declining number of people who vote and those who are on the official electoral lists. The 2007 vote in the provincial election represented 53 per cent of those eligible to vote (citizens 18 and older) and many expect that the turnout will fall below 50 per cent this time. In the 2007 provincial election there were 598,234 people enumerated, but in the 2011 federal election there were 723,814 on the official voters’ list. The enumeration process is not working as it should.
So what has happened in Saskatchewan that has brought about this major change? The political science experts argue that people are much better off financially than they were in the old days of the CCF-NDP and no longer feel the need for a left wing party. The CCF-NDP was very strong among family farmers, and the decline of the farm population, the growth of big farms, and the expansion of the influence of agribusiness in general has all but eliminated this base of support.
On the other hand, support for the NDP has declined as it moved steadily to the political right during the governments of Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert (1991-2007). The policy direction they took generally followed the neoliberal agenda set by Grant Devine’s Conservative government (1982-91). Lorne Calvert’s government radically changed the taxation system, cutting taxes on the highest income earners, small business and corporations, and greatly reduced royalties paid by the large transnational corporations for the extraction and sale of the province’s non-renewable natural resources. As research by Paul Gingrich reveals, during the two NDP governments there was a dramatic increase in income inequality in the province.
After the defeat in the 2007 election it was clear to everyone that the NDP needed to go through a renewal process. In 2009 Lorne Calvert stepped down as leader. Key members of the NDP caucus and several important trade unions convinced Dwain Lingenfelter to leave Nexen Corporation in Calgary and seek the leadership. However, Lingenfelter was the Deputy Leader of the NDP under Roy Romanow and played a very key role in pushing the party to adopt the business-friendly neoliberal agenda. He represented the old order. If the international financial crisis of 2008-11 has demonstrated anything, it is the failure of the neoliberal agenda of the unregulated free market and free trade.
In the 2009 leadership race there were two other candidates, Yens Pederson and Ryan Meili. They both represented a youth movement, had a strong commitment to restore the NDP’s commitment to social justice, and wanted to seriously address key environmental issues. Not only did the win by Lingenfelter post pone this process by four years, it exposed the party to a devastating electoral defeat.
John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist and author.
“Real Democracy, Now!” Can Canadians learn anything from the European experience?
by John W. Warnock
June 5, 2011
Act Up in Saskatchewan
The general consensus of the progressive political forces in Canada today is that we must support Jack Layton’s NDP and hope that they can be elected in 2015. In the meantime, Stephen Harper and his gang now have a majority in Parliament and will pursue their right-wing agenda. Is there nothing more to do?
Perhaps working to support the NDP is all that we can expect from activists as long as the Canadian economy is not in recession and the Harperites are successful in propping up the bubble in the housing market. But that may not hold. When we are shocked by the budget cuts that are coming from the Harper government, we should remember that the federal NDP pledged in its platform to do the same thing – balance the budget over four years without raising taxes.
In this present period of quiet and reflection, it seems prudent for Canadians to take a look at Europe, where proportional representation has allowed social democratic parties to lead governing coalitions for many years. How have these political allies of the NDP dealt with the Great Recession? What are political activists on the left doing across the Atlantic?
Thanks to the Internet and the new media we know that social democratic (and Green) parties originally helped create the crisis in Europe by supporting and implementing the deregulation of financial markets and most of the basic policies of the neoliberal agenda. They now form the governments in those countries with the most severe debt problems: Iceland and what are referred to by the business community as the PIIGS. What are they doing? Imposing severe austerity programs which hit hardest at the working class and the poor.
But the people are organizing and fighting back, utilizing all kinds of political resistance. New political movements are emerging demanding the expansion of democracy and the creation of a new society. Canadians should be inspired by these examples. What follows is a short summary of developments in these countries.
Iceland: “We will not bail out the banks!”
A bankrupt country! It began in 2000-1 when the conservative coalition government, egged on by mainstream economists, privatized the state-owned banks and deregulated the financial sector. The now private banks launched a massive expansion abroad, soaking up the savings of people around the world by promising them higher-than-market returns. The supposed assets of the banks rose to eight times the size of Iceland’s GDP. When the Ponzi schemes collapsed, and the banks became insolvent, the UK and Dutch governments insisted that the people of Iceland provide compensation to the greedy investors.
Following the 2007 election, a coalition government was formed between the conservative Independence Party and the Social Democratic Alliance. In 2008 the top three banks were nationalized to prevent their bankruptcy. The coalition government put forth proposals to bail out the banks and impose a severe austerity regime.
Protests began on a regular basis, demanding the resignation of the government and an early election. The protests were sustained over time and grew in size. Large demonstration were held at the Parliament every Saturday, pelting the legislative building and officials in cars with paint bombs, eggs, and anything else around. As thousands of protesters banged spoons on pans, the resistance became known as the “Kitchenware Revolution.” At the same time the protesters created the Citizens’ Movement to sustain the protests and defend families from foreclosures. The coalition government resigned in 2009 and called an early election. The Citizens Movement ran a few candidates, took 7% of the vote, and elected four members to the parliament.
The 2009 election resulted in a new coalition government, headed by the Social Democratic Alliance and supported by the Left-Green Movement. But they drafted new austerity programs and bailout plans for the investors in the banks. The peoples’ movement demanded and got a referendum on the legislation in March 2010, which was defeated by a vote of 93%. A second more moderate bail out plan was then brought to referendum in April 2011, and it failed by 60%. The Citizens’ Movement is determined that the general population should not have to pay to bailout the banks. They have the solid support of the majority.
Greece: Corruption, shock treatment, and the revival of the left resistance
The crisis in Greece dominates the news today, as the Troika of the IMF, the European Union and the European Bank have demanded that the government impose a radical program of privatization of state assets and a fifth austerity program. The Greek financial disaster involved illegal collusion with banking interests, hiding the size of the government debt from the public, cronyism, and the refusal of the well off to pay their taxes. It covers both the governments of the right wing New Democracy Party (ND) and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK).
In the October 2009 election the Socialist party won a majority of the seats and formed the government. It is trying to prevent the collapse of the financial system by applying an austerity package which includes pay cuts for workers, cuts in pensions, public sector layoffs, and a range of increases in consumption taxes. The Socialist government has now begun to privatize all state-owned assets.
The people have responded with mass demonstrations and strikes. During the demonstrations and the general strike, unions affiliated with the Greek Communist Party (KKE) occupied government buildings. Most recently they occupied and shut down the Ministry of Finance. They have been joined by supporters from the ecosocialist Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA). The two left opposition parties have given support to the growing “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay” movement. This is grass roots civil disobedience. A second general strike will be held in June.
On the way back from the G-8 meeting in France at the end of May, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid a visit to Greece so that he could show his support for George Papendreou and the Socialist government and its privatization and austerity programs.
Ireland: The collapse of the “Celtic Tiger.”
Ireland is now in the fourth year of recession, with unemployment at 14.6% and workers again fleeing to other countries. The cause was the “Celtic Tiger” free market and deregulation policies of the mainstream parties, supported as well by the Labour Party and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Praised by mainstream economists, the policies included very low corporate taxes, low interest rates, and subsidies to transnational corporations to locate in Ireland. One result was an enormous bubble in the housing market, which is still deflating, and the collapse of the banks, with the government invoking some nationalization and very large subsidies from the taxpayers.
There have been demonstrations and strikes, but they have been relatively limited due to the support of the Labour Party and the trade union federation for the Troika-imposed austerity programs. The ICTU is a partner to the Croak Park Agreement, where they pledged that there would be no strikes for four years. The 2007 coalition government of Fianna Fail and the Green Party collapsed, and the February 2011 election produced a coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour. There has been no change in policy, however, as the new government is also imposing an austerity program, including budget cuts of sixteen billion Euros over four years.
The opposition to the financial packages imposed on the Irish government was first led by Sinn Fein. There have been demonstration and protest marches. The crisis spurred the formation of the Peoples Movement, a grass roots organization which has demanded Irish independence from the European Union, peace and non-violence, and a new democratic society. In the 2011 parliamentary election they formed the United Left Alliance and won 7% of the vote. They elected five members, from the People Before Profits Alliance and the Unemployed Workers Action Group. The new movement is demanding no taxpayer bailouts for the banks. A general strike is in the planning stage.
Portugal: The revolt of the Desperate Generation
On May 16, 2011 Portugal became the third country to be bailed out by the Troika, receiving seventy-eight billion Euros in return for imposing a comprehensive austerity program. As elsewhere the debt and deficit problem was caused by deregulation, financial speculation, government debt reaching 9.4% of GDP, and investor speculation against Portuguese government bonds. Since the onset of the Carnation Revolution in 1974, the Socialist Party (PS) and the conservative Social Democratic Party (PSD) have alternated as government.
Currently the Socialist Party forms a minority government and is trying to impose a severe austerity program. The parliament recently refused to pass the legislation, and Prime Minister Jose Zapatero resigned. A parliamentary election is scheduled for June 5. The Troika and investors have called on the PSD to support the Socialist government’s austerity program.
The opposition has been led by the Democratic Union Coalition, the alliance of the Communist Party and the Greens, and the Left Bloc, a Marxist and Ecosocialist alliance. There have been many demonstrations and strikes, including a general strike in November 2010.
The media has given extensive coverage to the occupation of the central plazas of 45 cities by young people, which began on March 12, 2011. Organized on Facebook, they have been called “The Desperate Generation” They refer to themselves as “the unpaid generation” and “the generation on the scrapheap.” They are “the poorly paid, the slaves in disguise, the subcontracted, the temps, the fake self-employed, the intermittent workers, the trainees, the bursairs and the student workers.” They pledge their solidarity with popular movements for democracy in Egypt, Wisconsin and Spain.
Spain: “Real Democracy, Now!”
Most worrisome for investors and the financial community is the economic crisis in Spain. The consensus is that the EU cannot afford to bail out another country. The government and the finance industry subsidized a massive house and apartment building program, hoping that rich foreigners would move to Spain and buy holiday residences. The housing bubble burst, and the government now faces an enormous budget deficit and debt. Unemployment is now 21% and 45% for youth.
The 2008 elections resulted in a majority for the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), which is imposing a draconian austerity program while bailing out the banks. The right wing opposition, the Peoples’ Party (PP), advances similar policies. In the local elections in May 2011, voters showed their opposition to the government by handing the Socialists a major defeat. Aside from the regional parties, the only organized political opposition is the United Left, a coalition of the Communist Party and ecosocialists.
The new political development is the formation of Real Democracy, Now!, a federation of 500 organizations, without representation of any political parties or trade unions. They are calling on citizens not to vote for either of the two major parties in elections. Using Facebook and the internet, they organized street protests beginning on May 15 (the M-15 Movement). They set up tents and occupied the central plazas in 65 cities across Spain. “We will not pay for the banker/politician crisis,” they proclaim.
Following the example of the Paris Commune, they make decisions by consensus at open air meetings where all are invited to attend. They reject the politics of liberal democracy, which stresses the personality of the political leader and his policies. Elections are just plebiscites, they argue, which produce the same old men and the same old policies.
“We are here because we desire a new society that puts lives above political and economic interests. We demand a change in society and an increase in social awareness. We are here to make it known that the people have not fallen asleep, and we will continue fighting ... peacefully.”
At the present time, Canadians are in a quiet lull. The Harperites are confidently biding their time, preparing to use their majority in Parliament to strike. Supporters of the New Democratic Party were jubilant after the election but are now nervously wondering what will develop. The rest of us are waiting for the anvil to fall. If North America drifts back into a recession, and there is a good possibility that this could happen, we will start to feel the real pain. Hunkering down in our homes will not work. It will be time again to start organizing. Canada is not different.
John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist, author, and long time political and social justice activist.
Resisting the Agenda of the Harper Government: the Role of the NDP
by John W. Warnock
May 24, 2011
Act Up in Saskatchewan
On election night the majority of Canadians were dismayed. Prime Minister Stephen Harper managed to win a majority of the seats in the House of Commons with only 39.6% of the popular vote. Many of us fear that his government will now move full speed ahead in his professed goal to transform Canada from “a second-rate socialist state” to a copy of the free market United States.
But at the same time there were many NDP activists who were greatly cheered by the results of the election. The Liberal Party collapsed. The astonishing results of the election in Quebec gave the New Democratic Party another 58 seats, and they became the Official Opposition. This was always Jack Layton’s goal, creating a two-party system. These NDP supporters, and apparently all of the leaders of the trade union movement, have placed their hope in the possibility of the NDP forming the government after the next election.
The NDP’s election platform
Would it be any different if Jack Layton’s NDP had won the May 2 election? The NDP platform promised spending on social programs, with a strong emphasis on supporting “working families,” primarily through the use of tax benefits and rebates. This strategy ignores the 35% of tax filers who do not earn enough to pay income taxes and do not benefit from tax breaks.
Other pledges were to provide tax breaks to small business and to keep corporate taxes below those in the USA. Military spending would be maintained at the levels set by the Harper government. The federal budget, running a $29 billion deficit this year, would be balanced within four years.
La Presse (May 5, 2011) revealed that just before the election the top brass at the NDP phoned prominent people in the finance sector to assure them that they had little to fear from an NDP government. They were told that Jack Layton’s party was inspired by the government of Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan.
The transformation of social democracy
Canadians in general seem to be unaware of the fact that social democratic and labour parties in the industrialized world have all abandoned the policies of the Keynesian welfare state. Beginning with the Labor governments in New Zealand and Australia, they have moved far to the right, embracing the full policy package of the neoliberal agenda fostered by the right wing governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Allan Blakeney’s NDP government in Saskatchewan (1971-82) greatly expanded democracy by implementing the Keynesian welfare state and moving strongly to gain control over the exploitation of natural resources. But the subsequent NDP governments of Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert (1991-2006) fully embraced the neoliberal policy package. This included privatization of state enterprises, deregulation, reducing resource royalties, cutting corporate and business taxes and greatly reducing income taxes on those in the highest income brackets. Social services were cut, and they froze social assistance rates for fifteen years! Is this what Canadians want as an alternative to the Harper government?
The NDP and Quebec
Canadians on the left seem pleased that the Quebec NDP Members of Parliament now form the majority in the NDP caucus. They are bound to be more progressive than the NDP caucus that we have seen since 2006. But the NDP success in Quebec is a very strange and unusual political phenomenon, and it is conceivable that the NDP could lose almost all of those seats in the next election.
How will the NDP caucus deal with the issue of Quebec sovereignty? If Harper pushes through his right wing policies, we should not be surprised to see a revival of the sovereignty movement and possibly another referendum.
Alternatives for political activists
What can the 60% of Canadians who do not want the Harper government do at this time? First, we learned that strategic voting, without a serious mass mobilization, does not work. Under the British electoral system we have, political parties stress maximizing their own self interest. Jack Layton made it clear that the NDP is strongly opposed to strategic voting.
Some have announced they will push hard on the issue of electoral reform. But there is no possibility that a Harper government would be at all interested. The recent NDP governments in Saskatchewan flatly rejected any form of PR as they did not want any Greens sitting in the legislature.
We also know that one day actions, even large marches, rarely result in any changes in government policies. Well designed mobilizations against the corporate free trade agenda rarely achieve their goals when anarchists and provacateurs smash windows and burn police cars.
There is a call to revive the New Politics Initiative within the NDP. That is certainly one road to take. The party could change substantially if the membership in Quebec would actually increase.
Building an extra-parliamentary opposition
What successes progressive forces in Canada have achieved over the past twenty odd years have to a very large extent been due to broad coalitions of popular forces engaging in extra-parliamentary actions. The anti-free trade coalitions, and the provincial Coalitions for Social Justice, educated and mobilized the general public to eventually defeat Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government and then to block the implementation of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) and the Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (FTAA). We cannot forget this history.
Any new coalitions would have to stress a positive vision of a Canada different from that being pushed by the neo-conservative minority and their government. It is time for political activists and their organizations to think seriously about undertaking a new effort in this direction.
The decline in political participation
Those who are politically active on the broad left seem to overlook the fact that voter turnout in Canada has been dropping in recent elections. While Elections Canada reported that the turnout this year was 62%, that was of those on the National Register of Electors. The vote was only 53% of eligible voters, citizens 18 years and older.
Why is it that so many Canadians are no longer members or supporters of any political party and do not even bother to vote? In Saskatchewan, the drop has been greatest in those areas where the NDP has been strongest in the past – low income and working class districts. This is a general phenomenon in the advanced capitalist states. The root of this reality is the fact that the social democratic and labour parties have moved so far to the right that their policies are virtually identical to those of the parties of big business. Electing the supposed parties of the workers just results in more of the same. Look at the financial crisis in Europe today.
Nevertheless, there is good reason to be encouraged. In all the European countries which are under stress from the financial and housing crisis, and where the governments in power are demanding draconian budget cuts and right wing policy changes, we are seeing a widespread revival of popular movements demanding real democracy. Canadians can learn a great deal from these experiences. This will be the focus of the last part of this essay.
John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist, author and a long time political and social justice activist.
What is to be done? The HarperGovernment
John W. Warnock
May 16, 2011
Act Up in Saskatchewan
The public opinion polls all indicated that Canadians were going to return Stephen Harper’s Conservatives to government. The only question was whether or not it would be a government with a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. It all depended on how the vote was split between the opposition parties. It also appeared likely that the support for Harper would again be less than 40% of those who actually went to the polls.
For the Harperites, it could not have been a better time to have the election. The economic performance of the Conservative government during the recession was mediocre, but Canadians always use the United States as the standard. Compared to the administrations of George W. Bush and Barrack Obama, the Harper government looked quite good.
The collapse of the U.S. economy
What collapsed the U.S. economy, and brought the Great Recession, was the push by the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to try to get almost everyone into a single family house with a mortgage. It was hoped that this strategy would to some degree offset the loss of jobs; the U.S. Department of Commerce recently reported that over the past decade transnational corporations had eliminated 2.9 million jobs at home and created 2.4 million in low wage countries.
The housing strategy was facilitated by instituting historic low interest rates and then using U.S. federal agencies to provide insurance for very risky mortgages. The result was a large bubble in the housing market that collapsed, as all financial bubbles eventually do. That deflation is now in its double dip.
Harper follows the U.S. lead
In Canada the government of Stephen Harper followed suit, introducing very low interest rates and directing the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (the taxpayers) to insure no-money-down mortgages eagerly pushed by Canada’s big banks. A housing bubble resulted here as well, and it is only just beginning to start its downward adjustment. The fact that the change in the housing market is relatively unrecognized by Canadian home owners at this time provided a tremendous base of support for the Harper Conservatives. By fall the more evident downward trend in the housing market would have created a very different political climate. It is astonishing that the three opposition parties in the House of Commons were seemingly unaware of these realities and chose to rush into an election.
What we can expect from the new Harper government
So once again the electoral system has denied the 60% of Canadians on the centre-left their chance to form a government. The opposition parties had some influence in the House of Commons when the Harperites were a minority government. With a solid majority of seats, Harper can now completely disregard the position of the opposition. What can we expect from this new government?
- The consolidation of Stephen Harper’s foreign and military policy. The end of Canada’s role in peacekeeping and an even stronger commitment to support the U.S. government in its imperialistic project in the non-white less developed world. Part of this strategy includes the promotion and financing of numerous right-wing “think tanks” at Canadian universities.
* Deeper integration with the United States, beginning with the Perimeter Defence of North America, enhanced economic integration, and more advanced harmonization of standards, as in agriculture and food.
*Expansion of the regime of “counter terrorism” that came after 9/11, with the steady erosion of historic civil and human rights and the increased surveillance of citizens. This is to be enhanced by the omnibus anti-crime bill that is to be shortly re-introduced into Parliament.
* Full speed ahead on the development of the tar sands and the export of Canada’s non-conventional oil to the United States. There will of course continue to be no national energy policy.
* Nothing of substance will be done in the area of policy on global warming and climate change. The political right likes the ridiculous policy of carbon capture and storage, a cover for the expanded extraction and consumption of fossil fuels.
* In the area of agriculture and food, we can expect a continued trend towards support for the free market. The most powerful business organization, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, has already asked for the elimination of the monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board, the end to supply management marketing boards, and a greater push for the Doha Round of the WTO and other free trade deals.
* Poverty and inequality will continue to increase. Government support for civic organizations which assist the poor and women will likely lose what federal funding they are still getting.
* It is uncertain how far the Harperites will go in pushing their patriarchal agenda. Their party membership and voters and counting on this. The gun registry will go. They will probably expand support for private schools, where evolution does not have to be on the curriculum and boys do not have to be taught by women. They could expand the role of organized religion in the adjudication of family matters. But they could lose too much support if they choose to take on gay rights, abortion and capital punishment.
All of these policies are a strong attack on political views of the majority of Canadians. How will we react? Is voting for the NDP all we can do? Is there any possibility that such a strategy would work? That seems to be all that is being advanced in English Canada so far. Part II will look at the options for building a resistance to the Harper agenda.
John W. Warnock is retired from teaching political economy and sociology at the University of Regina. He is a long time political and social justice activist.
Some Canadians went to the polls on May 2, 2011
John W. Warnock
Act Up in Saskatchewan
May 10, 2011
While all of the major polls predicted that Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party would form the next government, none predicted that he would manage to win a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. But all of them were cautious on this because of the first past the post (British) electoral system and the presence of three major parties in English Canada and four in Quebec. But with only 39.6% of the popular vote cast, the Harperites were able to win 167 seats out of 308.
No longer will the opposition parties, which received 60.4% of the vote, be able to have some power in the House of Commons. Where in the last Parliament this majority could pass legislation, and did on occasion, these policies, reflecting the general views of the majority of Canadians, were blocked in the unelected Senate, where the Conservatives now have a small majority. Such is the state of democracy in Canada.
The big surprise in the election was the collapse of the opposition Liberal Party under the leadership of Michael Ignatieff and the rise of the mildly social democratic New Democratic Party as the new Official Opposition in the House of Commons.
Ignatieff returned to Canada from spending many years working abroad in the UK and the USA in order to run for the leadership of the Liberal Party. After the poor showing in the 2008 federal election, Stephane Dion stepped down as leader of the Liberals. But the parliamentary party and the business elite in Ontario refused to hold a leadership convention; this allowed the right wing in the party could name Ignatieff as leader. In the end this proved to be a disaster for the party. Margaret Wente, right wing columnist for the Globe and Mail, argued that Iggy “could not connect” with the general public. But Canadians had a hard time connecting with s man who was a supporter of George Bush’s war on Iraq and then wrote a book defending the use of torture by NATO governments.
The NDP had the same leader as in the previous three elections and a platform that was even more mainstream liberal than in the past. In the early polls they were at their ususal 15-18%. But then in the last two weeks of the campaign their support surged up to 30% and they ended up on election night with 102 seats. How could this happen?
The major change was the incredible shift in voting in the province of Quebec. The NDP went from 12.2% of the vote and one seat in the 2008 election to 42.9% and 58 seats this May 2. The vote of the social democratic sovereignists shifted from the Bloc Quebecois to the NDP. Commentators concluded it was because of Layton’s natural French (he grew up in Quebec), his folksy personality, the social democrat tradition of his party, and the fact that the NDP was the only federal party which at any time opposed the war in Afghanistan, which is very unpopular in Quebec. The people of Quebec, liberated not too long ago from an oppressive Roman Catholic Church and a heavy patriarchal tradition, do not like or trust Stephen Harper and his Christian fundamentalist policies. Canadians are now waiting to see what happens to the NDP with a majority of members from Quebec, who are certain to be more to the left of their caucus members from the rest of Canada.
Over the past ten years we have seen a steady decline of voter participation in federal and provincial elections. The media pundits proclaimed that the vote total was up from 2008. But what are the real figures?
Canada’s total population in 2010 (Census, Statistics Canada): 34,442,051
Citizens eligible to vote (18 and older): 27,713,000
Elections Canada voter registration list: 23,971,740
Those who voted in the May 2, 2011 election: 14,720,580
Thus Elections Canada says 61.4% of potential voters went to the polls. This is a measure of their inadequate voter registration list. But if the vote total is compared to those actually eligible to vote, the turnout falls to 53%. Canada is moving to the U.S. liberal model, where the poor and marginalized are deliberately discouraged from voting. The end to enumerating voters before elections has hastened this process.
Current political system won’t deliver a government the majority of us want
by John W. Warnock
April 12, 2011
Jack Layton and the federal NDP caucus gave us the Stephen Harper government in 2006. By defeating the minority Conservative government recently, they have now given this right wing party a chance to get what it really wants - a majority of the seats in the House of Commons, which can be achieved with less than 40% of the votes.
Recent public opinion polls suggest that the federal Conservatives have a good lead over the opposition Liberals, led by Michael Ignatieff. They reveal that the general support for the Harper government rests on the fact that so far Canada has avoided the full effects of the Great Recession. The Harper government has done everything it could to prop up the large bubble in the Canadian housing market. While this has been appreciated by current home owners, there are indications that this bubble is about to deflate, as it has in all the other industrialized countries except Australia. It would seem that this is the best time for the Harper Conservatives to hold an election. The housing and economic situation could be quite different in the fall.
The March 2011 EKOS poll, which is a well-respected stratified sample of 2500 Canadians, reveals that the Harper Conservatives have a hard core of 35% support, but with little support among the other 65% of the population. EKOS is projecting another Conservative minority government.
The question for the majority of Canadians is this: “when will it be our chance to have our government?” The right wing ideology of Stephen Harper’s government does not represent the majority of Canadians. Far from it. On the major issues, take a look at the annual public opinion survey done by the Environics Institute- Focus Canada 2010.
A majority of 55% believe that the existing taxation system is unfair, while 70% say that taxes are good. A majority of 66% recognize that the gap in income between the rich and the poor is widening and 81% say measures should be taken to reduce the gap. When it comes to government spending, 78% say the highest priority should be eliminating child poverty while only 26% say any priority should be given to military spending.
There is a strong difference of opinion on the “hot button” issues identified with the Harper Conservatives. A majority of 58% favour emphasis on crime prevention compared to only 36% who want to stress punishment. Support for gun control is 55%, a majority of 68% approve of same sex marriage, and 74% support the right of a woman to have an abortion.
But given the distortions of the Canadian first past the post electoral system, how can we, who are in the majority, get a government which supports our political goals? Apparently only by adopting some form of coalition government. Such governments are the norm in the industrialized western countries. There are coalition governments now in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. In 2004 Stephen Harper formally asked the Governor General to consider appointing a coalition government of the Conservatives, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois.
But forming a coalition of the majority has not been on the agenda of today’s opposition political parties and their leaders. They choose to put their first priority on boosting their own perceived interests rather than the general good of the majority of Canadians. That is undoubtedly why voter turnout has been declining, to only 57% in the 2008 election. It would be no surprise if it were even lower on May 2.
Hopefully, after electing another minority Conservative government, Canadians and their political parties will decide it is time to seriously address our unrepresentative political system.
John W. Warnock is Regina author and political activist.
The Importance of the Regina Dewdney Bye Election
by John W. Warnock
September 12, 2009
Act Up in Saskatchewan
Premier Brad Wall has called bye elections for Regina Dewdney and Saskatoon Riversdale, to be held on September 21. The Regina election is of particular importance because Dwaine Lingenfelter has returned from Nexen oil corporation in Calgary, has won the contest for leadership of the provincial New Democratic Party, and is now seeking a seat in the legislature. Sitting NDP MLA Harry Van Mulligan resigned his safe NDP seat hoping that Lingenfelter could take his place in the legislature.
The question of nuclear power
The biggest political issue in the province over the past year has been the proposal by the Saskatchewan Party government to build a nuclear reactor to provide electrical power to the province and the Alberta tar sands. This proposal has the support of the Saskatchewan Power Corporation.
As Lingenfelter stressed in the NDP leadership debates, NDP governments have a long history of supporting uranium mining, the processing of uranium and nuclear power development, beginning with Tommy Douglas. Leading up to the NDP leadership campaign Lingenfelter had been touring the province promoting nuclear power and tar sands development.
During the NDP leadership campaign candidates Ryan Meili and Yens Pederson, representing the youth movement in the party, strongly opposed nuclear power while advocating a shift to conservation, solar and wind power. They also urged a return to the founding principles of the party, which emphasized a commitment to expanding the welfare state and eliminating poverty.
In contrast, Lingenfelter was a member of the inner circle of Roy Romanow’s NDP government, serving as Minister of Economic Development, Minister for the Crown Investment Corporation, Minister of Agriculture, and Deputy Leader. He won in Regina Elphinstone in 1999 but then resigned his position in the government and the legislature to take a high level position with Nexen Inc. Ironically, Nexen had acquired the Crown-owned Saskatchewan Oil and Gas Corporation, privatized by the Tory government of Grant Devine and the Romanow government.
Rising inequality and poverty
Paul Gingrich’s recent research for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows the growing gap in income inequality in Saskatchewan between the top 10% of families and the bottom 50% of families. The gap expanded greatly during the period of the NDP governments of Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert. Lingenfelter was a key player in the decisions to cut resource royalties, cut taxes on corporations, and lower the income taxes on those in the highest income brackets. Social assistance allowances were frozen and fell well below the basic needs level.
So there is a current major ideological divide in the NDP between the old guard, which has pursued a policy direction of social democratic neoliberalism, commonly associated with the UK Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and the young members on the progressive left.
Where are the environmentalists?
The past year has seen a revival of the environmental movement in the province, led by the Coalition for a Clean Green Saskatchewan. This has been spurred by the popular opposition to nuclear power. The best estimates are that a power plant will cost a minimum of $10 billion. Many studies show that the green alternatives available would be much cheaper and result in the creation of more jobs.
In the meantime, since its origin in 1998 the Green Party of Saskatchewan has been strongly opposed to nuclear power and has promoted the soft energy alternative. They are attempting to make energy policy the primary issue in the two bye elections.
This is a test for the new environmental movement. In the past the environmental organizations and their leaders have been reluctant to criticize an NDP government. For example, in 1997 the Romanow government brought into the legislature a resolution strongly opposing the Kyoto conference on global warming and climate change and demanding that major polluting industries only be assessed voluntary guidelines for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. This resolution was unanimously passed by the legislature. Environmental groups remained silent.
Part of this is due to the fact that a great many of the leaders of the environmental movement have also been members and supporters of the NDP. What will they do in these bye elections? Sit it out and not vote? Vote for Dwaine Lingenfelter? Or will they put their principles first and get out and support the Green Party? So far they are sitting on the sidelines.
Green Party policy
At their press conference on September 11, the Greens released their platform for the bye elections. Aside from energy, the party is supporting the introduction of proportional representation, health care based on prevention, a public child care system, free tuition for higher education and a new partnership with Aboriginal people. Victor Lau, the candidate in Regina Dewdney, stressed the necessity of providing affordable housing. Tobi-Dawne Smith, the candidate in Saskatoon Riversdale, argued that the elimination of poverty is as important an issue as nuclear power.
The RCMP and Lingenfelter
One other major issue came up at the Green Party press conference. What is the status of the investigation by the RCMP Commercial Crime Division into the complaint against Lingenfelter and his campaign team for fraud in the NDP leadership campaign? The media has widely reported the use of forgery and fraud in creating 1100 new party members. The campaign manager turned in $10,000 in cash in small bills to the NDP head office. The RCMP was to determine whether or not Lingenfelter was involved in these illegal acts and whether criminal charges would be laid.
The RCMP launched their investigation on June 11. It surely must be completed by now. Yet the RCMP has yet to release the report and announce the actions it will take. The Green Party promised to raise this issue with the Premier and the RCMP. It seems only fair that the voters of this province have an answer to these serious allegations before they go to the polls on September 21.
NOTE: John W. Warnock ran against Dwaine Lingenfelter in Regina Elphinstone in 1999 as a candidate for the New Green Alliance.
Coalitions, Labour and the Political Left
by John W. Warnock
Priaire Forum, Vol. 31, No. 2,
Fall 2006, pp. 427-439.
Special Issue: The Legacy of Labour In Saskatchewan and Beyond.
Edited by Lorne Brown and Robert Stirling.
Symposium originally held at the University of Regina, November 22-24, 2002.
Why have we seen the rise of political coalitions?
Over the last twenty years we have witnessed the dramatic rise in political coaltions both in Canada and abroad. These new alliances have generally been between trade unions and a wide range of popular organizations.
The 1980s saw the development of more general political coalitions in the industrialized countries. In Canada there was the formation of the Solidarity Coalition in British Columbia in 1983 and the Solidarite populaire Quebec in 1984. The Pro-Canada Network was formed in 1986 to oppose the free trade agreement with the United States. It continued as the Action Canada Network, which mobilized to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and then the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). In the fall of 1986 we saw the formation of the Saskchewan Coalition for Social Justice, which led the political opposition to Grant Devine's Conservative government.
By the end of the 1980s there were general social justice coalitions in all the provinces except New Brunswick. The Action Canada Network broadened into a general coalition, taking on the neo-conservative agenda of the federal Tory government.
Why have these coalitions developed?
First, there in an enormous vacuum on the political left. The old communist parties, based on Marxism-Leninism, have collapsed.
Second, there has been a repositioning of social democracy, a move significantly to the political right. As a minimum one would expect the social democratic parties to support the principles and policies of the Keynesian welfare state, including progressive taxation, but this is no longer the case.
The third reason for the growth of coalitions is the popular demand for democracy. Everywhere people are faced with elected governments which ignore public opinion. For example, Margaret Thatcher's Tory government never got more than 42% of the popular vote, the polls showsed that she never had majority support for any of her major programs designed to repeal the welfare state, yet her government radically changed Great Britain.
The left has depended on social democratic parties and governments. But these parties have become strictly electoral parties, confining their opposition to debates in empty legislatures where no one hears them. Organizations which join coalitions believe that politics requires popular mobilization.
The trade union movement recognized that their influence and membership was waning, and they needed support elsewhere to protect the interests of their members. Coalitions were needed, especially in Canada, to try to combat the power that big business has over governments.
The CCF-NDP in Saskatchewan
From Populist Social Democracy to Neoliberalism
Chapter in William K. Carroll and R. S. Ratner, eds.
Challenges and Perils:
Social Democracy in Neoliberal Times
Halifax: Fernwood Publishers, 2005.
Social democracy on the international level
People in Saskatchewan tend to be quite parochial. It is rare that someone seriously looks at international developments and how they might affect what it going on within the province. Despite the fact that Roy Romanow regularly praised the New Zealand Labour government, and handed out speeches by Tony Blair, hardly anyone in the province links the move to the right to the political shift of social democracy throughout the industrialized world. Many thought that when the communist parties virtually disappeared following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the social democratic parties would shift to the left to fill the void. But as my colleague Joe Roberts has argued, social democratic parties have only been left wing in their general orientation when they are forced to contest with a strong communist party or a strong labour movement committed to socialism or communism. In countries with a weak radical left, the social democratic parties have been moderate Keynesian parties, like the Labour parties in Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia. A move to the right after 1989 was to be expected. (See Roberts, 1991)
Even fewer people have an historical view of social democracy. They have no knowledge of the split in Europe between the social democratic parties and the communist parties around World War I. Few see social democratic parties as the parties of the aristocracy of labour, the minority of workers who are in trade unions. Fewer yet see them as part of the “social democratic alliance” between the aristocracy of labour and their capitalist classes, beginning in the era of colonialism and imperialism, as described by Samir Amin and others in the Third World. Few today want to discuss the role of social democratic parties and governments in backing military alliances like NATO which serve to aid the U.S. government and the capitalist classes in their domination and exploitation of the less developed countries. Few are willing to admit that their high standard of living and conspicuous consumption comes at the expense of the poor in the less developed countries.
Social democratic parties have been First World parties. Their success has been due to their close links to the reformist trade union movement. Many were created by the trade union movement. There was an alliance between the two, with the trade unions supporting the social democratic parties during elections; in return the social democrats in the legislature would defend the legal and political rights of labour. But at least since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, and the rise of neoliberalism, social democratic governments have proven to be the best instrument for controlling the labour movement and imposing the neoliberal order on a resisting population. This pattern was clearly established by the Labour governments in New Zealand (1984-90) and Australia (1983-1996). (See Przeworski, 1985)
In Saskatchewan the NDP always had strong support in the working class ridings and those with a high percentage of low income people. But the leadership of the trade union movement was never really able to deliver the vote of the organized working class, as many studies have shown. When Grant Devine’s Tory government was in office, organized labour mobilized with other popular groups to actively resist the neoliberal agenda. But once the NDP was in office, all organized opposition to the neoliberal agenda being imposed disappeared. In Saskatchewan, with its high percentage of low wage jobs, organized workers are clearly the aristocracy of labour. In the resource extraction industries, the individual trade unions usually line up with their corporate employers on key issues like resource royalties. (Warnock, 2004; 2002)
Chris Howell notes that today social democratic parties “display a disarming enthusiasm for economic orthodoxy emphasizing neoliberalism, macroeconomic stability, labour market flexibility, and a shrinking role for organized labour in the political economy of the Left.” That would certainly describe the NDP leadership in Saskatchewan. They frankly state that the times do not permit a return to the Keynesian economic and welfare state that existed under the government of Allan Blakeney. Janice MacKinnon stresses this argument. (Howell, 2001; MacKinnon, 2003)
Herbert Kitschelt has argued that the future of social democracy is in replacing the reliance on the organized working class with an alliance with the new social movements and with the left libertarian interests. He has argued that this means opening up the social democratic parties to feminists, the green movement, and human rights organizations. To do this in Saskatchewan would require a virtual revolution within the NDP. There has always been hostility to feminist issues within the party, little concern about the humans rights and economic status of Aboriginal people, and the party has a long history of backing industry on ecological issues, from uranium mining to industrial farming to global warming and climate change. (Bradford, 2001; Kitschelt, 1994; Warnock, 2004)
Can the NDP move back to the progressive left?
What possibility is there for a shift of direction within the NDP? First, it should be remembered that there was virtually no support in the Saskatchewan NDP for the New Politics Initiative (NPI). Not even for a reform of the federal NDP. They have no social democratic or democratic agenda. Many people re-joined the NDP to support Nettie Wiebe in her run for the leadership of the party following the resignation of Roy Romanow. They attracted people from the peace movement, the anti-globalization movement, and even a group within the New Green Alliance took out NDP memberships. But the vote for Wiebe peaked at 25% of the NDP membership that voted. Since then this group has fragmented and faded away. There was no effort to try to create a left structure within the NDP. Many people, myself included, do not believe that there is any hope of changing the NDP from within.
In the 2003 election the NDP platform stressed that they were a “Green Party.” Their campaign literature prominently used the Green colour for the first time ever, playing down the orange and black. They were quite fearful that the progressive and marginalized voters, as well as the left wing of their own membership, might shift to the more left wing New Green Alliance. But this did not happen, and once re-elected they quickly abandoned the pretense of being a Green party. The biggest cuts in the March 2004 budget were in the ministry of the environment, particularly in environmental monitoring and control.
What is the future for the NDP in Saskatchewan? People today are generally very disappointed with the Calvert NDP government. Many political commentators say that the best thing they have going for them is the Saskatchewan Party with its even more right wing policies and commitment to social conservatism. If the major opposition party were the Liberals, the NDP would be quickly tossed out of office. The unpopularity of the NDP in general was reflected in the 2004 federal election, where the NDP did not win a single seat in Saskatchewan. They received less than 100,000 votes, only 24% of the total, and finished third behind the Conservatives and the Liberals. Nettie Wiebe, former president of the National Farmers Union, and considered one of their strongest candidates, finished third with only 25% of the vote in Saskatoon-Humboldt, a seat that the NDP used to win.
The NPI and others have argued that the party needs a good dose of democracy. But the NDP in Saskatchewan is definitely not interested in that. Since the Blakeney period they have resisted popular participation and bottom up policy formation. They have a very strong bureaucratic tradition. They do not consult with people on key policy decisions before they are implemented. That is one of the reasons why they are so hated in rural Saskatchewan today. (Stevenson, 2002; Swartz, 2001)
Within Saskatchewan there is a polarization between those with relatively good incomes and a growing percentage of the population that is marginalized. To date those outside the structure of the three major parties - including those with low incomes, recipients of social assistance, the Aboriginal community, women, and youth - are not participating in politics. They are not even voting. The three main parties seek their votes, but they are not prepared to offer them any program to deal with their basic problems. The new left wing party, the New Green Alliance, sees these people as their allies and potential supporters, but so far they do not have the members and finances to begin to organize a major political movement.
The general feeling around the province in 2005 is that this will be the last term for the Romanow/Calvert NDP government. Despite a low confidence in the opposition Saskatchewan Party, the voters will choose to dump the NDP in the next provincial election. There is still very strong opposition to the NDP in rural areas, and this will not change. Their monopoly of seats in the urban areas was challeneged in the 2003 election and will probably break in the next election. The Saskatchewan Party has a new leader, Brad Wall, who is not a Christian fundamentalist, and he is trying to give the impression that the party is moving to the centre. Most political observers feel that the voters will also conclude it is just time to change which party is in office. It would be a great surprise if the province does not get a Saskatchewan Party majority government.
At this point the NDP will have to decide whether to remain committed to the Third Way neoliberal agenda or choose a new direction. The problem for the party is that there is no alternative vision among the members of the legislature, the party leadership, or even the remaining active party membership.