Last October an election was held, power changed hands and since then the winds of change have reshaped the political landscape of our country. The question is: how profound are those changes to the political parties that represent us in Parliament?
The Liberals, after eclipsing the NDP as the main rival to the Tories, were elected with a surprisingly strong mandate. Unsurprisingly, the Harper Conservatives, after 10 years of mean, mendacious power politics, were tossed out, though they held on to their power base on the Prairies. The NDP, after leading in the polls for much of the campaign, ended up losing 59 seats and are no longer the Official Opposition, let alone the governing party. The Green Party, after a lot of huffing and puffing, remained with just one seat, that of Elizabeth May.
Justin Trudeau and his government have been on an extended honeymoon with the Canadian electorate. After years of Harper, the feeling of elation on Oct. 19th pumped up even people who had never voted Liberal in their lives. While cracks are beginning to show, the Liberals are still favoured by 46% of the voters. They are moving on a number of issues, doing just enough to keep people’s hopes up. The Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women has been appointed. Scientists are free to speak again. Funding for infrastructure projects, and for First Nations education and housing, has been committed over the next few years. The Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform has begun meeting.
They also made a number of promises to workers and their unions. Bill C-377, which singled out unions for unfair and unnecessary disclosure of internal finances, will be repealed. The Liberal will introduce changes to restrictive regulations on federal workers’ ability to join a union. While falling short of what is needed and what the Canadian Labour Congress campaigned for, Canada Pension Plan benefits will be increased. Modest changes were made to E.I. so that 50,000 more unemployed workers qualify for benefits.
Justin Trudeau was invited to speak at the national convention of Unifor, the largest private sector union in the country with over 300,000 members. In his speech Trudeau stated “My government is pleased to be a solid partner with workers.” He elaborated, “We know that working people are not the enemy. And we know that after a decade of – to be polite about it- neglect, the labour movement deserves fairness from the federal government.”
The Canada Post contract negotiations will be a test of that statement. Two of the main issues are pay equity between rural and suburban mail carriers (RSMC) and urban carriers who do the same work, and Canada Post’s attempt to force a defined contribution (DC) pension on new hires. One is an issue of equality as a majority of RSMCs are women and most letter carriers are men. The woefully insecure DC pensions are one of the reasons for the campaign around increasing CPP benefits. The Liberals will regret not getting rid of Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra sooner as by being so intransigent, and even at one point refusing Minister of Labour Maryann Mihychuk’s request for an extension of timelines, he is embarrassing the government by acting as if there had not been a change in government and Canada Post was still playing by an outdated playbook.
One of the reasons old lefties are cynical about ‘sunny days’ and our new ‘solid partner’ is that we have been here before. It has become a truism that the Liberals have historically campaigned from the left but, once elected, they govern from the right. Admittedly on social and cultural issues Liberals are, well, liberals and we can expect positive changes to things like women’s equality, gay rights and funding for the CBC. However, when it comes down to wealth redistribution and to power relationships the Liberal Party tends to fudge it, by remembering who pays their bills. In fact at times, when it comes to austerity, they outdo the Tories. Does the name Paul Martin ring any bells?
Justin Trudeau may be different but in the Liberal’s first budget they lifted $1.2 billion from the EI fund into general revenues while 800,000 unemployed workers didn’t qualify for benefits. On the environment front, Minister Catherine McKenna seems genuinely concerned and says all the right words, but the Kinder Morgan review process remains unchanged and the Site C dam was given the green light by federal regulators. We will see after a couple of years if the bloom is off the rose.
Meanwhile the NDP have some problems of their own. Thomas Mulcair took ‘the fall’ for the drop from a potential win to third party status. Given the level of distrust by some of the party faithful of his Liberal background and his ill-advised commitment to a balanced budget, it was not that big a surprise, at least in hindsight, that he was turfed as leader. However, is there anyone who can take his place and/or is willing to take on the job? Nathan Cullen and Megan Leslie, both good choices, have ruled themselves out. It is a long way to October 2017 so the field is wide open and maybe an unknown will build up support by then. Of course they have to ante up $30,000 for the registration fee so that should keep out any real longshots.
In the meantime Mulcair is still the leader and the NDP’s face in Parliament. No political party is just one person but having a lame duck does seem to put the NDP at a disadvantage, at a time when they need to be front and centre to challenge the shortcomings of the government’s programs.
With the adoption of the resolution to examine and debate the Leap Manifesto the NDP has given itself an opportunity to really differentiate themselves from the other parties. To have a major political party adopt even some of the planks within the Manifesto will allow Canadians to make some educated choices and will force the Liberal Government into the open about their willingness to make real but difficult changes to the economic and environmental systems we live in.
The NDP needs to do this also because, as Chris Hall in a recent CBC opinion piece says, “The Liberals are determined to starve New Democrats of the oxygen needed to breathe new life into their party. If it works, the odds of the Liberals holding on to seats taken from the NDP, and winning another majority, look much better.”
It should be an interesting four years.