Report on the Canadian Federal elections - by LI Canada contact Ellen Ramsay
Our LI Canada Contact Ellen Ramsay recaps the Canadian Federal elections and looks at the performance of the NDP.
The Canadian federal election on October 19, 2015 dealt a resounding blow to the national aspirations of the New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP) (Canada’s Labour Party) and brought about the need to examine closely the dynamics, both internal and external to the party, which brought about such a disastrous result. In the build up to the election, an unusually long three months as determined by the ruling Conservative Party, the situation looked very positive for the NDP. The party formed the nucleus of the official opposition in parliament and the party had a commanding presence in Quebec for the first time in its history.
The initial hurdle that any third party faces in Canada is overcoming an historical relationship with the two- party system. Throughout Canada’s history there has never been an alternative to the federal Liberals and Conservatives elected to national office. This is not to say that there haven’t been other parties running – there have. It is only to say that a third party has never won an election. At the recent federal election this was probably the first time that a third party, the NDP, was in the running and showing well in the early polls.
At the beginning of the election period, it was evidently clear that Canadians were deeply dissatisfied with the ruling Conservative government. The polls showed that the country was headed towards a minority government led by either the Liberal Party or the NDP. The NDP promised to work with the Liberal Party in a coalition, a situation that was not reciprocated by the Liberals and this may have been a strategic mistake. The party faithful, in the NDP, were elated with the early polls, and, just like the Liberal Party, ran on a platform of “time for change.” The early polls were so close that those calling for strategic voting, mostly on the Liberal side, swept up a furor trying to convince NDP and Green Party supporters “not to split the vote” even though most of the opposition were prepared for a minority and/or coalition government.
As the pre-election period progressed, the Liberal Party began to pull ahead leading to an eventual Liberal victory. Contrary to reports that said the Liberals “swept” the country, the Liberals received 39% of the popular vote to capture 55% of the seats in parliament under the first-past-the-post system. It is necessary therefore to account for the Liberal result and to analyze what the NDP could have done to prevent it.
In the first instance, it is always good for a party going into a closely run electoral situation to come out swinging with its electoral platform so that voters know early on what distinguishes this party from its opposition and to understand the ways in which the party will differ from the ruling party on concrete policies, both practically and ideologically. The problem in Canada, for all the parties, is that they traditionally release their platforms slowly over the course of the electoral race, leaving some of their stronger policies for last. This was not a strategy that benefited the NDP.
In this election, the gradualist electoral strategy resulted in the “second” party, the Liberal Party, effectively grabbing the ground to the right and left of the political spectrum taking many left policy ideas of the NDP and presenting their own re-scripted version of these policies. While the NDP put forward many excellent policy ideas on its platform, it appeared that the Liberal Party was filling the left spectrum; and in this kind of electoral system perception can be everything.
The NDP committed itself to withdrawing Canadian military from Syria and Iraq, and proposed that Canada commit itself to a strictly humanitarian role in the region. The NDP proposed that the draconian anti-terrorism Act C-51 (a snooper’s charter) should be repealed. They proposed a $10/day national daycare program similar to the excellent affordable day care provisions in the province of Quebec. They proposed raising the minimum wage for Federal workers to $15/hour, another excellent idea. Then there were energy conservation proposals including the expansion of public transit in the cities, an assessment of the role of the oil pipelines and the elimination of “dirty oil,” and encouragement to non-fossil fuel alternatives, also very timely policies. Other ideas put forward were the repeal of income tax splitting for couples that favoured the wealthy, restoring the retirement age to 65 from 67 for the federal pension, and the consideration of a national pharmacare program to lower the cost of pharmaceutical medications. The implementation of mixed-member proportional representation was proposed to replace the first-past-the-post system as currently practiced; decriminalization of marijuana; and an increase to the top tax band by 2% to finance social programs. All of these were promised in addition to bringing in a balanced budget. The party also lived up to its commitment for women’s rights and ran the largest percentage (65%) of women for seats in parliament than any other party.
While these policies, unveiled over the three months prior to the election, were well received, the Liberal Party stole much of the NDP thunder by introducing its own similar-sounding policies. One NDP observer in British Columbia commented “the Liberals sound to the left of the NDP now.” To be precise, the Liberals promised to withdraw Canadian military from its active combat role over Syria and Iraq specifying the withdrawal of the CF-18 fighter aircraft, and instead proposed training “local” ground troops and expanding the country’s humanitarian role. The Liberals also promised to amend (rather than repeal) the anti-terrorist Act C-51. They planned to expand federal investment in public transit, to introduce proportional representation, to increase the top tax band while lowering taxes for the middle classes, to legalize (rather than decriminalize) marijuana, and in contrast to the NDP, to run a deficit for the first three years in office and then balance the budget in the fourth year. It was evidently clear that the Liberals were trying to steal ground from the left in order to bring in their government.
To regain its position, the NDP needed to assert more publicly and earlier on that the Liberal Party is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It needed to stress that any of the Liberal social policies were really only amendments to Conservative ones or borrowings and revisions of NDP policies; that the Liberals are fiscal conservatives when it comes to financing their promised programs; that the Liberals are not committed to progressive taxation and have been proven not to be so; and that they will slash public programs when the money runs out. The NDP needed to spend more time attacking the Liberal Party’s past track record. Given the global recession, the NDP could have fleshed out its proposal of achieving a balanced budget in order to convince voters in these times of austerity. Agreeing to work with the Liberals if they formed a minority government may have sent the wrong message particularly in the context of calls for strategic voting.
On the positive side, the NDP gained two seats in the province of British Columbia, taking all of the coastal rural area of the province on the mainland, on Haida Gwaii, and all of Vancouver Island with the exception of Saanich and the GulfIslands which went to the national Green Party leader. While the Liberals won many seats in the populated area of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, the NDP managed to hold onto key seats.
The NDP’s relative success on the West Coast was due in part to being in a province where the provincial government was already Liberal, a party that has been behaving more like a Conservative party than its counterparts elsewhere. Of grave concern for the West Coast of Canada is the Liberal desire to bring oil pipelines from Alberta to the coastal ports, to develop liquefied natural gas plants on the coast, and to flood prime agricultural land for a massive hydro-electric dam named Site C on the Peace River. Under this provincial Liberal government, there has been a 600% jump in raw log exports. All of this raises alarm bells for environmentalists along with concern for the growth in clean energy jobs, not the growth of fossil fuel jobs. Much of this was certainly on the minds of many voters in this election. The experience of the Liberals at the provincial level in B.C. may have put a damper on their votes at the federal level in this environmentally conscious province. While the NDP didn’t take a strong stand against the oil pipelines for most environmentalists, it did seem the most likely party to reassess the situation. Had it taken a stronger stance on the environment, there might have been an even better vote for the NDP in British Columbia. The Socialist Caucus of the NDP had pointed this out in its “four P” proposals for the election (Pipelines, Pharmacare, Progressive taxation, and Palestine).
In conclusion then, in this election, the NDP needed to steer a straighter and stronger course on the left of the political spectrum in order to make its ideological position clear through practical policy proposals and to highlight its differences from the Liberal Party. It needed to take greater public ownership of its own well-thought out policies in order to expose the hypocrisy and lameness of the Liberal’s agenda. To a great extent the poor results at the federal election may simply have been a reflection of the usual two-party system coupled with a long pre-election period where the message tends to get lost. The introduction of some kind of proportional representation before the 2020 election may sort out the situation. When the honeymoon period is over for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the new Liberal government, they will have to answer some difficult questions, and by then the hard work of opposition will be well underway. While the NDP was much defeated in this election, coming in third, even below the Conservatives, there are useful lessons that can be learned for the future. In the meantime there are provincial elections to attend to.