At the time of writing, we are past the halfway mark of Ontario’s provincial election. Many may find it surprising as this has probably been one of the most boring elections in recent memory, and largely ignored by most people. Given the absence of any real platforms or solutions proposed for the crisis of capitalism, it is no wonder that people are paying more attention to Rob Ford, or even the Leafs’ training camp, than what the provincial party leaders are saying. This includes the NDP who, up until this point, look like they are going to squander a wonderful opportunity to represent the interests of working-class Ontarians in the fight back against austerity.
Back in 2003, the Dalton McGuinty Liberals ran under the slogan of “Choose Change”. The only thing that has changed for the vast majority of Ontarians is that their living conditions have deteriorated. Over half of all manufacturing jobs in Ontario have disappeared under the Liberals’ watch. These well-paid union jobs have largely been replaced by poorly-paid, part-time service sector jobs such as at call centres or Tim Hortons — if workers are even lucky enough to find a job. Unemployment in the province is higher than the federal average; under the McGuinty government, Ontario recorded a higher unemployment rate than Quebec for the first time since Confederation. Yearly tuition fees have rocketed to over $6,000, the highest in the country.
On top of all this, Dalton has placed all sorts of additional burdens on working-class families who can ill afford any extra costs. As soon as the Liberals took office, the government implemented the much-hated health tax, which imposed health care premiums on anyone earning more than $22,000 per year. The Liberal government made much noise about switching to “green energy”, which has meant that electricity rates are set to more than double by 2016, meanwhile handing billions of dollars in handouts to energy producers such as Korean giant Samsung. Most recently, the Ontario Liberals implemented the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), which directly takes money from ordinary workers and places it in the pockets of the bosses.
The Liberals’ victories in 2003 and 2007 were aided by the support of key sections of the labour movement in Ontario. After nearly a decade of non-stop attacks on public-sector workers by the Mike Harris Tories, McGuinty promised the unions that he would play nice. The CAW, the teachers’, and the nurses’ unions played a key role in pushing for a Liberal vote. McGuinty rewarded the union leaders’ generosity by consistently siding with the bosses. The Liberals have not been afraid to legislate striking workers back-to-work (as in the cases of the York University teaching assistants’ strike), or to even take their right to strike away, as was the case earlier this year with the Toronto transit workers’ union. On the rare occasion that the democratic right to strike is upheld, workers also have to face the threat of strike-breakers due to the Liberals voting down anti-scab legislation. In last year’s budget, McGuinty ordered a wage freeze on all public sector workers, declaring that it was their turn to bear the brunt of the latest economic crisis.
It is not surprising that as little as six weeks ago, most polls had the Liberals losing in a landslide to the Conservatives. However, ridiculous mistakes by the Tories (especially their xenophobia towards “foreigners”) has meant that the Liberals look like they may capture a third consecutive term in office.
Where is the NDP?
Although the “Orange Surge” from the federal election did not sweep over Ontario as it did Quebec, the NDP did see a significant bump in support in the province. The party won five more seats (all of them in Toronto), as well as saw their popular support jump by over seven percentage points (to 25.6%) in the May federal election.
In addition, Jack Layton's death in August was particularly felt in Toronto where Layton served as city councillor for many years. Over 10,000 people attended Layton’s funeral in downtown Toronto, and many times more visited his casket while it lay in state at Toronto City Hall. Nathan Phillips Square was inundated with various memorials to Layton from ordinary Torontonians.
And yet, the NDP leadership has squandered all of this interest and goodwill towards the party, and has put forward one of the most disappointing platforms in party history.
Both the Liberals and Tories decided to release their platforms before the election campaign was officially launched. The NDP, on the other hand, did not release their full platform until a couple of weeks after the writ had dropped. Very slowly, the party focused on making small announcements on different parts of their platform to the media over the course of the campaign. Undoubtedly, the party machinery probably thought this would be an effective way to keep the party in the media for a longer period of time. However, the only real effect that this tactic has had is to make the party appear that they are developing a program on the fly and forcing individual campaigns to guess policy when voters ask them questions. Fightback activists, who have volunteered on some of the election campaigns, have had direct experience with this when questioned about the party’s plans for post-secondary education.
Most of the NDP’s promises simply maintain the miserable status quo that workers already have to endure. In terms of the jobs crisis in Ontario, the NDP is proposing to hire a “jobs commissioner” — as if the capitalist crisis can simply be solved with the hiring of another overpaid bureaucrat. Workers who must depend on public transportation to get to work or school will get no relief, either. The NDP is simply promising to freeze already high transit fares for four years. For workers who need to drive, the NDP has dropped their promise to create public auto insurance, a cornerstone of previous NDP campaigns.
Two areas in which the NDP has traditionally staked their territory is in healthcare and education. But, as with the rest of their election platform, the NDP’s position is underwhelming, at best.
As the baby boom generation continues to age, the fact of the matter is that healthcare costs continue to rise in Ontario. At the moment, to sustain the healthcare services that currently exist, healthcare funding has been rising by an average of 4-6% per year. However, all three parties, including the NDP, are promising extra funding that will fall short of maintaining the status quo. According to the NDP’s platform, the party is promising to invest an additional $53-billion over the next four years, but that will be $7-billion short of how much money will be required to cover the current rate of increase in healthcare expenditures. What this essentially means is that healthcare cuts would be necessary by 2015 under an NDP government!
The NDP has promised to increase the level of home-care for seniors by one-million hours by 2015, which is woefully underfunded and under-serviced currently. But, there is no mention of expanding the number of services covered by OHIP (Ontario’s public health insurance) which workers currently have to cover out-of-pocket. Even for prescription drugs, all that the NDP can promise is that they “will make healthcare costs, especially drug costs, a priority in upcoming negotiations around a new national health accord.” In response to the childcare crisis where thousands of children have no space and thousands more cannot afford quality care, all we get is a commitment to maintain the status quo! This is despite studies finding that Quebec’s $7/day system actually saves money due to improved productivity from freeing up parents to work and pay taxes.
Perhaps the most disappointing section of the NDP’s platform so far has been their stance on post-secondary education. This is one of the party’s most fundamental bread-and-butter issues and an easy area to attract youth to the party. But, as with the rest of their election program, the NDP leadership has completely dropped the ball. Ontario already has the highest tuition fees in the country, so the NDP decides to win students by freezing fees for four years. The only help students can expect to receive from an NDP government is a promise to eliminate the interest on provincial student loans. How generous!
The Liberals, on the other hand, have promised a 30% tuition credit to most Ontario students. This is not a tuition fee cut. But, it does mean an average $1,600 credit for students, which is no small change.
How can it be possible that Bay Street’s party is offering working-class students more than the NDP?
The key promise that the NDP has made in this year’s election isn’t aimed at workers, but at small business owners. As an incentive for job creation, Horwath and the NDP have promised to give out up to $10,000 to employers for every new job they create. In total, this could end up being a $300-million giveaway! It is no wonder that the NDP cannot afford any real promises that will improve the lives of working-class people in the province!
Whither the Ontario NDP?
As this article is being written, there are still two weeks left in the election campaign. As was demonstrated in the federal election earlier this year, the situation could radically change. But, if the NDP campaign maintains its current course, any small gains made by the Ontario NDP will be based on pre-existing momentum from the Orange Surge and Jack Layton’s death.
The most recent polls show a statistical tie between the provincial Liberals and Tories. This almost certainly means that Ontario will have its first minority government since 1985, thus opening the possibility for a Liberal-NDP coalition government.
As we have written for the past three years, this is a very attractive scenario for powerful elements within the party establishment — a shortcut to power and all of the perks that come along with it.
Given the vicious attacks being perpetrated by Stephen Harper’s majority government and municipal governments such as those of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, it is possible that a Liberal-NDP coalition would be relatively popular in Ontario, especially as significant sectors of the Ontario labour movement already support the McGuinty Liberals.
However, a coalition with the Liberals would be disastrous for the NDP, and for the labour movement in general. Only after 16 years are Ontario workers finally forgiving the NDP for the Bob Rae government. A coalition government would mean that the NDP would share in the responsibility for the attacks, cuts, and austerity that are to come. Rae Days will appear as sunshine compared to the betrayals that the NDP may have to share in over the next four years if they make an unholy alliance with Dalton McGuinty.
This is not just idle speculation. In an interview with the Toronto Star’s editorial board, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath praised the NDP’s support of the minority Liberal government from 1985-87. Horwath told the Star, “At its time, it [the NDP’s alliance with the Liberals] was something that was productive. They did some things to make some changes, they did some things to try to cobble together some progress, let’s put it that way, for the province in a time when things were uncertain.” She went on, “I don’t know what we’re going to end up with on Oct. 6, but I am committed to working in whatever way I can to deliver some changes for the people of Ontario and that’s what my commitment has been from day one…. At this point, I don’t want to presuppose what voters are going to do.”
Even if we accept Horwath’s version of events, the fact is that we are living in a much different situation than the 1980s. In the late 1980s, the Ontario economy was still moving along a fair clip and the ruling class could afford some concessions. The reality today could not be more different. The capitalist crisis means that the bosses and bankers need to extract every last ounce of profit from the system. This means putting the burden of paying for the crisis on the backs of workers and youth.
The fact is that the NDP platform in this election accepts the reality of capitalist austerity. Indeed, one of the four main planks of the NDP’s platform is titled, “Living within our means.” It leaves very little room for the NDP to present a better life for millions of Ontario workers.
The party appears to be going out of its way to present themselves as a “responsible” option to Bay Street. Again, we believe this to be a terrible mistake. Bob Rae did everything to follow the dictates of capital, and yet the Ontario bosses did everything in their power to sabotage his government. The ruling class will never be comfortable with an NDP government because of the fact that the NDP represents the Canadian working class. All attempts by the NDP leadership to suck up to Bay Street are for nought, and all it does is divorce the party from its working class base.
We only need to look to Western Europe to see the effect of what happens to the reformists when they carry out the capitalists’ dirty business. In Portugal, the Socialists were swept out of power earlier this year when they failed to pass austerity laws in the face of a general strike. In Britain, New Labour was kicked out after the failed programs of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In Greece, PASOK is having to weather a series of general strikes that could very well lead to a revolutionary overthrow of the government.
The NDP leadership appears to have taken the wrong lessons from the Orange Surge in the federal election earlier this year. They appear to believe that the federal NDP’s victory came because of their anaemic platform. No, their victory came in spite of the platform. The surge occurred because working-class people, especially in Quebec, were sick and tired of the same old politics, the same old austerity, coming from the bosses’ parties.
Unfortunately, if the course doesn’t radically change soon, the Ontario NDP will have wasted a fantastic opportunity to build on their federal counterparts’ success and become the political voice of the movement against austerity. If they join in a coalition with the Liberals, the NDP will repeat the mistakes of Bob Rae’s government, once again alienating themselves from rank-and-file workers across the province, precisely when a strong labour movement is needed to fight back against cuts and austerity.
No coalitions with the parties of Bay Street!
For a socialist program against capitalist austerity!