As this article goes to print, Ontario looks set to be plunged into an election campaign that will satisfy no one.  None of the political parties are offering any real solutions to the deep crisis that is afflicting the province.  The two bosses’ parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, are thoroughly discredited and reviled, giving great opportunity to the NDP to rise to the fore.  However, the party’s hesitation to put forward working-class demands, as well as its courting of Bay Street, is likely to keep NDP supporters home and once again hand the keys to Queen’s Park to the Liberals or Conservatives.

Whither the Ontario NDP?

It has been nearly six years after the financial crash of 2008 and the conditions facing Ontario workers continue to deteriorate.  But despite this, there has been marked silence from the NDP on almost every single major issue facing working-class Ontarians.  For months, both party activists and the wider working class have wondered where the NDP stands on issues such as the minimum wage, a potential public pension plan for Ontario workers, or how to resolve the economic and financial crisis in the province.  Even the mainstream press has commented on the lack of ideas coming out of the party’s offices, and how the party has hesitated to support the simplest reforms that used to be the bread-and-butter of any NDP platform.  The Globe and Mail has commented, “That the New Democrats have moved into a position to compete for power with nobody having any clue about their policy agenda – about where they stand on the most basic of issues – is remarkable.” (10 Feb. 2014)  The Toronto Star presents the lack of leadership from Andrea Horwath even more starkly: “Will the real Andrea Horwath please stand for something — and act like she still believes in NDP-style social justice?” (29 Apr. 2014)

When the party leadership does come out with a policy statement, unfortunately it is often much closer to the interests of business than the interests of the province’s workers and youth.  An increase in the province’s minimum wage has become one of the burning issues in the likely spring election, which should come as no surprise.  According to the Wellesley Institute, the number of people working for minimum wage in Ontario has more than doubled since 2003; more than one in nine workers in the province earn only the minimum wage.

It took the NDP six weeks to finally announce whether the party would support the Liberals’ call to raise the province’s minimum wage to $11/hour, an increase of 75¢/hour.  And when it offered its own proposal, the NDP minimum wage plan was only marginally better that of the Liberals’ and far from the demands put forward by labour and anti-poverty groups.  In contrast to the Liberals, the NDP offered to raise the minimum wage by one additional dollar — to $12/hour — by 2016.  And even this meagre increase, which would still fail to bring minimum wage workers to the poverty line, was overshadowed by the party’s promise to cut small-business taxes as shown in the NDP’s press release, “Cut small-business tax rates while gradually raising the minimum wage”.

In fact, under leader Andrea Horwath, the NDP looks set to make small business — and potentially even big business interests — the main beneficiaries of the NDP’s election platform.  In relation to the minimum wage, more than one commentator in the press has noted that Horwath has been more concerned with meeting the needs of businesses over that of working-class people.  TheToronto Star mentions, “While sweet-talking small business, Horwath has been snubbing big labour in its hour of maximum need on the hourly minimum wage. Horwath was missing in action when anti-poverty activists needed her voice to prod the government and push back against business big and small.” (5 Feb. 2014)  Immediately following a by-election victory in Niagara Falls, Horwath went out of her way to thank the support from businesses for the NDP’s victory: “It was amazing how many business people, how many small-business people . . . supported our campaign.” (Toronto Star, 18 Feb. 2014)

And in a first, Horwath and the party leadership appear to even be courting the support of Bay Street in the likely election.  According to the Globe and Mail, Horwath conducted two meetings with Bay Street executives in late March, and even had a personal meeting with Chrysler CEO Reid Bigland where she assured the Chrysler boss to call her “if there was anything she could do to help Chrysler”.  This is the same Chrysler that was extorting the Ontario government earlier this year, promising to shut down all production in the province if it didn’t receive $700-million in public handouts!  Aside from the largesse coming out of workers’ pockets, Horwath made some incredibly damning promises that must give the labour movement serious pause:

“Andrea Horwath is on a quiet charm offensive with big business, holding closed-door sessions with top players on Bay Street and other corporate leaders in the run-up to a possible spring election.

“The Ontario New Democratic leader has made some unexpected promises at these meetings in a bid to assuage executives’ fears about her left-wing party, the Globe and Mail has learned. She has pledged not to hike corporate taxes back to 14 per cent if elected premier, and has signalled she is willing to do whatever it takes to bring the province’s books back to balance in four years – including cutting government spending and playing tough with public-sector unions.” (Globe and Mail, 21 Apr. 2014, my emphasis)

The Globe comments how Horwath and the party leadership believes that gaining the acceptance from Bay Street is key to the NDP’s fortunes in a provincial election, but the opposite is true.  The party’s stance is likely to alienate the NDP’s natural supporters and allies.  With this approach, the party will find it very difficult to motivate its own members and supporters to volunteer and get the vote out.  Many, in fact, could end up staying home on election day.

At the NDP’s Provincial Council meeting in early March, Ontario Federation of Labour leader Sid Ryan was openly critical of Horwath’s leadership of the party.  Ryan claimed to be “perplexed” over the NDP’s position on the minimum wage, as well as the party leadership’s courting of business.  The OFL and a number of community groups have been pushing for an immediate $14/hour minimum wage, while CUPE Ontario has called for the minimum wage to be raised to $17/hour.  Ryan’s exasperation was evident when he said, “There is no consultation with unions by the party leadership. Policy decisions are just announced. There may be a wise and grand strategy behind it all, but it’s certainly not evident to me.”

With the rise of minimum wage workers, community groups have also savaged the NDP’s apparent abandonment of these workers.  Deena Ladd from the Workers’ Action Centre told the Star about the dangers of the NDP “abandoning” its roots: “People need to see the NDP talk about the issues. How can you expect our support when it’s election time when . . . you weren’t there?” (Toronto Star, 5 Feb. 2014)

Are the Liberals turning their back on austerity?

In contrast to the NDP, the Liberals under Premier Kathleen Wynne are doing their best to win over the Ontario working class — hoping that workers will forget the last decade of Liberal cuts and attacks.

After beginning to implement the harsh austerity cuts demanded by Bay Street, the Liberals have, on the surface, appeared to turn their backs on those measures with the election of Kathleen Wynne as the party’s leader.  In the lead-up to the provincial budget and the expected election call, Wynne and the Liberals have offered up a cornucopia of scattered little promises that make for good soundbites. Some of the goodies that the Liberals are promising include spending $35-million for school nutrition programs, $85-million over three years to fund in-vitro fertilization, an unspecified increase in the Ontario Child Benefit, and eliminating the debt-retirement surcharge on residential electricity bills.  Previously, the Liberals had also announced that they would raise the provincial minimum wage to $11/hour after it had been left frozen for four years. The centrepieces of the Liberals’ platform is the announcement of $29-billion in funding for transportation, including $15-billion for public transportation in Toronto and Hamilton, and the creation of a universal Ontario Pension Plan to supplement the federal Canadian Pension Plan (CPP).  Of course, whether these promises will ever be carried out is a completely different story.

As this article is being written, and in the clearest indication yet that the Liberals will put forward a left populist face in the event of an election call, Wynne has decried austerity, stating, “I don’t believe that austerity is the right decision at this time.” (Globe and Mail, 29 Apr. 2014)  In fact, after former premier Dalton McGuinty insisted that the Ontario government would balance the province’s books by 2018, the Wynne Liberals are expected to let the provincial budget deficit increase for the second year in a row.  Last year’s deficit was pegged at $11.3-billion and this year’s number will be even higher, significantly overshooting the original target of $10-billion.

Wynne’s Liberals have also come to the vocal defence of the province’s labour movement, especially from the expected onslaught from Tim Hudak and the Ontario Conservatives.  The Liberals are even featuring a new TV ad that is airing during playoff hockey games that suggests a Liberal government would raise unionized workers’ wages, defend labour rights, and create new jobs for Ontario youth.  In addition to raising the Ontario Child Benefit, the Liberals have also promised to spend $269-million over two years in order to increase wages for daycare workers by $2/hour. But working-class people must take Wynne’s sweet talk with more than a grain of salt.

It was just a little over a year ago that the Ontario Liberals were hammering through Bill 115, the draconian legislation that took away the right to strike and the right to collective bargaining for Ontario teachers.  A few months before that, the Ontario Liberal budget imposed a two-year wage freeze on all public-sector workers in the province.  It was the Liberals who commissioned theinfamous Drummond Report, which sought to “reform the way government delivers virtually every service.”  It was the Liberals who sacked thousands of nurses over their ten-year reign at Queen’s Park, and who instituted the hated health tax on Ontarians.  And so on, and so on.

The Liberals’ true master is Bay Street and at a certain stage, Bay Street is going to demand that the Liberals right the economic mess that exists in Ontario.  Since the 2008 crash, Ontario’s economy has grown, on average, by less than 1% of GDP per year.  Historically the industrial and financial engine of the Canadian economy, Ontario is now considered to be a “have-not” province.  One economist has even labelled Ontario as “Canada’s sagging middle”.  The province’s budget deficit is going to top $11.3-billion, and Ontario’s debt continues to build up.  As of the beginning of this year, the province’s gross debt is over $290-billion and requires nearly $11-billion in minimum interest payments per year to be serviced.

This is precisely why the labour movement and working-class people should put no faith in Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals.  Labour’s mobilization, until now, has largely focused on stopping Tim Hudak and the Tories from coming to power. OFL president Sid Ryan even suggested that depending upon the Liberals’ budget, labour may push the NDP to continue propping up the Liberal minority government. Ryan is on record saying, “So the concern that we’ve got is that we end up with Andrea doing exceptionally well against the Liberals because, as I say, they’re not very popular at the doorstep, but we end up as the official opposition and Hudak ends up being the premier.” (Toronto Sun, 5 Apr. 2014)  This attitude is incredibly shortsighted and foolish.  As the 2011 federal election showed, elections can proceed very differently from expectations. There is no doubt that the election of a Conservative government would result in massive attacks on workers in the province, but we are certain to see attacks and cuts from a Liberal government, as well.  If you support the “lesser evil” you merely demoralize your base and prepare the conditions for the return of the “greater evil”.  A large part of the Liberals’ successes in the 2003, 2007, and 2011 elections was due to support from the labour movement — particularly from the CAW, the nurses’, and the teachers’ unions.  The Liberals repaid labour’s generosity by taking the jackboot to them when the bankers came calling. The labour leadership cannot make the same mistake again and must not create any illusions in a softer, kinder Liberal Party under Wynne.  How can workers have the confidence to resist the bosses’ attacks if their own leaders side with Bay Street during elections?  Sid Ryan made some very valid critiques of the ONDP leadership — but then he destroyed all that good work by turning to the Liberals. All this does is sow confusion, disillusionment, and demoralization within the labour movement. You don’t stop the NDP from becoming liberals by supporting the Liberals; you stop them by fighting for socialist policies that aid the working class.

NDP can win if it stands for Ontario workers, not Bay Street

Despite the fact that its program is nearly nonexistent, the NDP still has a real chance of winning an election in Ontario.  This is precisely because the majority of Ontarians don’t believe that any of the political parties are going to resolve the crisis in Ontario.  In the last election in 2011, less than half of eligible voters bothered to vote; it is very likely that short of a key turning point, turnout will be even lower in this election.  If the NDP put forward a modicum of a real platform, that promised to even address one burning issue on the minds of working-class Ontarians, the party could probably win Queen’s Park.

The logic amongst many of the party apparatchiks is that by remaining vague on the issues, there is little chance that Ontarians will come to hate the NDP.  This may work in between elections when most working-class people only pay cursory attention to parliamentary politics.  But, it has the opposite effect in the middle of an election campaign when people are looking for a reason to go vote.  Although opinion polls should always be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism, the Ontario NDP’s support has steadily been declining as the prospects of an election have become brighter.  The latest polls peg the NDP’s support at just under 21%, less than their share of the popular vote in the 2011 election.

There could be no better time for the NDP to stand on a working-class, socialist program that could capture the anger and desperation amongst workers and youth in Ontario.  According to figures collected by economist Mike Moffatt, only 49% of Ontarians are able to currently find full-time employment; the rate is even worse in southwestern Ontario, where manufacturing jobs have traditionally been based.  Last year, a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) highlighted the fact that the youth unemployment rate in Ontario is the second highest of all political jurisdictions in North America; in Windsor, for instance, nearly one-in-four youths could not find a job of any kind.  Despite throwing billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks to private enterprise, business after business has pocketed this public largesse and left.

In this vacuum, any of the following demands could capture the imagination of an embittered working class: the expansion of affordable housing, the creation of a public childcare program, the expansion of free public transportation, free accessible education.  If any business or factory did not find Ontario a profitable area in which to invest, then an NDP government would take that business over and place it under the control of its workers.

There is also little doubt that working-class people in Ontario are prepared to mount a fight back against austerity and the economic crisis.  Last year, hundreds of thousands of teachers were prepared to defy back-to-work legislation and were only held back by the timidity of their leaders.  The OFL’s meetings on stopping Tim Hudak and the Tories have attracted significant crowds, particularly in southwestern Ontario.  The fact that both Wynne and Hudak have been forced to backtrack, at least partially, on some of their parties’ anti-worker policies, speaks to the reality that even they understand the simmering anger that exists within the working-class movement in Ontario.

But if the NDP fails to put anything substantive forward, or if it vacillates and appears to be yet another party standing for the interests of the bosses, then this will hand the government to the Liberals or Conservatives — and it will be the working class that pays for the failure of the NDP leadership over the next four years.  More than ever, what is needed is an NDP that is the parliamentary voice of the province’s workers’ movement.