With less than a week to go in the Ontario election, the Liberals have collapsed. On June 2, Premier Kathleen Wynne even made an announcement conceding that she would not win the election, and appealed to voters to leave the Liberals with enough seats to prevent the formation of a majority government. After 15 years of Liberal rule in the province, voters are tired of a party they see as disingenuous, corrupt, and part of the elite establishment.
Despite tacking to the left in rhetoric and campaign promises, including courting the trade union, youth, and immigrant votes over many years, the Ontario Liberals are now seen by most voters as out-of-touch political elites connected to the rich. A developing hatred of the status quo and the establishment has led to a polarization to the left and the right, resulting in a surge in NDP support in the last few weeks of the campaign.
For the year preceding the election, the bulk of the anger at the Liberals benefitted the Progressive Conservatives. In the spring of 2017, an Angus Reid poll put Wynne’s approval rating at a mere 12 per cent with a disapproval rating of 81 per cent. Other polls put her approval rating even lower. One poll at that time put support for the Conservatives at 43 per cent, a full 15 points ahead of the NDP, and a whopping 24-point lead on the Liberals who stood at just 19 per cent.
What has changed, quite dramatically, since the beginning of the election campaign is the nature of the opposition to the Liberals. The Conservatives were set to sweep this election and march easily into a majority government. Now things have been shaken up.
The Ontario NDP has surged forward. Most polls in the last week put the party in first place. While the race is too close to call, and electoral districts are set up to favour rural areas and hence the Conservative Party, this is a stunning reversal of the situation.
Collapse of the “centre”
The Ontario Liberals were able to hold onto power for 15 years. They did this with a clever balancing act: While always representing the interests of the bosses, the Liberals made an attempt to cloak their rule in a progressive image.
While cutting the corporate tax rate, the Liberals would make symbolic gestures towards diversity and against racism, sexism, and homophobia. Wynne was after all the first queer premier and a big advocate of gay rights. While taking away the right to strike from workers, such as those in the education and transit sector, she made big overtures to the trade union bureaucracy. While carrying out a policy of privatization, most significantly with the energy utility Hydro One, she threw crumbs to the poor such as raising the minimum wage to $15/hour and giving some students from low-income families free tuition. The Liberals put themselves forward as “friends” of labour, students, immigrants, and other oppressed minorities.
In the context of rising right-wing populism around the globe, and a Conservative Party openly calling for significant austerity cuts and layoffs, many labour leaders were pulled in by this trick in past elections. Many Labour leaders who today are calling for an NDP vote were calling for strategic voting in 2014 and praising the “progressive” nature of Kathleen Wynne’s budget. Even Sid Ryan, former leader of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), who stands on the left of the labour movement, made the blunder of calling for strategic voting and had illusions in Wynne in 2014.
However, as anger developed and as the ruling Liberals exposed themselves, this progressive facade withered away. One of the biggest issues has been the skyrocketing hydro rates as the Liberals privatized the energy utility. This has created enormous anger as Bay Street vultures swoop in to make personal profits off the successful public utility, and push up consumer costs. The salaries of the top management at the company has been a source of significant rage, as the working class and middle class feel the squeeze.
The connection of the Liberals to the rich was most strikingly expressed by the scandals surrounding Liberal Party fundraisers with top executives. Many of these fundraisers featured $1,600-a-plate gatherings, where corporate bosses could purchase greater access to the premier for an additional $3,000. Another bank-run fundraiser for the Liberals had a $7,500 per plate price tag. At a time when more than 50 per cent of the workforce in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Hamilton are considered low-wage (within $5 of the minimum wage), these high-priced fundraisers served to expose the true allegiance of the Liberals to the ruling class. As they say, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
As anger with the status quo and the ruling party developed, and with a strong challenge from the Conservatives, the Liberal strategy was again to tack left. With a moderate NDP, they felt they could pull the same maneuver we saw during the 2014 Ontario election and 2015 federal election, where the Liberals tried to present themselves as the “progressive” option. They presented a program of funding pharmacare, dental care, child care, and raised the minimum wage prior to the elections. However, after years of Liberal tricks, workers, youth and sections of the middle class saw through this.
Now, as the Liberals are being squeezed out on the right by the Ford Conservatives, and on the left by the Ontario NDP, the mask is coming off in a desperate attempt to minimize their defeat. They are now openly lashing out against the trade unions and the right to strike as their main point of attack against the NDP. This was evident at the final leaders’ debate and in a series of attack ads. A press conference by Kathleen Wynne on June 4 put forward the demand that after the elections, back-to-work legislation should be immediately passed against the York strike.
— Ontario Liberal Party (@OntLiberal) May 29, 2018
The Ontario Liberals are now openly promoting a program of taking away democratic rights from workers through the courts and the police, with the Conservatives standing in total agreement. The rights of workers, the issue of trade unions, and the right to strike have now been placed front and centre in this election.
The election has become a race between the right-wing populism of Doug Ford and the Ontario NDP. This is a reflection of social polarization to both the left and right, as support for the status quo vanishes. This is an early stage of the process that we have seen all over the world as the establishment parties and political figures are thrown out of power, and figures to the left and right emerge.
On the left, we now see the NDP surging forward in the polls. To party leader Andrea Horwath’s credit, she has not capitulated to the attacks that have linked the NDP to the trade unions and strike action. She has clearly expressed her opposition to back-to-work legislation and explained that the lengthy strike at York University and the previous strike at Ontario colleges was the result of cuts to education funding by the Liberals.
On a much smaller scale, there is a parallel to the process in the United States with the emergence of Bernie Sanders to the left and Donald Trump to the right, or in Quebec, where the two-party system between the Parti Quebecois and Liberals has been undermined as voters look to options on the left and right. Workers, youth, and even sections of the middle class are turning away from what they see as the “establishment”, and are looking for an alternative.
Doug Ford himself is a polarizing figure. There were probably not a few people who were prepared to vote for the Tories (whom to many seemed to be the natural opposition to the Liberals) to punish the Liberals, but who cannot stomach the idea of voting for Ford. The Fords have a rather wild history in politics, especially in Toronto, and the PC leader presented a series of proposals which could only mean severe austerity. This probably forced people to look elsewhere to oppose Wynne, which led them to the NDP, who are considered a serious option for the first time in a long time by many in the province.
Doug Ford has presented himself as a sort of bootleg Donald Trump; a political outsider, a competent businessman, and somebody who will “drain the swamp” (or “stop the gravy train”) at Queen’s Park by driving out the political elites and insiders. His populism includes such gems as bringing back “a buck a beer”, and he is appealing to angry working class and middle class voters by saying he stands for “the little guy” and “the people”. His most recent ads emphasize that those making minimum wage would pay no tax and indicate that he would reduce hydro bills.
Behind the rhetoric, Ford’s plan is an aggressive offensive against the working class. He is going to make major cuts to public services, amounting to $6 billion. He has openly called for strike-breaking legislation. While serving on Toronto City Council, he and his brother, the former mayor Rob Ford, pushed a policy of privatization of public services such as garbage collection, and directly attacked the important municipal workers’ unions. Behind Ford’s populism is a barely veiled program putting the capitalists on the offensive against the working class. Austerity, privatization, layoffs, tax breaks to the rich, and state repression of democratic rights for workers and youth is his program.
There is a certain analogy between a Doug Ford government and the Mike Harris years in the 1990s, during which Harris carried out an aggressive offensive against the trade unions, scaled back workers’ rights, and massively slashed social services. While a Doug Ford victory would clearly be reactionary, it would almost certainly spark a period of open class struggle in the province.
Ontario NDP surges forward
The rapid rise of the NDP shows that beneath the surface, a significant anti-establishment sentiment and anger exists. The NDP has been able to capture that sentiment over the last couple of weeks. Among youth, women, and workers, the support for the NDP is particularly high. The NDP is leading in historic centres of industry and trade unionism such as in Southwest and Northern Ontario.
On the one hand, the NDP have been winning part of the anti-establishment vote that the Conservatives were able to tap into prior to the election. On the other hand, they have taken the anti-Conservative vote, which in the past has lined up behind the Liberals, but is now coalescing around the NDP as it eclipses the Liberals in support. Some polls say that about 50 per cent of people who intend to vote NDP are motivated by a desire to defeat the Liberals and Conservatives.
This shows that there is a strong desire to defeat the two capitalist parties. However, Andrea Horwath’s program has had little to do with the rise of the NDP in the polls. The increase in support for the NDP has more to do with the way the party is seen. The NDP has only formed government once in Ontario, and hence has a certain anti-establishment image. In addition, the party’s historic links to the trade unions, and being constantly denounced as “socialist” and “radical”, have given the NDP credibility at a time of growing anger at the rich, inequality, and low-wage work.
While the NDP platform is an improvement from the 2014 election platform, where Horwath even advocated $600 million in cuts, it simply represents a return to the moderate, reformist policies the NDP stood for in the 1990s. In reality, the NDP election platform is not much to the left of Kathleen Wynne. Both parties are promising pharmacare, child care, dental care, and a minimum wage of $15. The notable exceptions are back-to-work legislation and the very moderate and gradual “re-nationalization” of Hydro One (at significant cost to the working class and at great profit to the bosses). Instead of calling for abolishing tuition fees, as called for by the student movement, the NDP has proposed that loans be converted to grants. Taxes on corporations will be raised slightly from 11.5 per cent to 13 per cent, which keeps them lower than the rate they were when the Liberals took office.
The NDP has become a focal point of opposition for those who can no longer stand Wynne, and who cannot stomach the thought of a Doug Ford government. This support for the NDP is primarily passive, and there has not been a significant influx of left-wing youth and workers joining the party. This is in contrast to the mass movements that surrounded Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K.
Nonetheless, such developments have a logic of their own, and there is an important enthusiasm that is developing amongst a certain layer throughout the province as the NDP is polling in first place. Even if their policies are not so different on the surface, the Liberals are tied directly to the capitalists, while the NDP maintains links, however strained, with the working class through the labour movement. A victory for the NDP would represent an important step forward for the class struggle and would raise the confidence and consciousness of the working class.
Betrayal of the pro-Liberal unions
Unfortunately, some unions still maintain their support for the Liberals via the position of strategic voting. Over the last 15 years, this strategy has resulted in concessions from the unions and attacks on the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike. It has been nothing but a dead end for workers. The stakes are high in these elections as the NDP stands its first serious chance at winning in several decades. Meanwhile, the Liberals and Conservatives are directing their main fire at organized labour.
Both the Liberals and Conservatives have openly promised to pass strike-breaking legislation to defeat the strike at York University if they are elected. Kathleen Wynne’s new advertisement specifically targets Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, who has had a long-standing and open affiliation to the NDP, and who stands to the left of other labour leaders. Doug Ford has naturally joined in on these attacks against the unions.
This election presents an important opportunity to defeat parties directly linked to Bay Street. This must be taken up with both hands by the trade unions, the student unions, and the socialist movement.
The most egregious position in favour of strategic voting has been taken by the leadership of Unifor, which is the largest private sector union in Canada with 163,000 members in the province. It has called for an anti-Ford vote, and has funnelled resources into “strategic” Liberal election campaigns throughout the province. The Toronto & York Region Labour Council has also failed to take a position calling for an NDP vote.
As the Liberals are showing their true face by arguing for attacks on the labour movement, so-called strategic voting constitutes de facto support for attacks on unions. The only course for the labour movement is to call for an NDP vote and mobilize all of the resources of the unions to fight these attacks. The policy of strategic voting must be driven out of the labour movement.
Significantly, the two most important unions in the education sector have come out against the Liberals. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), with its 78,000 members, came out in favour of the NDP at the beginning of the campaign. At the beginning of the election, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), with its 60,000 members, sadly took a position for a strategic vote against Ford. Since the release of the Liberal attack ad targeting Fred Hahn, the union has now called off its election campaigning for Liberal candidates. As they say, better late than never!
However, the OSSTF should quickly draw the necessary conclusions, and openly call for an NDP vote. Given that the teachers’ unions played a big role supporting the Ontario Liberals over the past 15 years, this is a very significant development.
The $15 and Fairness campaign, which has a certain following on the left, has taken a shameful position in favour of strategic voting. They have called for a vote for candidates who support a $15 minimum wage, which includes the Liberal Party. This shows the limits of movement-ism around narrow economic demands, without having a socialist political program. In an election campaign where the Liberals have clearly gone on the offensive against organized labour, the bankruptcy of this narrow reformist outlook of the leaders of the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign has become exposed.
The Canadian Federation of Students—Ontario (CFS-O) has also not called for a vote for the NDP, at a time when the youth and students are overwhelmingly turning to the NDP electorally, and where the question of education funding and the right to strike on campus is a central question. The only thing that has been put out by the student federation is a chart of policy positions by the various parties. This is shameful but not surprising, given the careerism of the student union leaders who have been cozying up to the Wynne Liberals for many years.
Threat of capital flight
The threat of capital flight and economic crisis looms over the Ontario NDP as it comes within striking distance of a victory. Ford’s attacks during the last leadership debate focused on the threat of closures, claiming business owners “are terrified of the NDP coming in”, and that they are saying “We will pack up and go down South in half a second, God forbid the NDP ever gets in. They will destroy our province and our economy”. It is these statements that show that it wouldn’t necessarily be NDP policy that would cause the economy “to tank”, but rather the response of the bosses to NDP policy that would do so, i.e. with shutdowns and flight of capital.
The threat of factory closures and the economy “tanking”, which are being used by Ford and Wynne to attack the NDP, are not simply campaign rhetoric or idle threats. As we are already seeing during the election campaign, an NDP victory will create a vicious backlash by the capitalists. A campaign of red-baiting and slanders has already opened up in the media and by the bourgeois parties.
More important is the pressure that would be brought onto the NDP to abandon its mild reforms, and to capitulate to the interests of capital. Along with pressure in the press will be economic pressure, through a strike of capital and even possibly sabotage. This is what we saw occur in Ontario during the Bob Rae government of 1990-1995, and with the Rachel Notley Alberta NDP government more recently. It is likely that the right will aim their fire against the NDP’s corporate and personal tax increases on the rich. This would destabilize the funding of the NDPs reforms. They will also step up the offensive against any progressive labour legislation the NDP tries to pass. It is vital that the NDP resist this pressure if it is to survive. The Rae and Notley governments both capitulated under the pressure, abandoned their program, betrayed their base of support, and openly collaborated to push forward the agenda of the capitalists. The result was austerity, unemployment and a collapse of their electoral support.
You either accept that the capitalists own and control the economy, and hence must facilitate their sole interest, which is to make profit, or conversely, you take the road towards the left by taking socialist measures against the bosses, leaning on the working class, youth, and oppressed to carry out such an offensive. If the bosses refuse to invest, or shut down production as a form of political sabotage, then there is only one effective countermeasure. Workers facing shuttered production must adopt the slogan “Use it or lose it! A factory closed is a factory occupied”. The NDP should support such movements and nationalize those plants immediately.
Aside from the subjective actions of government and the ruling class, objectively speaking an economic recession is looming in Ontario, with the slowdown in the housing sector; protectionist measures in the US, which is the province’s largest export market; a looming trade war, and a potential world slump. This could occur this year or next year, but it is practically guaranteed that there will be a major global recession sometime within the next government’s mandate.
We saw a similar situation of slump when the Alberta NDP came into power. Oil prices collapsed in a province where the energy sector makes up approximately 40 per cent of the economy. The NDP abandoned its program of increasing oil royalties and raising taxes on the rich, and instead carried out a policy of “pipelines or bust”, bailouts for the oil bosses, and public sector austerity. Their support has been dropping steadily.
However, the situation in Ontario could be much worse than in Alberta. There was a lot of fat in the system in Alberta, with effectively no government debt. Ontario, on the other hand, has a debt of $346 billion, which is the largest subnational debt in the world. Furthermore, the province’s fiscal watchdog claims that the Liberals have fudged the books and province’s deficit is $12 billion for 2018, almost double what the Liberals are claiming.
Additionally, in contrast to the Alberta NDP, which had a tradition of being critics of the oil bosses, the Ontario NDP’s more established party officialdom has had a more conservative track-record, as we saw in the 2014 election campaign, where they accepted the need for austerity cuts. This could mean that the leadership of the Ontario NDP could more easily capitulate under pressure from the ruling class.
The pressure from the ruling class on the NDP leadership to compromise and capitulate will be enormous; we are already seeing it. The labour and youth movements will need to mobilize to combat any capitulation by the reformist NDP leadership. We must insist that the NDP’s full platform is implemented in the first budget without any backsliding, and push forward the offensive from the platform’s partial reforms to universal programs that are free at the point of use.
For a mass movement of the working class and youth!
While most of the polls in the last week or two show that the NDP has a slight lead in the popular vote, the Conservatives will likely win the most seats if current levels of support remain. A Conservative victory will mark an open declaration of war by the bosses on the working class. There will certainly be drastic cuts, layoffs, privatization, and vicious union-busting under a Ford government. If this is the election result, the labour and youth movement must immediately take steps to go on the offensive against Doug Ford and the capitalists behind him.
A strong opposition NDP in Queen’s Park, and more importantly, a militant and grassroots movement on the streets, on the campuses, and on the industrial front, will be the only way to fight back against Doug Ford’s offensive and eventually bring down his government.
As we saw during the Mike Harris days in the 1990s, large social movements erupted as did very militant and energetic strikes in the public and private sector. This escalated to the point of city-wide general strikes, which were treacherously called off by the union leadership. In the event of a Ford victory, an escalating movement leading to general strikes would be back on the agenda once again.
Regardless of who wins the election, there will need to be a mass struggle at the grassroots level. If the Conservatives win, their vicious austerity program will have to be challenged from the first day. Students and labour will need to mobilize the fight back.
If the NDP wins, the confidence of the working class will be strengthened and the ruling class will be weakened. We would expect that the NDP’s reforms would come under vicious attack. Students and labour will have to mobilize to defend against attacks, but also fight to extend and expand the reforms as part of the class struggle. Either way, the status quo cannot continue. Students and labour must mobilize to support education reforms, fight for free education and for the defence and extension of trade union rights. The opportunity to start doing this is precisely right now.
As the experience of many provincial NDP governments has shown, if the movement isn’t armed with a perspective of breaking with capitalism, an NDP government will bend to the pressure of the capitalists and be forced to betray the working class. A mass grassroots movement, led by the student unions and trade unions, will be on the order of the day to prevent betrayal and push the advantage. This will mean a fight for socialist policies as the only way to defeat the capitalists, during and after the election.
The labour and student movement should be demanding universal programs such as free child care, free dental care, and free pharmacare. Horwath’s position on post-secondary education to scrap interests on loans and to transform some loans into grants is a watered-down half-position which does not elicit much enthusiasm. The demand should be to abolish tuition fees and to fund student housing and provide cost-of-living stipends to students.
Instead of the gradual re-nationalization of Hydro One, the demand should be for its immediate expropriation, without compensation for the vultures on Bay Street. The minimum wage should be raised further to at least two-thirds the average wage of a skilled worker, and constantly adjusted given the rising costs of living in the province, especially in terms of housing, tuition, and hydro. Instead of a slight increase to corporate taxes, the banner of the NDP should be “Make the rich pay” through nationalizations along with heavy taxation on corporations, higher incomes, and inheritances.
No matter what the result on June 7, class struggle will be on the agenda, whether of a defensive or offensive character. We need to win the workers’ and student organizations to this perspective. And the best way to win these struggles is if the movement adopts a socialist program. The time to fight is now.