The Liberals and the NDP have announced a “confidence and supply” deal to prop up the minority Trudeau government until 2025. In exchange for voting for the next four Liberal budgets, and opposing any confidence motions, the NDP gained a letter talking about dental care and pharmacare, plus a number of other issues. However, when looking at the document, the actual concrete commitments are very weak and superficial. Additionally, there is nothing in the agreement to stop a massive increase in military spending for NATO imperialism. This agreement will tie the NDP to the establishment Liberals for very little benefit for the working class, leaving only demagogues like Poilievre to oppose the status quo. Socialists must oppose this weak-sauce deal.
What is in the deal?
To begin, it is necessary to clarify that the Singh-Trudeau deal is not a coalition. No NDP MPs are entering Cabinet or taking formal responsibility for the Liberal government. Instead, the deal states that the parties will prioritize actions encompassing dental care, pharmacare, anti-scab legislation, housing, long-term care, fossil fuel subsidies, and a pandemic excess profit tax. We note that the letter talks about “priorities” and not “commitments”. Let’s go over these “priorities” in detail.
The issue with the most concrete details is that of dental care. The program will supposedly implement means-tested support for children under 12 in 2022, to be expanded to 17 year-olds and disabled people by 2023. The full program would supposedly be rolled out in 2025 for families earning under $70,000. Those between $70,000 and $90,000 would be charged a co-pay, and those earning more would be ineligible for support.
There are numerous problems with this plan. Firstly, the fact that it will not be fully implemented until 2025 means that it will be dangled like a carrot by the Liberals in the next election, leading to a high chance that it will be cancelled by the following government. Secondly, it is not a universal program, free at the point of use. Right-wing governments love to call for “cheap government” and attack “bureaucracy”, but then they turn around and propose means testing for benefits and massive bureaucratic expenses to manage eligibility. Non-universal programs are far less efficient and cost far more per head than a program open to all. Additionally, the means-test is a very convenient way for future governments to further limit the program when implementing austerity—either by reducing the cut-off or not allowing the criteria to rise with inflation. Means-tests also mean that wealthy individuals have no reason to support the program, lessening its political stability. Rather than acting as a stepping-stone to a better reform, an expensive and bureaucratically inefficient non-universal plan can erode support for the issue and become a barrier to the formation of a genuinely universal system. Obamacare is an example of this.
On pharmacare the agreement is even more vague. All it says is that something will be in place by the end of 2023. It appears that a bureaucracy will be set up to detail a limited set of drugs to be covered. There are absolutely no details about what these drugs will be, about means testing, about those already with coverage, about why we have to wait another two years, or any other really important questions. Liberals have been dangling the carrot of pharmacare for 30 years and always fail to deliver. Why we should believe them now is anybody’s guess, but in agreeing to prop up the government the NDP has in fact reduced and not increased its leverage.
There is the promise of unspecified money for housing and long-term care for older Canadians. Previously the NDP has correctly stated that private care is a death sentence for residents, and that we need public solutions in these sectors. When the media asked Singh whether the deal stipulated that the support would be public or private, Singh responded with weasel words, saying the NDP position is that it should be public. But he didn’t say that he would oppose the plan if it was private. So in other words the NDP position is public in words, private in deeds!
One thing that could be seen as an advance is anti-scab legislation. But this is being delayed for two years. When “back-to-work” legislation illegalizing strikes often passes in days or even hours, there is absolutely no reason why such simple legislation could not be passed immediately.
Following on from the NDP’s slogan of “make the super-rich pay their fair share”, the letter talks of some sort of pandemic excess profit tax and the removal of one of the many corporate welfare programs aiding the polluting fossil fuel corporations. Forgive us for our skepticism, but we seriously doubt that this vague language will lead to a significant dent in the profits of the super-rich. Statistics Canada data details that Canadian corporate profits ballooned 46 per cent in 2021 to $1.37 trillion. It will take far more than minor tax and handout changes to stop the super-exploitation of the working class. We fully expect such legislation to be minor and superficial, if not totally non-existent.
When looking at the deal as a whole, we see that dental care is the only concrete commitment in the agreement. But the partial dental care plan compares poorly with the 2021 Liberal budget that contained $30 billion for $10-per-day childcare. The NDP was highly critical of that budget and it did not lead to any sort of deal. This raises the question of why a four-budget deal is necessary for such a weak reform?
What approach should Marxists take?
Some on the left will let their demoralization and lack of confidence that anything better can be achieved overwhelm them. They will sell off everything at the vague promise of a partial program that may never be realized. But others will take an ultra-left and doctrinaire stance that there can never be deals and compromises over anything. That everything is a point of principle and workers’ representatives must always vote no. We do not take that view.
What is a point of principle for us is the formation of a coalition government with bourgeois parties. Socialists must never enter a popular front coalition and thereby take political responsibility for the actions of a capitalist government. The legacy of the Stalinist support for popular fronts in the 1930s, and social-democratic betrayals since WW1, is long and deplorable.
An example of this was the Stephane Dion Liberal-NDP coalition attempt in 2008. This deal to abandon the NDP platform and opposition to the war in Afghanistan in exchange for a few cabinet seats was a total sellout. It led to revulsion amongst the Canadian population, who saw it as illegitimate, and the plan collapsed within weeks. We took a principled stand against this capitulation, but we note that others on the left such as the Communist Party of Canada and the International Socialists group, did not.
However, under specific conditions we do believe that it is acceptable for a socialist parliamentary faction to extract concessions that benefit the working class. Ideally this will be united with a mass extra-parliamentary mobilization. The condition being that elected socialists do not take any responsibility for the capitalist government, and merely restrict themselves to the necessary votes to pass a concession with absolutely no delay.
One example of a deal we supported was the so-called “Jack Layton budget”. In 2005, the minority Liberal government was on its last legs and was on the verge of being overthrown due to the Quebec sponsorship scandal. The Layton NDP extracted about $4-billion of concessions, which mostly went to housing and Indigenous reforms, in exchange for allowing the budget implementing these reforms to pass. The NDP did not even vote in favour of the budget, but abstained. Later that year, when the reforms had been safely implemented, the NDP voted no confidence in the Liberals. The NDP gained seats in the ensuing election as it gained credit for the concessions without taking any responsibility for Liberal corruption. At the time we deemed this an acceptable compromise.
The alternative of always voting no, no matter what is being implemented, would essentially resolve itself into a boycottist position. Workers would ask themselves what is the point of electing a representative who always votes no, never gets them anything, and never even tries to get them anything. It would lead us to the ridiculous situation of either never presenting transitional demands in legislation, or presenting them but then opposing our own legislation if the bourgeois parties end up supporting it!
We have no faith in bourgeois democracy, but we understand that is not currently the majority opinion of the working class. We potentially use the parliamentary platform to promote the ideas of socialism amongst the mass of the workers. We put forward timely demands that either reveal the undemocratic nature of capitalist parliamentarianism, or build the forces of revolution by occasional successes. This was the approach spelled out by Lenin in his classic Left Wing Communism, an infantile disorder. It is only acceptable to boycott something when it is possible to replace it with something better. You have to fight on the terrain that exists, whether you like it or not.
Don’t mention the war!
The biggest poison pill of the NDP-Liberal deal is not what is in the agreement, but what is missing. Nowhere is there any mention of the war in Ukraine and the push to massively increase military spending. NATO is strongly pushing for all members of the imperialist alliance to spend two per cent of GDP on guns, tanks, and fighter jets. In the context of global imperialist conflict, supporting a budget that facilitates NATO warmongering is the equivalent of the German socialists voting for war credits in 1914. We stand with Karl Leibknecht as the one voice who says no to militarism.
Even if the deal contained rock-solid guarantees of dental care and pharmacare in the 2022 budget, which it does not, the support for imperialist war should be a deal breaker for every socialist. Every penny spent on bullets is a penny not spent on schools and hospitals. It is a penny spent to exploit and oppress workers and poor people around the world. There is no way any socialist can take responsibility for the expected explosion of military funding in the 2022 budget.
When asked about this thorny question, both Singh and Trudeau squirmed. Trudeau said that the agreement did not cover defence spending and the Liberals were free to seek support from other parties. Singh said the NDP did not support an increase beyond that needed to keep soldiers safe. However, they are both taking a ridiculous position. Ramping up military spending to two per cent of GDP will be a constituent part of the budget. Voting for the budget means voting for the guns, whether Singh likes it or not. Supporting this budget is supporting NATO’s war aims and expansionism. Supporting this war budget is a total betrayal.
The most disgusting thing is that while dental care, pharmacare, housing and long-term care, are all punted to committees with vague commitments to do something in the never-never, military spending jumps to the front of the line to be implemented in the very next budget. Corporate journalists ask, “How will we afford these reforms?” when they might benefit the working class, but they never ask about the affordability of lethal machinery.
The reality is that if there are the resources for war today there are the resources to fund life-saving drugs and dentistry. Hermann Goring, Hitler’s economics minister, had a slogan, “guns before butter”. Now this slogan is replaced by guns before better services.
Say no to the deal!
This deal is a total capitulation by the NDP. It gains very little for the workers, while tying Canada’s labour party to the Bay Street Liberals for the next three years. Given the modesty of the “priorities”, which are far below even the 2021 Liberal budget which contained childcare, it seems likely that the Liberals were planning to implement means-tested child dental care even without the NDP’s support. The NDP should let them put it forward and use their leverage to demand that it be a universal program. By signing this deal the NDP has blown its leverage for dreams of vague Liberal promises.
In the context of capitalist crisis the petty reforms of the Liberal-NDP alliance will do nothing to substantively improve the lives of workers. In a telling line, the agreement bemoans “increasing polarization”. Both party leaders amplified this theme. Opposing polarization when corporations are profiteering off the backs of workers has a name—it is known as class collaboration. We should not be trying to paper over the real class differences that exist and prop up the main capitalist party, we should be decisively taking the side of workers against the bosses. Polarization is an objective reality of capitalism in decay, and we need a political option that explains that the only way of ending polarization is by ending capitalism.
If the NDP becomes complicit in the status quo this will be a godsend to the Pierre Poilievres and Maxime Berniers of this world. They will rail against the system, and blame these non-reforms for inflation that erodes the standard of living of workers. This deal potentially prepares a victory for the right in the coming years.
However there are many avenues of struggle beyond the parliamentary. Workers and oppressed people struggle on the streets and on the picket lines, and not just at the ballot box. We must build the socialist forces that can explain the way forward, to help people find the path to victory. Millions are seeing that capitalism cannot solve the crisis of society. No sellout deal, no bureaucracy, is stronger than the forces of history. In retrospect, this sad deal will be seen as a minor detour in the forward march of the workers’ movement. Class collaboration is a dead end. Only socialism shows the way.