Trudeau’s throne speech, delivered via a disgraced Governor General, opened with the statement that now is not the time for austerity. It contained supposed commitments to a number of reforms. A universal pharmacare program, a childcare program, a million new jobs, a revamped unemployment system, amongst others. In a minority parliament, if all of the three main opposition parties vote down the speech, Canada will head into an election. Should socialists accept the reforms and support propping up the Liberals, or take the unpopular option of an election in the middle of a pandemic?
After the speech was unveiled, the Conservatives immediately said they would vote against, citing the $350-billion deficit. The Bloc Quebecois complained about proposed national standards for elder care being a violation of provincial jurisdiction. This is in the context of the murderous impact of COVID-19 in seniors’ homes that led to an especially high death rate in Ontario and Quebec. However, the NDP refused to say whether or not they would support the government. Instead they said that if the Liberals gave the sick pay they previously promised, and no cuts to the $2000 per month emergency benefit, it would help win their support.
What exactly was said?
The speech from the throne was long on promises, but short on details. Here are the highlights:
- Childcare. In response to the “she-session” (that is, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic-related shutdown on women) the government announced a proposal for universal childcare. But this is an old trick of the Liberals who have been promising childcare since the 1990s. The likely outcome is for extended negotiations with the provinces, who actually administer childcare, before it results in minor subsidies or a patchwork of different regulations that do not solve the lack of spaces and expense for parents.
- Pharmacare. Similar to childcare, this is another shell game that Liberals keep playing with voters. Again, they will allow such a program to be bogged down in provincial negotiations and will not enact the genuinely universal program that will bring in the savings. Instead they will try to fill the gaps of provincial and private plans creating an expensive and bureaucratic mess (while facilitating the profits of their donors).
- A million new jobs. Three million Canadians lost their jobs in April and May 2020. In the following months of re-opening approximately two million were re-hired. If the government could find jobs for the last million it would be as if the shutdown had never happened! However there are many problems with this math. The position of the two million workers who were rehired is incredibly tenuous, many working for corporations that are surviving on hope and government handouts. The second wave, the end of the summer patio season, plus the continued capitalist crisis is sure to destroy many of these jobs. Where exactly the million “new” jobs will come from is even more nebulous. It seems likely that the Liberals will merely gift corporations with a slew of handouts and tax breaks, and claim credit for jobs that would have been created anyway. The only way for the government to genuinely create jobs would be via nationalization, which nobody is proposing.
- Extending the 75 percent wage subsidy and forgivable loans. This measure is actually an expensive counter-reform that has already led to over $100 billion in corporate welfare. Now the Liberals want to extend these handouts until next summer. There are three effects of the wage subsidy and the $40,000 business loan: either the money is pocketed by companies that have no need for it; or it is wasted by merely delaying the inevitable bankruptcy of failed ventures; or it goes unused and makes no difference because why employ workers when there is no market for the products they would produce? Scandalously, it was the NDP that initially proposed these gifts to the bosses, allowing the Liberals to give the measures an undeserved progressive veneer.
- $1600 per month unemployment benefit. This is another counter-reform, as it is a rollback from the $2000 Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The supposed positive side is a reform of the Employment Insurance benefit system that barely 40 percent of unemployed workers qualify for. The new benefit is supposedly open to gig workers and the self employed. But the NDP have correctly criticized the reduction of the benefit, which comes just at the start of the second wave of the virus that is bound to have a devastating effect on employment.
NDP plays “chicken”
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said, “We are making it very clear to the prime minister—if you want [NDP] support, if you want my support, then you have to stop the proposal to cut help to Canadians who cannot get back to work and make sure you put in place paid sick leave for all Canadian workers.” However, Singh stopped short of saying that if he didn’t get these changes he would vote against the government and trigger an election.
The NDP leadership is playing a game of chicken and hoping the Liberals blink first. They are trying to keep the focus on the cuts to CERB and the Liberals delaying sick leave legislation. If people focus on these issues the NDP will gain support at the expense of the Liberals, who risk being blamed for the cuts. Alternatively if Trudeau caves to the pressure the NDP will get all the credit for sick leave and unemployment benefits.
But the minute the NDP answers the question “what if they don’t give in?” they lose the game. Then attention moves away from CERB and sick leave, and towards an election. Very few people are enthusiastic about a vote in the middle of a pandemic and the NDP risks being blamed for sending people to the polls. The apparent “reasonableness” of the NDP’s demands are also a problem. They think they are being clever asking for modest things that the Liberals have already agreed to. But why would people support an election for something so minor? These moderate conditions actually make it more likely that the Liberals will call the NDP’s bluff. The Liberals will probably force the NDP to either trigger a vote over what people see as relatively minor issues, or the NDP will fold gaining nothing but humiliation.
When Trudeau prorogued parliament last month it was in the midst of the WE charity scandal and a slump in the polls. At the time there was talk of a transformative new parliamentary session which would enact historic new measures. Corporate Canada recoiled in horror at the spectre of a socialist Canada. Trudeau’s more conservative finance minister was forced to resign. But luckily for Bay Street, the Liberals recovered support in the last few weeks and the proposed reforms have been significantly scaled back. They did not have to follow the same path as the Ontario Liberals under Kathleen Wynne who gave away reform after reform in an attempt to save their necks.
In the context of a polling recovery Trudeau may even relish the prospect of the NDP being blamed for an election over minor issues. This would allow them to steal left wing votes and gain a parliamentary majority. The financial crisis of the federal NDP is also an important consideration. With a secure Liberal majority any talk of reforms would be off the table for a long time.
In effect the NDP has painted itself into a corner. They are probably looking to the polls to give them the answer over which way to turn, but most outcomes do not look good for the Singh leadership. They either get blamed for propping up the Liberals while gaining nothing, or they get blamed for an election that leads to even the present minor reforms being taken off the table.
What road for socialists?
There is an old Irish joke about a tourist asking for directions to Dublin. The Irishman replies, “Well sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here!” The NDP has got itself into such a dead end because of its moderate reformist policies. They are mostly silent on corporate bailouts, if not actively promoting them as with the wage subsidy. They have no answer on the pandemic-triggered crisis, only proposing guaranteed income schemes such as CERB. This position was so moderate there were even rumours that a guaranteed basic income was going to be the big story of the Liberal throne speech. Guaranteed income schemes are often funded out of cuts to social programs, do not change the basic logic of capitalist production for profit, and do nothing to address the question of who owns the means of production.
The NDP’s main problem is that it has abandoned socialism. The pandemic has revealed the failure of capitalism at every step. The capitalist “free” market has shown its inability to find a way out, and has relied on massive bailouts to guarantee profits. This breaks every so-called rule of the capitalists, who tell us that the state must stay out of the economy under all conditions. The “invisible hand” is supposed to be the most efficient allocator of resources, but today that hand is so diseased it is functionally useless.
The right wing and corporate press like to complain about the $80 billion spent on CERB relief to workers, supposedly out of concern for the $350 billion budget deficit. They alledge that workers laid off due to no fault of their own are lazy, because these workers prefer to live on a $2000 subsistence rather than face the prospect of infection in part time minimum wage shift work. If $2000 is really such a barrier to employment it tells you all you need to know about the hyper-exploitation of modern capitalism. But the hypocrisy of these people knows no bounds. They are silent about the more than $100 billion handed out in the business wage subsidy and forgivable loans. They are even more silent about the $750 billion secret bailout fund to undisclosed corporations. This shows they are not concerned about the deficit if those funds go to the bosses.
If the NDP had consistently put forward a socialist position of no bailouts, only nationalizations, we would be in a very different situation today. Instead of playing with schemes like CERB— where the subsistence money spends approximately three minutes in the hands of the worker before being shared out between the credit card company, the landlord, and the grocery billionaires—the NDP should have demanded no layoffs and full pay for non-essential workers. It is scandalous that in the middle of the pandemic and economic crisis the wealth of Canada’s richest 20 billionaires has ballooned by $37 billion!
A socialist NDP would be able to offer a crystal clear alternative to Canadian workers. Between the austerity of the Conservatives, and the debt and schemes of the Liberals, a socialist solution of production for need instead of the failed profit motive would revolutionize the situation. The slogan of “no bailouts” could unite people against the corporations profiteering off the backs of illness. Workers’ control to insure that no unsafe workplace reopens would be another popular policy. A socialist NDP would be enthusiastic about bringing down the Liberals in order to advance policies to stop the capitalist crisis and control the pandemic.
Unfortunately none of these socialist demands are on the table. All the options in front of the NDP are terrible. It really doesn’t matter whether they fail by propping up the Liberals or fail by being blamed for triggering an election. The way forward is to fight for socialist policies to be adopted by mass organizations that have the power to be heard by the working class. Until that happens there will be no good options for workers.