The decisive defeat of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was the big news of the 2015 Canadian election. Harper resigned as party leader, and the dirty laundry of his heavily controlled campaign is now being aired publicly. The Harper reelection campaign drew deeply on racist and Islamaphobic politics, attacking a Federal Court of Appeal decision that the government could not ban a woman from wearing her niqab to the Canadian citizenship ceremony and floating the idea of opening a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline. Some critics referred to this as dog-whistle politics aimed at reaching the ears of those who would be most receptive, but I think it was more like a resonant foghorn.
Harper’s racist agenda was tied to his security focus aimed at increasing police powers while limiting democracy and free expression. This included the “Fair Elections Act” designed to make it harder to vote in elections, Bill C-24 that allowed the government to strip citizenship from those convicted of certain offenses, and Bill C-51 the “Anti-Terrorism Act” that pumped up the power of security services and legitimated greater racial profiling.
Finally, the defeat of the Harper government represents a setback for its economic austerity policies. The victorious Liberal party campaigned to increase taxes on the richest one percent and to run deficits for a limited time to allow spending on infrastructure projects such as roads and transit. For these and many other reasons, it was a pleasure to see Harper go down in defeat.
The Neoliberal B Team
At the same time, it is a mistake to see the Liberal Party victory as a dramatic shift in direction. Previous Liberal governments have played a key role in introducing the neoliberal agenda to Canadian politics. The incoming Trudeau government will likely continue in this direction.
Neoliberalism in Canada and elsewhere did not develop in a simple straight line. Rather, advocates for neoliberalism have swung between a confrontational “destruction” mode and a more engaging “consolidation” mode. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government exemplified the destruction mode, which was followed by the consolidation mode of the Tony Blair New Labour years.
In the destruction mode of neoliberalism, governments often put infrastructure needs on hold to concentrate on tax reductions, anti-union measures, and the demolition of social programs. The political focus of the destruction moment is the decisive defeat of opponents and a scorched-earth approach to social policy aimed to make it very difficult to restore programs that have been starved or eliminated. Harper leaned toward the destruction mode, from the deep erosion of the tax base to the refusal to engage in political give-and-take with the opposition or the media.
In contrast, the goal of the consolidation mode is to normalize neoliberalism as a sustainable regime. The consolidation mode combines a degree of engagement with opponents with limited progressive reforms that are fundamentally compatible with neoliberalism. The incoming Trudeau government will likely orient around consolidation, restoring infrastructure without breaking from the neoliberal playbook.
The Trudeau Liberals shifted the terrain part way through the election campaign, when they promised on August 27, 2015, to ease back on austerity, increasing taxes on the wealthiest and running deficits for a few years to fund an investment in infrastructure. Up to that point, the Liberals had generally been running behind the New Democratic Party (NDP) as the main alternative to Harper.
The Trudeau proposal to ease back on austerity does not challenge the core of neoliberalism: the elimination of alternatives to the market for fulfilling needs. Social assistance rates will remain well below the poverty line, workers’ employment conditions will continue to deteriorate, and migrants will face increasing barriers and loss of status. Meanwhile, capitalist profitability depends on decent infrastructure. Lean production methods associated with neoliberalism have put a premium on trucking to feed the needs of just-in-time delivery. It is a problem for employers when workers cannot make it to work on time because of transit breakdowns or traffic congestion. Similarly, the introduction of modest tax increases for the wealthiest individuals fits with a consolidation mode approach by developing sustainable state policies including adequate funding sources to support policies.
The Withering NDP Campaign
The other major story from this election was the withering of the NDP campaign. In Canada, social democracy in the form of the NDP and its forerunners has generally been confined to third-party status at the federal level. The NDP achieved a historic breakthrough in the 2011 election, winning second-place Official Opposition status. Through much of the 2015 campaign, it looked like the NDP was plausibly contending to form its first federal government.
This did not happen, in part because the Liberals outflanked them with a focus on easing austerity. The NDP has some important progressive planks in their platform, such as a broad program of $15.00-per-day childcare and an increase of the federal minimum wage to $15.00 per hour. To his credit, NDP leader Tom Mulcair also opposed Harper’s niqab politics. But it was hard to find much space between the NDP’s fundamental economic policies and those of the Harper Conservatives.
Clearly, the NDP missed out on an opportunity to engage with a public that is losing some of its tolerance for austerity policies. It is also likely the NDP would have been savaged by opponents and the media if it had promised to run a deficit and raise taxes on the rich as the Liberals did. The mainstream media holds the NDP to a different standard than the Liberals on economic matters, presuming them to be wild-eyed incompetents lacking the management experience and deep ties to corporate boardrooms of the other two parties.
The NDP had a difficult choice on economic policy, and they made the wrong one. Sadly, however, I am not convinced that we can read this election result as a simple message that the Canadian electorate is hungry for more radical solutions. It is true that the public seems to be displaying a certain austerity fatigue. Yet this tends to go along with a risk aversion that makes people wary of radical solutions.
Anti-Austerity vs Risk Aversion
The Harper government and similar regimes around the world have worked hard to direct the insecurities created by precariousness and cutbacks into a security agenda that weaves together claims of sound management based on inside connections with the business world with the so-called “war on terror” and anti-migrant stands. This security agenda has had a certain resonance in Canada. It did not work for Harper this time, but the Trudeau Liberals stuck pretty close to that script in their campaign. For example, the Liberals voted for Bill C-51 in Parliament before the election campaign and defended it during the election.
It is clear that people recognize the massive injustices of neoliberalism and austerity. Movements such as Occupy that seem to offer an alternative tend to galvanize public opinion and draw people into action. But when those movements are not in evidence, people often grasp at security.
This may be part of the explanation for the swings in Greek politics through 2015. In July, Greeks delivered a massive 61% “no” vote rejecting the terms the European Union was imposing on the Syriza government, which had been elected on a clear anti-austerity platform. Yet there was very little echo of that no vote in the September 20 election, after Syriza accepted the austerity conditions. The overall vote for anti-austerity forces was less than 10%.
The Canadian election is a reminder that there are very real openings for anti-austerity politics, but these are in contention with a conservative risk aversion stoked by a security agenda. It is hard to imagine that a more radical politics will be able to break the bounds of risk aversion without galvanizing social movements through which people learn their own potential power. Until then, Canada has elected a government oriented toward neoliberal consolidation that will soften the edges of the Harper agenda but not depart from it in significant ways.