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COVID-19 and mass unemployment—the NDP and beyond

COVID-19Canadian PoliticsLabourEconomic Crisis

In June, tenants from Toronto neighbourhoods including Parkdale, Scarborough, Jane and Finch, and East York marched together to demand a permanent ban on Ontario evictions for anyone unable to pay rent throughout the pandemic. Photo by Audrey Crunkleton/BlogTO.

Canada has now been under COVID-19 restrictions for three months, and many provinces are starting to open up again, although the virus is not under control. Canada is not yet out of the first wave and is certainly not ready to deal with the inevitable second wave. The Liberal government has acted too little and too late, but living next door to the United States’ Trump-caused disaster, it doesn’t look so bad.

In most countries, there has been a rallying of support for governments if they have acted, even belatedly, on COVID. This is true in Canada with an increase in support for the Federal Liberals and provincial premiers. Politics over these last few months has been dominated by national unity and the claim “We’re all in it together.” Yet it is painfully clear that this is not the case–the homeless are still homeless, care workers lack sufficient PPE, the old and the poor are dying, but very few bankers are getting ill. Big business is getting generous support from the Liberals, while rent debts pile up.

However, this time of unity will not last. Canada and the world are in a deep economic depression, which was coming before COVID-19; the virus has triggered a very rapid fall over the cliff. In the short-term, the government poured money into big business and provided support for workers and small businesses. Nevertheless, Canada faces years of unemployment levels not seen since the 1930s. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recognizes that this is the worst world recession in nearly a century, and they don’t know when or how it will end. Within two months, three million people lost their jobs. In May, official unemployment was 13.7 percent, but Stats Canada acknowledges that the real level of unemployment is much higher.

The Crisis and Who Will Pay?

The labour under-utilization rate gives a clearer indication of the depth of unemployment, as it combines those who were unemployed; those who were not in the labour force, wanted a job but did not look for one; and those who were employed but worked for less than half their usual hours. In May, more than one-third (34.8 percent) of the potential labour force was fully or partially under-utilized.

At some point, the debate will grow about who will pay for the crisis and how to end it. Even now, there are calls for increased taxes on workers and cuts to services to pay for the bailouts. Some provinces, including Alberta and Manitoba, are already cutting public service jobs in a time of mass unemployment. Andrew Coyne in The Globe and Mail argues that “we’re going to need everyone working flat out–not just five days [a week], but six or seven–just to pay the government’s bills.” We can be sure he means workers, not the bosses, and no hint of higher taxes on the super rich. The decision by Amazon, Loblaws, Metro, and other major retailers to end the $2 per hour “heroes” pay for workers, despite soaring profits, is another indication of who big business expects to pay for the crisis.

A mighty class struggle lies ahead about who will carry the costs of the crisis and whether society will go back to normal or, instead, make the necessary deep-seated changes.

Where is the independent voice for working people in this pandemic? Humanity is battered by both COVID-19 and a deep economic depression. We are not in this together. Canadian workers need a party that speaks for them. This is supposed to be the New Democratic Party (NDP). This article reviews the NDP’s actions in Canada and draws the conclusion that we need much better.

Federal NDP

In times such as these, it’s difficult for the federal NDP to “make a splash.” The “daily show” is Justin Trudeau’s media conference in Ottawa, with most premiers doing the same in the provincial capitals.

While this goes some way to explain the Federal NDP’s virtual invisibility, it does not excuse it. The NDP faces little competition to put forward alternative policies, especially outside of Québec. The Conservatives are officially leaderless and largely rudderless. The best the hapless Andrew Scheer can do is call for more face-to-face sessions of the House of Commons, when the country is being urged to physically distance, and criticize restrictions on ownership of semi-automatic rifles weeks after Canada’s worst mass killing (the Liberals can be criticized for inconsistencies on this, but that was not Scheer’s approach).

Because the Liberals are in a minority, the NDP, along with the Bloc Quebecois (Bloc) and the Greens, successfully pushed the Liberals to improve their COVID-19 initiatives to:

  • increase the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) from $1000/month to $2000/month
  • increase the small business wage subsidy from 10 percent to 75 percent
  • include students in emergency funding
  • commit to ensuring that companies using tax havens would not receive bailouts

In contrast, the Liberals ignored some of the NDP’s solid proposals, as those would restrict the profiteering of the banks and big business, including NDP proposals that the federal government would:

  • work with all levels of government to put a moratorium on rent, mortgage, and utility payments
  • make banks waive interest fees and charges on credit cards, bank loans, lines of credit, and mortgages for at least the next two payment cyclesv
  • provide a clear plan for delivering the necessary supplies and equipment to Indigenous communities
  • tie any help given to corporations to job and wage protection – not to CEO bonuses or stock buybacks

The NDP, while pushing the Liberals to go further, should not limit its activity to this. There is huge potential support and a real need for a radical shift in policy. The COVID crisis is no excuse for inaction. There are ways around the physical distancing by using social media, video conferencing, and small gatherings to get out a bold message.

Even actions in Parliament can gain attention. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh calling out a Bloc MP for being a “racist” is an example. It is striking that it was the Bloc that stopped the motion to investigate systemic racism in the RCMP, not the Tories. There is a wing of Québec nationalists in denial about racism–the Québec premier, François Legault, actually denied outright that there is systemic racism in Québec.

Events like well-publicized video town halls, car caravans, or carefully marshalled physical protests/pickets would do a lot to shine a light on the shortcomings of the Liberal government and the capitalist system. The NDP could be pushing now for public ownership of all long-term care homes, waiving of rent and mortgages during the pandemic, an end to evictions or foreclosures, and a universal public health system.

Trudeau may be popular, but he is also vulnerable, especially from the left. The NDP could start now building support for a jobs program to reconstruct the Canadian economy and society after the devastation of COVID-19 and a world economic depression. This program could combine tackling the climate crisis with providing jobs and building affordable homes–all vital for Canadians’ well-being. Restarting the economy will take major public investment–workers are short of money, and big business is continuing its refusal to invest just as before COVID-19.

An indication of the leftward shift in public attitudes is shown by the results of a recent survey conducted by Abacus Data in late May. Three-quarters of Canadians said they either strongly support (44 percent) or support (31 percent) a tax of one to two percent on the assets of Canada’s wealthiest to help pay for the country’s recovery. The survey also touched on the issue of government aid to corporations. Four-fifths of respondents (81 percent) said that companies receiving government assistance should be prohibited from using foreign tax havens or using the funds to pay for excessive executive salaries, to buy back shares, or hike dividends.

NDP Government in BC

British Columbia is the only province with an NDP minority government (supported by the Greens). It was the first province with a COVID-19 death, on March 7, the most cases until March 21, and the most deaths until March 25. Since then, BC has fared better than the other large provinces in reducing the number of COVID-19 cases. Some of this was timing. BC’s spring break was later than Québec’s, and the province advised against travel. The outbreak of COVID-19 in the Lynn Valley seniors’ home on March 7, resulting in Canada’s first death, provoked the province to act earlier than Ontario and Québec.

It probably also helped that the NDP is not ideologically opposed to the public sector, so it took all seniors’ homecare workers into public employment, with union rates of pay. This ensured adequate staffing levels and ended the practice of workers taking shifts in several facilities to make a living. This continued to be an issue in Ontario and Québec for months because of staff shortages and staff carrying the virus from one facility to another.

However, BC was slow to act on other workplaces, not wanting to harm profits. Construction, including of luxury condos and pipelines, has continued throughout the pandemic. Several chicken-processing plants had outbreaks due to unsafe working conditions and were forced to close.

On social and economic issues, the BC government has not been radically different from other provinces. This is starkly true on housing. When the NDP announced on March 19 that they were suspending evictions and implementing a rent freeze, a wave of relief washed over the province despite Ontario premier Doug Ford having announced similar measures half a week earlier. Most renters had feared that the BC NDP, even during this pandemic, would not muster even these bare minimum interventions into the housing market.

Since its 2017 victory, the NDP has taken tiny steps on housing. Real estate, rentals, and leasing together make up 17.4 percent of the provincial GDP in 2018. Combined with construction, this is just over 25 percent of GDP. This is a larger share of the provincial economy than oil and gas in Alberta, whose government is notoriously captured by the fossil fuel industry. Just after forming government, BC’s premier said that his party would have to “set aside its activism and become better administrators.” It is no surprise that the NDP in BC is unwilling to ruffle the real estate industry’s feathers.

Scandalously, it took six weeks after the initial outbreaks for the government to take the meagre step of housing 1,000 homeless people in empty hotel rooms. This still leaves at least 7,000 living on the streets.

Alongside the rent freeze and evictions ban, the BC government announced a rental subsidy, paid to the landlord, set at $300 for those without dependants and $500 for those with dependents. Even so, 10 percent of landlords in BC reported not collecting any rent, and one quarter reported collecting only partial rent in April. Many tenants were having to choose between paying rent, paying bills, or buying food.

The provincial government has announced plans to restart the economy, including re-opening schools, which will create a serious risk to students, their families, and educators. Québec is the only other province to restart school before the autumn.

The government has not made it clear if the measures taken in seniors’ long-term care facilities will extend past the six months initially announced. What will happen to all those tenants who have not been able to pay their rent when the eviction ban ends? Will the rent debts that have built up over the past two months be forgiven? Or will a wave of evictions follow the wave of disease, tossing the province back into the housing crisis that preceded the public health crisis?

BC’s New Democrats have acted as a moderate and competent government, better than is the case in several provinces, but they have not shown a commitment to working people and have propped up capitalism rather than challenging it. The NDP is missing an opportunity to show to the rest of Canada a bold alternative to the present failing system.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh speaks at the Ontario Federation of Labour Convention in Toronto, November 21, 2017. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Ontario NDP

The performance of the Ontario NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, has been similar to that of Jagmeet Singh. She has raised good points in the legislature, particularly over the scandalous number of deaths in long-term care homes. To her credit, she called for taking the homes into public ownership long before the full extent of the scandal, revealed in the military report, became public. It was a pity that she limited her focus to the most egregious examples instead of calling for full public ownership of all 630 care homes. Again, public appetite for such public ownership was shown by a poll indicating that Ontario voters were overwhelmingly (strong support of 60 percent, plus 20 percent moderate support) in favour of nationalizing Ontario’s long-term care homes.

Horwath’s problem is similar to Singh’s in that she is up against a Premier who, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, has bounced back in popularity. In February, Ford was languishing in popular support at 31 percent. Within a few weeks of the virus arriving in Canada, he had managed a personal and political makeover, with his approval rating soaring to 74 percent. Apart from losing his former aggressive and bombastic style in favour of a more humble demeanour, he also managed to take on a “man of the people” mantle – witness his press conference rant against a high-end Toronto store charging $30 for a bottle of hand sanitizer.

While the NDP demands, if implemented, would be an improvement on the present situation, they are vague, lacking in specific details. If the NDP wants to be a real challenge to Ford, it needs much bolder policies and ways to boost public awareness of these policies.

NDP in Opposition in the Prairies

The NDP is the opposition party in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, facing right-wing conservative governments. So far Manitoba and Saskatchewan have not been hit hard by COVID, with just over 1,000 cases and 20 deaths between them. Sadly, the premiers in Alberta and Manitoba have used the pandemic as an excuse to cut public services.

Kenny, in Alberta, is probably the most outrageous, picking a fight with doctors during a health emergency. The economy was a disaster because of its dependence on fossil fuels, yet Kenny has doubled down on this failed policy. Before COVID, the United Conservatives (UCP) announced a $4.5-billion tax cut for the rich and tax cuts for big business. This was going to be financed by cutting health spending by $90-million, getting rid of 5,000 health workers, and privatizing a large swathe of services. Because of COVID, they switched their cuts to other sectors, while still in dispute with doctors. They have slashed education, brought in new laws to limit the right to protest, and seized the pension plans of public sector workers.

At the same time, they gave $1.5-billion to the Keystone XL pipeline and promised a further $6-billion in loan guarantees. They are looking to use the seized pension funds to invest in fossil fuels. They have opened up formerly protected lands to open-pit coal mining. Energy Minister Sonya Savage said cynically that “now is a great time to be building a pipeline” because COVID-19 restrictions prevent protesters from gathering.

The Alberta government oversaw the single worst spread of COVID in Canada, with 1500 people infected through the Cargill meat plant, and did nothing except assist the company to reopen. The NDP criticized the cuts and the handling of the Cargill meat plant. However, the NDP’s leader Notley said of the gift from Alberta’s taxpayers to Keystone, “We support this project.”

In spite of the economic disaster in Alberta, the NDP is not putting forward an alternative path to jobs and good services, compared to the dead-end of doubling down on fossil fuels.

While the ruling Saskatchewan Party has not been as reckless with its budget cuts and reopening plans as Alberta’s UCP, it has not been particularly generous. The far north has been hard hit with 261 cases out of the province’s total of 658, and a third of the national cases among First Nations communities have also been in Saskatchewan, more than any other province. Thanks to a series of community road checkpoints that restricted access to reserves, the number of cases on reserves has been kept low.

The NDP demanded that the government provide $10-million to communities in the north, expand testing in the region, and establish a field hospital at La Loche (the hardest hit community in the province). The NDP pressed for collaboration between the province, municipalities, First Nations, and the Métis Nation to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the north. Instead, the province, without warning, restricted travel in or out of the north of the province, which resulted in the added crisis of food-supply problems.

Long-term care homes in Saskatchewan have, luckily, not been hit as hard as in other provinces, but there is evidence of inadequate care, systemic understaffing, and crumbling infrastructure. The NDP has called for the government to legislate minimum standards of care and to invest $3.5 billion into Saskatchewan’s healthcare infrastructure.

Saskatchewan’s economy has been largely stagnant since 2014. The new global depression and drop in commodity prices will not be easily repaired. The NDP has argued for some reforms, including a $15 minimum wage, but has not challenged the profit-focused economy.

Summary

The NDP, in government and opposition, has advocated for and implemented some important actions in response to COVID. However, they have not pointed out the root cause of the COVID disaster – capitalism’s short-term drive for profits over human well-being.

Many of its demands are weak, such as Ontario’s NDP call for “No evictions in a crisis.” For people being evicted, for whatever reason, it is always a crisis!

In many ways, the NDP’s policies and approach are more like a moderately leftish liberal party than a socialist party. They accept the rules of big business and see their role as trying to make capitalism humane – a futile endeavour.

The world faces a deep economic depression and a climate disaster. Large parts of the Canadian economy, including raw materials and fossil fuels, tourism and hospitality, and construction, face years of difficulty and may never recover.

Rather than simply reopening the economy, it needs reconstructing. Canada needs a job program, led by an expanded public sector that combines good jobs with environmental action.

Federally and provincially, the NDP continues to disappoint, with their focus mainly in the parliaments and legislatures, yet losing most elections. Local organizing is pitifully low, with virtually no campaigning on the streets, declining membership, and low levels of participation. Can the NDP be reformed? It cannot be ruled out, but it will take a wave of new, angry members. The current likelihood of a revival and transformation of the NDP is slim. Socialist Alternative will support any progressive moves from the NDP, but our appeal to left-wing and union activists is to give serious consideration to the building of a new workers’ party in Canada – a party that stands for militant unions, year-round campaigns, and the fight for socialism.

The NDP’s predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), was formed in the 1930s depression. With Canada facing the worst economic situation since the 1930s, the ideas of the CCF’s Regina Manifesto, agreed on in 1933, are relevant today. Among its aims were:

  • “a planned and socialized economy in which our natural resources and principal means of production and distribution are owned, controlled, and operated by the people”
  • “to secure for the worker maximum income and leisure, insurance covering illness, accident, old age, and unemployment”
  • to “not rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning”

Tommy Douglas, the first leader of the NDP and seen as the father of Canada’s public health system, famously made a speech about Mouseland, and why it is better for mice (workers) to vote for mice rather than cats (today’s rich fat cats) of whatever political colour. Today the NDP’s timid policies mean it is more mouse-like than a party for mice.

Tim Heffernan is a member of Socialist Alternative, Canada. He is a retired teacher and former Executive Officer of the Toronto local of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.

Bill Hopwood is an activist living in Vancouver, Canada.

This article was first published on the Socialist Alternative website.

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