It’s hard to recall as divisive a figure in recent Canadian political history as Stephen Harper. Few prime ministers have provoked as much animus among Canadians. Of course it’s not just Harper himself who elicits such enmity, but his corporate and wealthy allies and their political project of market fundamentalism militantly set on rolling back the social state, along with all the hard-won protections accorded Canadians, and undoing indispensable environmental regulations. Still, Harper has put his individual stamp on this project with evangelical passion, outflanking on the right many other governments in the global North, even the U.S. in some respects.
Canadians, most of whom did not vote for Harper (when they bothered to vote at all), have not taken this lying down. Virtually every aspect of Harper’s right-wing offensive — from attacks on the rights and well-being of working-class people, the Israel-centric foreign policy, the assault on even mild voices of dissent in civil society and the dismantling of the regulatory framework designed to keep the state honest — have been staunchly opposed by outraged people across the country.
Harper’s so-called libertarian credentials have been shredded by human rights groups fighting against the draconian Bill C-51 which undermines a range of Canadian freedoms. People across the country have become creatively engaged in this enterprise. There are new voter mobilization initiatives, websites, humour, songs, satirical videos and pressure groups that have taken on every part of Harper’s agenda: civil rights, pipelines, indigenous rights, the underfunding of public broadcasting, prison expansion, union rights, the increasingly militaristic foreign policy, inaction on climate change, voter suppression (through the so-called Fair Elections Act and the Citizen Voting Act), cancelling home mail delivery, attacks on progressive organizations through Revenue Canada, and the list goes on.
And yet, Harper may still be re-elected. His campaign war chest is as large as the opposition parties combined, his base support is loyal and motivated, while the opposition is divided among three parties. One of the main preoccupations of those opposed to Harperism is the rather banal one of whether to use strategic voting in October to bring Harper down — an inevitability of our undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system. As usual for those on Left (and a lot who don’t so identify), this election is about what we don’t want rather than reflecting what we do want in any meaningful sense.
If mounting political disaffection doesn’t combine with the Right’s voter suppression strategy to set a record for poor voter turnout, a greater number of Canadians will go to the polls in October than in the last federal election. Among ardent opponents of Harper many will vote NDP and some will vote Green for lack of more robust Left alternatives.
The best possible outcome of this election is, dismally enough, a minority government of bickering Centre-Left options that fails to translate the energy and imagination of the opposition to Harper’s project of letting the market smother society.
There is a real political danger here. After the reign of conservative ideologues in the 1980s U.S. (Reagan) and U.K. (Thatcher), the Democratic and Labour Party regimes that took power abandoned traditional commitments and helped shift the whole political spectrum substantially to the right. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were in the end a scarcely more palatable face of authoritarianism and austerity. In each case a great demobilization of popular forces followed. There are signs that this could happen in Canada with Liberals leading the charge in embracing the national security state and the NDP refusing to raise taxes (and badly needed revenue) on even the wealthiest.
The best position for the Left to take in this election may well be to draw up a lines-in-the-sand list of some of the NDP’s electoral commitments to which they must be held to account in the post-election period. These might include repealing Bill C-51, a national daycare program, $15 minimum wage, electoral reform based on proportionality, restoring full mail delivery and an end to all Canadian overseas military adventures.
But no matter how limited our options we must do what we can to ensure the defeat of Boss Harper and his ugly regime. It does matter.
Come what may this October, we need to think about what happens next. Beyond the necessary task of attempting to hold the NDP to its more progressive promises, the independent Left needs to begin building pan-Canadian organizations and networks with radical agendas for the long-term that tackle the issues the NDP is sure to sidestep, such as imposing a moratorium on the tar sands and making the banking system a public utility — the kinds of structural reforms essential to mitigate and reverse some of the damage inflicted on Canada by nine years of Harper.