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Jim Stanford: NDP 100 seats in Parliament does not make up for what majority Conservative gov. will do to workers

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Toronto. In Canada, two major strikes at Air Canada and the Canadian post office, both ordered back to work by the Canadian government–at least, the legislation’s not passed yet, but they’ve proposed it. One settlement now is a result of all this at Air Canada. But the reason all this is happening is because of a majority Conservative government that was elected just a few weeks ago. There was a lot of cheering in the left progressive circles in Canada that the NDP won more than 100 seats–enormous breakthrough. But part of the process of getting there was the elimination of the Liberal Party, and, as I said, the election of a majority Conservative government. I don’t think it’s very likely they would have been able to pass back-to-work legislation in what had been a minority Parliament. So now joining us to talk about the landscape of Canadian politics now and how it might affect workers is Jim Stanford. He’s an economist at the Canadian Auto Workers union. Thanks for joining us again.

JIM STANFORD, ECONOMIST, CAW: Hi, Paul. My pleasure.

JAY: So there were a lot of cheers going up in NDP headquarters when they won so many seats. But the earliest effect of this new majority government has been, as I said, the threat to force workers back. So how big a victory was this?

STANFORD: I didn’t think election night was a victory at all. And I think many people in other progressive movements and NGOs and community organizations likewise were shocked at the disconnect, if you like, between the partying down at NDP headquarters and the real prospects for Canada, our economy and our society, of a majority Conservative government. If your goal is to build a particular organization, the NDP, then I can see why you were happy. If your goal was to build a better Canada, then the election was a horrible setback, and we are going to be really challenged in the years ahead to mount a resistance, not just in Parliament but mostly outside of Parliament, to the sorts of things that Harper and his government are going to try and do here.

JAY: Now, the split vote, with the Liberal-NDP split vote, certainly in some ridings helped facilitate the election or make the election of the Conservative MP in that riding possible, but it wasn’t just the split vote. There were ridings where the Conservatives, in Ontario particularly, won outright. They made some inroads around the Toronto area. What do you make of that? And add to that the election of Rob Ford in Toronto, a right, populist mayor. Upcoming Ontario provincial elections, apparently the Conservatives are ahead in the polls. What do you make of this mood, and within that, the role of the NDP?

STANFORD: Yeah, I agree with you, you know, that we could slice and dice the electoral results and how the vote was split between different parties, and it’s clear that the vote split between the NDP and the Liberal hurt. It’s clear that the NDP’s very effective campaign against the Liberals, you know, on issues like poor attendance record in the House of Commons and other things that are hardly the most central priorities facing Canadian society, that hurt and kind of redoubled the efforts of the Conservatives to attack the Liberals. On the other hand, it’s also clear the Conservatives were able to marginally expand their base of support, you know, from the last election, where they had a minority, to this election. They convinced 2 out of 100 voters to move to them, and that was enough, given our system, to give them the majority.

JAY: Yeah, for people outside Canada watching, the breakdown was about 60 percent of people in the country voted for parties that were not the Conservatives, but given the breakdown of seats, they wind up with a majority government.

STANFORD: Yeah. And that’s where you come back to [what] I’d say is the more important issue. Rather than the horse race between parties and their respective logos and their respective leaders, I think politics is driven more fundamentally by the deeper battle of ideas that goes on every day in the society. And the reality is that the Conservatives, thanks to their power, to their influence in the private media, to their influence in the economy, have convinced enough Canadians that the economy is in stable hands when they’re in charge.

JAY: So what is the truth of that? I mean, a lot of people I’ve asked, ’cause we were–I’m in Washington a lot these days. We go back and forth. But I came back, and I’m asking why did people vote the way they voted, ’cause certainly some people voted from segments of the society that wouldn’t normally vote Conservative–immigrants, workers. What was the argument? And part of what I’m hearing is that people said, well, we kind of dodged the recession, and people credit the Harper government for that. So what’s the reality of that?

STANFORD: Yes, that’s interesting. Ontario is the province where they picked up the most seats. They picked up 22 seats here. And I guess that claim of them being the best economic managers, which I fundamentally reject–Canada’s economy performed better than the US’ through the recession, but that’s not saying very much in the broader context of the world economy and how other countries did. We were, you know, middle of the pack at best. There’s still mass hardship here, 2 million unemployed or underemployed, if you use a broad measure, falling household incomes, and perpetual belt tightening. So I completely reject the idea that Canada escaped the recession or even did better than other countries.

JAY: So why did that seem to become the conventional wisdom, though? Like, I looked at the unemployment numbers, and I think Ontario’s unemployment number’s about 8.1. It’s only about a point less than the American average in Ontario. And, of course, you go to the Maritimes and it’s, like, 12 to 14 percent unemployment.

STANFORD: And the unemployment rate is just the beginning of the story, of course. The unemployment rate doesn’t count people who’ve dropped out of the work force, people who are underemployed, how people’s incomes have fallen, and so on. Partly it is that we naturally make comparisons all the time to the United States from Canada, given the proximity and the importance of the US. Part of it is the fact that we didn’t have spectacular financial collapse in Canada. You know, none of our banks collapsed during the crisis, in part ’cause the regulations on banks are stronger here, and they’re protected against foreign buyouts. So I think those things, the reality is we did do better than America. But we didn’t do as well as we could have. And some of the things the government did were helpful, like the stimulus package, but some of the things they did were definitely not helpful, in terms of reinforcing the role of the private financial system, cutting back benefits for employment insurance and other income-support measures, and so on.

JAY: What do you make of the NDP’s campaign? ‘Cause I didn’t follow it, you know, in detail, but when I would see Jack Layton talk, he would talk about lack of doctors, you know, just general practitioners, which is a real problem, and especially in Ontario. But the idea that we were in a serious economic predicament didn’t seem to cut through. When I look at the NDP platform, it seemed very much about Bay Street don’t be too scared of us. One of the examples is on cap and trade. It said, we’re going to harmonize our cap and trade with any American cap and trade legislation, we will make sure anything we do on the environment won’t put Canadian businesses in an uncompetitive position. This is not a very–rallying people about the urgency of the economic situation.

STANFORD: Well, I think there were strengths and weaknesses to the NDP campaign. I mean, to give them credit, they had a positive message. They did sort of cherry pick a few issues where they thought they would have some resonance. And then the leader, Mr. Layton, was very positive–they called him smiling Jack–and sort of inspired people with a positive alternative. So you have to give him credit for that. And it did pay off when you actually present an alternative. Economically speaking, it was very cautious and very conservative. And now they are the official opposition. I expect the pressures on the NDP to be even more sort of middle-of-the-road, especially on economic issues, will be all the greater.

JAY: Now, we just saw a vote in Parliament, just in the last few days, on Libya, where the Parliament voted to continue the Canadian mission, and the NDP, every single member, votes in favor of this mission. What did you make of that?

STANFORD: There was one vote against it in the Commons. That was from Elizabeth May.

JAY: The Green Party.

STANFORD: The leader of the Green Party. The first time ever we’ve had a Green MP. And our union supported her in her riding, so I was very glad to see that. But I think the Libya debate is another example of how the pressure’s on the NDP to be nonthreatening, to present themselves as a, you know, respectable government-in-waiting. That will dominate their parliamentary strategy.

JAY: Which is to take up the space the Liberal Party used to occupy.

STANFORD: Well, that makes it a great irony to replace the Liberals as the official opposition if you end up imitating the Liberals anyways. On the other hand, again, to give them credit, there’s some very fine progressive members of Parliament there who will go to the wall for good causes and good issues, including labor issues. They’ve been very helpful in the fight around this Air Canada back-to-work legislation. So I don’t want to write it off, but I certainly don’t think that the fact the NDP is now the official opposition is somehow going to change the course of history in Canada.

JAY: And where is the union movement on this, this being the NDP? I mean, the union movement used to have enormous clout within the NDP–who became leader, what the direction was. Does the union still have clout? And if so, what are they going to do with it?

STANFORD: I think that the relationship between the labor movement and the NDP has evolved a lot. In a way, it’s become more mature and sophisticated. It used to be this kind of very artificial link, where a union member was automatically considered a member of the NDP. And in a few unions, like the Steelworkers, that is still the case. But in most cases, that is no longer the case, and the unions now relate to the NDP kind of like they do to other parties, which is: encouraging them to take more progressive positions, lobbying them, looking to them for support in parliamentary battles. And I actually think that approach is better, frankly, for both sides. There’s still a lot of union influence, a lot of important trade union leaders in the NDP caucus who are elected MPs, very close communication between the NDP leadership and the labor movement. So, you know, I would say there’s still a strong link, in a way a more mature link, rather than the traditional approach.

JAY: Now, your union, CAW, supported strategic voting. There were certain ridings you recommended vote Liberal, there were some Bloc, some NDP.

STANFORD: And Elizabeth May.

JAY: And Elizabeth May and the Green. But now the talk is that is there going to be some kind of a merger between the NDP and at least the left wing of the Liberal Party. Otherwise, is this going to just repeat itself? Do the Conservatives become the new natural governing party of Canada?

STANFORD: Right. They certainly look that way now.

JAY: Are the unions, your union in particular–not all the unions are monolithic, by any means–are you pushing in that direction, that there should be some kind of merger?

STANFORD: I can’t say, Paul, at this point. I think those discussions are very, very early days, and I think we’ll kind of have to see how it unfolds, how the NDP performs in their new role, what happens to the Liberal Party, how the math starts to break down. We face exactly the same problem of the vote splitting in many provincial elections, including the one coming up in Ontario, and there’s no easy answer. Our approach was to focus the campaign on trying to defeat as many Conservatives as we could. But Layton’s campaign also showed the importance of having a positive vision to hold out to people during an election campaign. So I don’t think there’s an easy answer here, and it’s going to be an important, complex discussion on the left, including the parties and the movements, to figure out where we go from here. The one thing that’s totally clear is we all have to be mobilizing to oppose Harper’s actual demands and actual policies. And you don’t need to be in Parliament to do that. In fact, the best opposition comes from outside of Parliament. And if we do enough of that and change the battle of ideas that we talked about at the beginning, then in a way what happens to the party divisions comes after the fact.

JAY: Well, some people are suggesting what the NDP (especially a lot of its new members) should be doing is not MP-ing as usual, but they should break down that wall between normal parliamentary behavior and what goes out happens on the streets, and kind of use Parliament as a bully pulpit to help that. Any expectation NDP may play that role?

STANFORD: Well, we saw the page in the Parliament do that when she stood up with the “stop Harper” sign. She was wonderful. But, of course, she was just a worker, not an elected official. Again, to be fair, there are some MPs from the NDP, and there were some from the Bloc Quebecois, and I expect Elizabeth May as well from the Greens, who do use their seat in Parliament exactly that way, who use it as a platform to broadcast the ideas and demands of progressive movements, who participate with those movements, and who really work arm-in-arm with those movements. So there are some MPs who do that. I don’t know what to think of the whole new crop of people. There are some good trade unionists and some good progressives among them, but there’s a whole bunch of other–we have no idea who they are. I do know that institutionally the pressure on all the NDP-ers to behave, to look respectable, to not threaten anyone, is going to be enormous. And for that reason, I don’t expect them to get more radical and more engaged with the movements. Probably the opposite.

JAY: Well, you’re facing–the Canadian unionists, workers, and left is facing a somewhat new situation. You’ve got the Harper with the gloves are off. You got a Conservative mayor in Toronto. And you look like you may have a Conservative, probably, gloves-are-off government coming into Ontario. So it’s quite a whole new stage of a fight here.

STANFORD: It is. And it’s–again, I always think of Shock Doctrine, the book by Naomi Klein, which is a wonderful, wonderful analysis of how the powers that be take advantage of a moment of crisis and uncertainty and confusion and actually ratchet up their agenda, even if it was their agenda that caused the crisis in the first place. And it’s maddening, it’s unfair, but it is exactly what they’re doing. And that’s why we have to be prepared to, you know, stand up and say we didn’t create this crisis, we’re not going to pay for it, and use every bit of mobilizing power we can find to reinforce that argument.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

STANFORD: My pleasure, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And if you want to see more coverage of Canadian affairs, we need you to click on this donate button, because if you don’t do that, we can’t do this.

End of Transcript

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Jim Stanford is an Economist in the Research Department of the Canadian Auto Workers, Canada's largest private-sector trade union. He received his Ph.D. in Economics in 1995 from the New School for Social Research in New York. He also holds economics degrees from Cambridge University in the U.K. (1986) and the University of Calgary (1984). Jim is the author of Paper Boom (published in 1999 by James Lorimer & Co.) and co-editor (with Leah F. Vosko) of Challenging the Market: The Struggle to Regulate Work and Income (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004).