Ontario Election: By Targeting Liberals, Will NDP Help Elect Right-Wing Conservatives?

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Greg Albo and Leo Panitch discuss the role of the NDP in the June 12 election that might elect a ‘tea party’-like Conservative government

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

On June 12, Ontario–in Canada, for our American viewers. I assume most American viewers know where Ontario is. Of course, there is one in California. Anyway, Ontario’s going to have a provincial election. There’s a lot at stake.

On the other hand, a lot of people in Ontario seem not to know who to vote for, don’t want to vote. And that’s not necessarily new. In the last election, in 2011, only 48 percent or so people voted. In fact, in one riding, Mississauga-Brampton, 36 percent of people voted. A lot of people have tuned out.

But, as I said, there is a lot at stake. One of the parties that might have a chance of winning–and there’s about 19 parties running overall, but only about three are really in contention–the Conservative Party might go up the middle, meaning the centrist and supposedly left-of-center party, the New Democratic Party, the centrist party being the Liberal party–and it’s all relative, I suppose–the right-wing Conservative Party has a chance of actually becoming the new government, because you might have a split vote.

So, while there’s a lot at stake, if you Google Ontario election turnout, what’s number one? Well, what you find out is people want to vote for none of the above. And apparently you can actually do that in the Ontario election. You can go on the ballot and go “none of the above”. And that’s becoming a trending item. So people are kind of fed up with all three parties, it seems.

Anyway, now joining us to try to deconstruct all of this first of all, Greg Albo. Greg is on your left, as you see the screen. Greg and Leo Panitch, who’s sitting on his right, both teach at York University, and they’re both coeditors of Socialist Register.

Thank you both for joining us.

LEO PANITCH, PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, YORK UNIVERSITY: Happy to be here, Paul.

GREG ALBO, PROF. POLITICAL ECONOMY, YORK UNIVERSITY: Hi.

JAY: So, Greg, start us off. Maybe we should start a little bit at the beginning, especially, as I say, for American viewers, but even for the rest of Canada that may not be following Ontario so closely. There’s a lot of criticism of the NDP for triggering this election in the first place. Explain the circumstances. And what do you make of the criticism?

ALBO: Well, there’s been a lot of turmoil in Ontario because of the hard-right party running, the Conservative Party, which has been following a lot of the Tea Party initiatives in the U.S., especially around right-to-work laws like Wisconsin–also has a very controversial position of cutting 100,000 jobs in the first few years over the term of his administration, but that’s the key in their plank. So the question has been whether in a minority Parliament to continue to block this government, this party from emerging in government. It especially became controversial since surprisingly, after running a number of fairly conservative austerity budgets, in the current budget put forward, the Liberal party put forward and anti-austerity budget in a sense.

JAY: Greg, let me jump in just for a sec for viewers who don’t get the context. So, before this election was called, there was a minority government. The Liberals were governing. But they needed NDP, the supposed social democratic party, to support them in order to stay governing. And it’s–I guess it was a couple of months ago the NDP withdrew that support. The government fell, and there had to be an election. And pick up the story.

ALBO: Exactly. And so they put forward a progressive budget for one year. How progressive it is going into the future is certainly not clear. And the NDP was criticizing the government largely from the right, trying to take some of the right-wing populist ground away from the Conservative Party and the Tea Party, so criticizing on the basis of not doing enough on auto insurance rates for drivers, not doing enough to cut off some taxes on gas, criticizing them for reckless spending, and particularly focused on a range of scandals that have been ripping apart the government over the last four or five years, dealing a lot with scandals related to P3 (public-private partnership) projects around emergency health care issues for–in the province, also around gas plant cuts and so on. And that’s been the focus. So people have been very upset by the NDP turfing the government on the basis of essentially a focus on the scandals.

JAY: Right. Leo, isn’t that a little bit what happened at the federal level? The NDP in the election that elected Harper, the Conservative, didn’t much care whether Harper got elected. It seemed to far more intent on destroying the Liberal Party and becoming the opposition. Is that kind of what’s happening here?

PANITCH: Yeah, that’s the NDP strategy. It’s been its strategy for 30 years. And, yes, it was only really in the last federal election that they managed to pull that off. The Liberals were very divided at the level of leadership and had very incompetent leadership for two successive leaders. And they managed to do well in Quebec, partly because their leader is from Quebec, a former Liberal, but also because of the collapse of the Quebec nationalist party at the federal level, and the NDP picked up the kind of social democratic vote that that nationalist left in Quebec used to be able to mobilize behind it.

But this, at the federal level, just like at this level, I mean, they’re in cahoots over this. They’re trying to make themselves look like they are the great opponents, alongside the Conservatives, of tax-and-spend budgets. They are the defenders of people being ripped off by governments through high taxes and easy spending and corruption at the governmental level. And that focus is, you know, one which isn’t directed, really, at the wealthy. It isn’t directed clearly, as it should be, when the gas plants were canceled here, which all the parties had called for, including the NDP and the Tories. But when the Liberals canceled it, clearly trying to hold on to the seats–it was a NIMBY (not in my backyard) kind of reaction against the gas plants, and it was indeed, they claim, as much as $1 billion eventually will be lost as a result of these cancellations. But they were paying off New York hedge funds. That’s the most expensive thing that cost them. And the NDP doesn’t point that out. It isn’t saying that this kind of government waste is going in that direction. The implication is that the government waste is general and pervasive and applies as much of the arena of social support, the implication is, as elsewhere. And therefore the NDP is running to the right of the Liberals in this election.

JAY: I was going to say, Greg, that if the NDP somehow could maybe justify that they represented a really different, more transformative position than the Liberals, maybe you could understand the tactics, if they’re saying there’s really no difference between Liberals and Conservatives. But traditionally there hasn’t been all that much difference between the NDP and Liberals, and from what you’re saying, it’s even the other way around. The Liberals are winding up defending the more Keynesian position, I guess you could say.

ALBO: For the short term. Yeah. They have very similar proposals down the line after that.

PANITCH: That said, you know, the woman who is head of the Liberals is kind of a left-wing Liberal. There’s been a tradition of quite radical Liberals, especially at the urban level, in Toronto, going back to the 1970s. They did a lot of very good social housing and urban planning stuff. And she comes out of that tradition. And she came into politics in defense of education workers and the educational system. So she–and, you know, she is gay. And therefore she has a progressive mean to her, a progressive, you know, kind of side to her. And that’s very significant. And it’s coming across politically at the moment–although, sure, they’re in hock to the general stuff on austerity, it’s coming across as though the progressive in this campaign is Kathleen Wynne, who is the current premier.

JAY: So what’s this doing internally to the NDP, and particularly the trade union movement? How are they responding to this?

ALBO: Well, they’d been splitting already before this. They’ve reacted with some division, with some notable union leaders breaking with the party. Notably, Sid Ryan of the Ontario Federation of Labour has been taking his distance from the Horwath, the NDP campaign. And the education workers have been very close to the Wynne government. So there’s been a lot of splitting back-and-forth of the union movement. Certainly the ties have been really weekend. And those that have stayed loyal to the NDP going into the election are all calling for a rethink of whatever the outcome of the election, of party policy in their electoral strategy and so forth. So there’s a lot of loosening of the linkages with the labor movement occurring.

JAY: Leo, Tim Hudak, the leader of the Conservative Party, so what is he running on? If he does win, what does that government look like?

PANITCH: It’s extremely scary. You know, the Progressive Conservatives, as they used to be called in Ontario, were the–they were in government for half a century, almost, and they were largely responsible for introducing the welfare state. And it was a very what is known here as a red Tory type of Conservative Party.

In the 1990s, it was taken over by the Reaganite yahoos imitating the anti-tax policies in the United States. And we had a Conservative government under a guy called Mike Harris that was extremely right-wing, anti-tax, no nothing in almost every sense. And this guy has this–Tim Hudak has brought that back with a vengeance. With a vengeance.

So, you know, in the televised debate between the leaders, Hudak said, since 2009, the deficit has gone up x amount. In fact, Ontario’s deficit relative to GDP is in the Western world fairly small, and it’s able to borrow at, you know, ridiculously low interest rates. So it makes no sense whatever. But neither of the other parties, none of the other party leaders said, hey, the whole of the G20 stimulated in 2009. The federal government, the very right-wing federal government we have in Canada, led by Harper, stimulated as part of that in 2009. Everybody’s deficits went up, and it was a damn good thing, ’cause if they hadn’t, we’d have been in a depression, a massive depression, with 20 percent unemployment everywhere. So they didn’t respond that way to Hudak’s extreme Tea Party-ish kind of stuff. Now, it’s true most American Democrats don’t either, but especially in the case of the social democrats and in the case of a left Liberal like Wynne, one might have thought there might be a little bit of economic smarts here and a little bit of education of the population, and none of that is happening, certainly not–even less from the NDP than from the Liberals.

JAY: With the low turnout last time, do you think there’s–Greg, do you think there’ll be any more turnout this time? As I say, one of the trending things is “none of the above”. I mean, might in the end, might the NDP strategy be, help demolish the NDP? There seems to me there’s going to be a lot of strategic voting and people that might have voted NDP in the past might actually say, well, better the Liberals than the Conservatives, and the NDP are pissing me off anyway?

ALBO: Yeah, it’s likely to have a falling–despite the polarization in the debate, it’s likely to have a falling turnout rate again, and everywhere, I think. The NDP base is often about 20, 25 percent. Clearly a big chunk of that has been shaken free, and there’ll be a lot of what’s called strategic voting across the province, particularly in the city of Toronto. Even in the case of some of the northern Ontario ridings, there’ll be a fair bit of a strategic vote where the NDP and Liberals are run close with the Conservatives.

PANITCH: There’ll be a lot of bloodletting, too. During the campaign, 34 very prominent leftists in Canada who, you know, have–are not on the far left, therefore have been aligned with the NDP, but, you know, they’re well known on the left, and some of them are quite famous socialists in Canada, came out against Horwath’s strategy.

JAY: Horwath being the leader of the NDP.

PANITCH: The leader of the NDP. And why I say there’s going to be bloodletting is that the response that came from some of the NDP apparatchiks–and some of these guys, you know, could have taught Stalin a thing or two–were op-ed pieces saying that these people had better watch their backs in the future. You know, that’s the kind of tone that’s going on inside the party.

ALBO: And over the last few weeks, a lot of party notables have been coming out of the woodwork, and they’re shaking them out, trying to reinforce their vote. Today, Ed Broadbent, the former leader of the federal party, who’s still seen as a person largely on the left, came out and emphasized how he was supporting Horwath and pushing people to continue their support for the NDP.

JAY: This kind of partisanship, I mean, all the parties have it, but in the NDP’s case, given the fact they’ve more or less given up what used to be, at least on the face of it, a kind of social democratic quasi kind of socialist agenda, I mean, they don’t have that anymore. There’s not, it doesn’t seem, any real issues of principle and policy that differ between them and the Liberals, certainly not the left of the Liberal Party. I mean, is there any movement to have some kind of merger there? I know that both leaderships don’t want that. Particularly the NDP leadership certainly doesn’t want it. But is there a movement at the base for such a thing?

PANITCH: Yeah, sometimes you hear of it, and there’s a couple of federal members of Parliament who have made that their thing. One of them actually ran in the last federal leadership campaign on that strategy. But as Greg said earlier, the main strategy of the NDP for the last 20, 30 years has been to displace the Liberals. So it’s not–that isn’t going anywhere.

I thought you were going to ask whether there is any chance of a formation of a left political force to the left of the NDP, which would be socialist, as has happened to to some extent in Quebec with Québec Solidaire. And although that’s not immediately on the cards, I think that this election in Ontario–and let’s remember Ontario is not only the largest province in Canada, the biggest population, you know, where the financial and industrial base of the country’s been; you know, it’s been seen in the United States to some extent as Canada’s Sweden. It’s the same population as Sweden. You know, for it to elect a very right-wing government of the Wisconsin or worst kind, from the way this guy’s talking, would be a severe shift in North American politics, in my view. And for the NDP to so blithely attempt to ape them in order to steal some of their vote is quite shocking.

JAY: Alright. Thank you both for joining us.

PANITCH: Happy to talk to you, Paul.

ALBO: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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