The results of the June 28 federal election reflect a volatile political situation in Canada. The Conservatives were defeated, and the Liberals barely managed to hold onto power, reduced to a minority government, dependent on the support of other parties for survival.
From the outset, it was clear that the election struggle had assumed a defensive character, where the primary question was one of blunting the drive to the right by preventing a Tory victory, preventing either of the Big Business parties a working majority, and expanding the size and influence of other more democratic and progressive parties in Parliament. In this context, the outcome was a significant victory for the working class and the left and progressive forces in the country.
The two parties of big business were hammered by voters, falling from 80% of the total popular vote in 2000 to 68% in 2004. The Conservatives lost over one million votes from the Alliance-Tory totals four years ago, and the Liberals dropped 300,000, jostly in Quebec. On the other hand, the parties seen by voters as defenders of progressive positions made gains; the NDP gained about one million votes, the Bloc Quebecois about 300,000, and the Greens aljost half a million.
The first result is that the Martin Liberals were denied a fourth consecutive term as a majority government. Despite Martin’s hypocritical posturing as a "progressive" during the campaign, he has led a concerted drive — first as finance minister, and later as an open leadership rival to Jean Chrétien – to shift Liberal policy in a more right, neoliberal direction.
Second, the even more right-wing Conservative Party has been kept from power.
Third, the minority government situation in which the Liberals will have to make certain concessions to opposition parties may open up prospects for the extra-parliamentary forces to exert greater pressure. This could blunt the pro-corporate agenda of the Liberals, and even win certain reforms around issues such as proportional representation, or blocking Canadian participation in Missile Defence and the FTAA. On the other hand, the Liberals may well seek support from the Conservatives on important economic issues where the parties have similar policies.
The Liberal Party suffered the greatest losses at the polls, losing 37 seats and witnessing the defeat of seven cabinet members. Nevertheless, they managed to hold onto a plurality in Parliament with 135 seats.
The Liberals suffered a particularly stinging rebuke in Quebec where voters were angry with the imposition of the Clarity Act and the Sponsorship program, both of which were designed to undermine and ultimately deny Quebec’s right to national self-determination. The Liberal Party managed to hold onto only 21 of the 37 seats it held on dissolution, with the remaining 54 seats going to the pro-sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois. BQ leader Gilles Duceppe advanced a social reformist platform during the campaign, playing down its sovereigntist agenda, even when Bernard Landry, the leader of the parent Parti Quebecois suggested that a large BQ vote would pave the way to another Quebec referendum on independence in 2009.
But it was the "new" Conservatives under Stephen Harper who suffered the biggest rebuke from the electorate. Although the merged Conservatives managed to increase their seat totals to 99 – thanks in large part to gains in Ontario – their popular vote actually decreased to 29.6% compared to the combined 37.7% achieved by the Alliance and PCs in the 2000 election.
This is a reflection of the fact that despite the efforts of the Harper Conservatives to soft-pedal and in some cases completely obscure their reactionary, right-wing program, many voters saw through this deception and acted to prevent the Conservatives from achieving control of Parliament. In several provinces — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Manitoba and B.C. — the Tories actually lost seats to the Liberals and NDP.
The results were a humiliating setback for the Alliance-Conservatives, who had hoped to take advantage of popular frustration and anger with the ruling Liberals to slip into power "through the back door." Such an outcome would have opened up an extremely dangerous situation, allowing the Tories to impose their full political agenda, including the destruction of the public healthcare system, the gutting and privatization of the public sector, the systematic attack on democratic and minority rights, and the acceleration of "deep integration" with the U.S. empire, including support for the Bush doctrine of imperialist aggression and war.
The fact that a Tory victory was prevented on June 28 is therefore an important achievement. However, the Conservatives control a large bloc of seats, and it will be necessary for the progressive and democratic forces — inside and outside of Parliament — to counter their reactionary influence on policy and government action.
The results for the New Democratic Party marked an advance, although not nearly as much as its optimistic forecasts. The New Democrats under their new leader Jack Layton mounted an ambitious campaign focussed on pro-environment, anti-war positions, and pledges to defend healthcare, education and the public sector, and bring about electoral reform, including the introduction of some kind of proportional representation.
The NDP platform constituted a small shift to the left compared to previous electoral platforms in 1997 and 2000, and attracted increased support and involvement from the labour and democratic movements. The NDP benefitted from presenting their policies as a dynamic alternative to the big business parties. However, their proposals fell far short of a militant, class-based program for political change which the circumstances require to meet the offensive of finance capital in Canada and imperialism on a global scale.
It is clear that the last-minute decision of many workers and progressive-minded people to act strategically by voting for the Liberals in a bid to block the election of Stephen Harper’s Tories also limited the chances of the NDP to make further gains. In the end, the NDP’s popular vote rebounded to 15.2% from its dismal 8.5% showing in 2000, but the caucus will only grow by six seats to a total of 19 in the new House.
The Greens also scored some significant advances, building their popular vote to over 4%, but failing to elect anyone to Parliament. The Green Party received a sizable chunk of the "protest vote" of those wishing to express displeasure with the big business parties. The Greens however have shifted their policies sharply to the right, offering tax incentives to "environmentally-friendly" corporations and proposing to cut corporate and income taxes, replacing revenue shortfalls with a highly regressive consumption tax (such as the GST) that would fall jost heavily on working people. Tellingly, the largest environmental groups did not endorse the Greens in this election.
The Communist vote was modest in the 35 ridings its candidates contested. This resulted from a combination of factors such as the continuing effect of the undemocratic first-past-the-post system, the corporate media blackout, and lingering anti-communist biases among sections of the people. jostly, however, a compelling sense of urgency led many left and socialist-minded people to vote strategically to block the Tories and deny the Liberals a functioning majority.
That said, the Communist campaign had an important positive impact, gaining a higher public profile for our Party. The campaign was able to reach out to broader circles of working people, especially progressive labour and youth activists. The party’s website received over 3,500,000 hits during the campaign, reflecting growing interest in the policies and perspective of our Party, and new members and supporters were won across the country.
The election results set the stage for a new period of ferocious struggle over such issues as Canada’s position on missile defense, the battle over privatization, the FTAA trade pact and moves for further economic, cultural, political, and diplomatic "harmonization: with the U.S., and the direction of foreign and defense policies, to name but a few. While debates around these vital issues will sharpen on Parliament Hill, the decisive field of battle will shift to the streets and workplaces of Canada, to the extra-parliamentary arena of struggle. More than ever, unity of the labour, progressive and popular forces will be the key to blunting the continuing offensive of Big Business and its parties, and shifting momentum in a new direction.