Canada: Social democrats capitulate, Liberals seek to expand military spending

March 28, 2022
Canadian troops participate in the 2011 Rapid Trident exercise
Canadian troops participate in the joint US-Ukraine 2011 Rapid Trident military exercise. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Canada’s social democratic party, The New Democratic Party (NDP), have been involved in a decades-long rightward shift. Positioning itself so much to the centre in the misguided hope for votes, the party has even been outflanked to the left by the staunchly neoliberal Liberal Party in recent elections, resulting in breathtaking electoral failures.

The NDP’s movement towards the Liberals was fully cemented recently when it signed a cooperation agreement with the ruling party. This commits the NDP to withholding opposition and voting to support key motions — such as the budget — in the Liberal-led minority parliament. It is not a coalition and the NDP will have no members in the cabinet.

For left critics, the agreement — which is heavy on vague future commitments but lacking in detail — amounts to an abdication of left parliamentary opposition and the conceding of a free hand to the Liberals to purse their pro-capital neoliberal priorities.

Despite the minority government situation, in which the Liberals would have needed to muster real support for policy initiatives or face a new election, the Liberals now have the freedom to govern largely unimpeded over the next three years.The social democrats have — on the basis of limited signs of Liberal good faith — thrown away their strongest bargaining chips and lost all leverage.

They have done so without getting concessions that would have benefited working-class people or moved politics back towards the left. There is no commitment at all to socialist demands for programs like basic income, social housing, raising unemployment benefits or sick days. There is no commitment on land rights or ending extractive industries on Indigenous territories, and nothing on socialisation of any industry or part thereof.

Even worse, anti-war organisers are rightly concerned that this free hand to the Liberals comes at a time of war preparation and planned military funding growth for the Canadian military and its NATO commitments. So, even the minimal gains that might come about will come at the expense of exporting misery to working classes elsewhere.

The Deal

The agreement's first plank is to offer children under the age of 12 from low-income families access to dental care. But this is “restricted to families with an income of less than [CA]$90,000 annually, with no co-pays for anyone under $70,000 annually in income”. This program would only be fully implemented in 2025, the year of the election. This means that there is really no mechanism for the NDP to ensure it is implemented. Several provinces already provide dental care to children, without the income marker. There is nothing in the agreement that lays out how the federal government will get provinces to go along with the scheme, as this is provincial jurisdiction.

The agreement also outlines the need for more primary care doctors and nurses, mental health supports, and data-gathering capabilities — a need that has existed for some time.

A plank on national pharmacare (pharmaceutical benefits) only goes as far as “tasking the National Drug Agency to develop a national formulary of essential medicines and bulk purchasing plan by the end of the agreement”. There are no details or real commitments, and achieving this should take far less than three years. Again, the Liberals are given a free ride until the next election.

On housing affordability, the agreement calls for revisiting the definition of affordable housing. The Liberals promised in the last election to implement a "Homebuyer’s Bill of Rights" to supposedly make buying a home more transparent. Working-class people do not need transparency most of all — we need affordable housing, social and non-market housing and rent controls. Most working-class people rent, we do not own, so this is insulting.

A section on “Making democracy work for people” offers no electoral reform such as proportional representation — a key NDP policy. It only offers extending the voting period for three days.

On climate change, it punts issues down the road again with talk of getting somewhere on emissions by 2030 or 2050. It also restates another Liberal campaign promise to start a clean jobs training centre.

Notably, much of this is simply restating Liberal election promises. Given the party’s history — now into its third term of government under Justin Trudeau — of not following through on such promises, the NDP has not won anything for its capitulation. All it has done is ensure that the Liberal minority government will not fall before 2025 and can act like a majority government. All while facing the prospect of Canadian military involvement in war.

Aiding and abetting the Liberal war machine

Barely a day after the agreement was formally announced by the party leaders, the fears of left critics were proven correct. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh confirmed that under the Liberal-NDP deal, the NDP would not oppose increased defence spending. This means that the left opposition party is stepping aside as a potentially huge rise in military spending is floated by the ruling party in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Only two weeks ago Liberal finance minister Chrystia Freeland suggested the upcoming federal budget would include more military spending.

There has been growing pressure from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to raise funding contributions by member countries to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP). According to NATO, Canada currently spends about 1.39% of its GDP on the military. Meeting a 2% contribution would require an additional $16 billion in military spending on top of the $30 billion spent each year. Trudeau has long argued for his government to raise the defence budget. The NDP-Liberal agreement means that time is now.

A week before the NDP-Liberal agreement was struck, defence minister Anita Anand said the government would propose several “aggressive options” for military spending ahead of the federal budget “which would see (Canada), potentially, exceeding the 2% level, hitting the 2% level, and below the 2% level”.

Singh has previously opposed the 2% figure. However, the NDP-Liberal agreement takes any real opposition off the table, as the NDP has committed to vote with the government on the budget. So, even before seeing the budget, the NDP has effectively signed off on it in the name of stability. This is a clear abdication of left opposition responsibilities and renders the social democrats powerless for the duration of the Liberal government’s now extended term.

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