BY BARRY WEISLEDER
Eight years of right-wing Conservative Party rule in Ontario, Canada's most populous province, came to a crashing halt on October 2. The Ontario Liberal Party, led by Dalton McGuinty, swept into government, capturing 72 of 103 seats in the provincial parliament.
Many saw the vote as a referendum on the unprecedented assault on public services and workers' rights that marked the two consecutive terms of the Progressive Conservative Party, first under Premier Mike Harris and then Ernie Eves. Health, education, welfare, labour rights and the environment suffered enormously, while taxes on corporations and the rich were slashed during Tories' so-called "commonsense revolution".
However, jubilation at the demise of the Tory regime was tempered by the distorted allocation of seats, the historically low electoral turnout and, most of all, by the knowledge that Liberal Party rule at the federal level meant cuts in the 1990s that dwarfed all the provincial Tory cuts.
The McGuinty-led Liberals have formed a majority government with only 46.5% of the votes cast for their candidates. The union-based New Democratic Party received nearly 15% of the vote, but won only seven seats. Indeed, the NDP's share of the vote increased by nearly 3%, but the party lost two seats, losing official party status in parliament (which includes C$1 million in funding for research staff). The Green Party, running in almost every electorate, got 2.8% of the ballots, but zero seats in the legislature.
Only 57% of eligible voters participated — the lowest turnout in generations. In 1999, 58.3% voted. In 1995, it was 62.3%. In previous decades, it was typically over 70%. Right-wing pundits attribute the decline to "complacency" and "satisfaction". But most observers see the causes as grassroots alienation, the lack of choice due to the general shift to the right of the main parties and the discounting of votes for non-winning candidates in the "first-past-the-post" electoral system.
McGuinty has promised to review the electoral system and a hold referendum with the option of introducing proportional representation. In fact, McGuinty made many promises. Most of them will be much harder to keep. He pledged to restore public services with "no increase in taxes" and "no deficit".
Hoping to be re-elected, the Tories were planning to privatise more public assets to erase a $2 billion deficit. Liberal Party pledges to cancel tax concessions to parents who send their kids to private schools, and other relatively minor adjustments, won't be sufficient to fund the sorely needed major re-investment in schools and hospitals, much less to repair the disintegrating infrastructure of Ontario's cities, transportation, water purification systems and aging hydroelectricity grid.
McGuinty promised many things to many people, all the while reassuring big business that its wealth will not be requisitioned to restore eroded standards and living conditions devastated by the Tories. Ontario residents will get a glimpse of Dalton's magic act when the new government tables its first budget early in 2004. In the meantime, expectations are high — which means those expectations will likely have a very hard landing.
The resounding defeat of the Tories, who were reduced to 24 seats and 34.6% of the vote, was the culmination of eight years of sharp confrontations and mass political protests. Major trade unions, under the auspices of the Ontario Federation of Labour and local labour councils, held one-day general strikes in 12 different cities in the 1995-1997 period. The largest occurred in Toronto on October 25, 1996, when more than 1 million workers walked off the job. It was followed by a march on the Ontario legislature by more than 200,000 the following day. In November 1997, a two-week political protest by 120,000 teachers closed all the province's public schools.
But the movement these actions embodied was prematurely terminated. Nervous labour leaders took their cue from the corporate media and defied a clear mandate for a province-wide general strike. Abandonment of the mass struggle by the labour movement leadership left other sections of the population more vulnerable to escalating Tory attacks. The resulting demoralisation of labour and community forces gave the Tories a new lease on political life, and they were re-elected in 1999.
Smaller and weaker social movements tried to fill the void. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty led a march of 2000 poor and homeless people, and their supporters, to the legislature on June 15, 2000. Provincial and Toronto city police brutally attacked the crowd, resulting in dozens of beatings, arrests, lengthy trials, onerous release conditions and jailings. OCAP organiser John Clarke is currently on trial for a second time, charged with "conspiracy to lead a riot" (the first trial ended in a hung jury, at a cost of nearly $1 million).
In retreating from the path of mass protest, a significant section of the labour movement leadership embraced the idea of "strategic voting" — the notion of urging workers to vote for the big business (lesser evil?) Liberals in order to defeat the big business Tories. This tactic almost finished the NDP. The party lost two seats it previously held in industrial centres (Hamilton and Sault Ste. Marie) to the Liberals, and was held back in other former labour strongholds.
More damaging to the NDP is the legacy of the Bob Rae-led NDP Ontario government of 1990-1995. Rae's "social contract" tore open union collective agreements and ripped $2 billion from the wages of public sector employees. His government also paved the way for further privatisation, deregulation, contracting-out of work and the undemocratic amalgamation of cities and school boards. Rae's social expenditure cuts included the odious innovation of "welfare cops".
In the latest election campaign, the NDP campaign theme "public power", which centred on defence of the public Ontario Hydro electricity utility, appeared to be a left-turn from the party's disastrous antecedents. But NDP leaders refrained from any self-criticism for their "social contract" or kindred misdeeds.
Thus, on October 2, the NDP suffered from a triple whammy — the poisonous Rae legacy, the impact of "strategic voting" and the distortions of an electoral system which the party failed to reform when it had the chance.
[Barry Weisleder is a member of Socialist Action in Canada.]
From Green Left Weekly, October 29, 2003.
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