For the last 11 years, Liberal governments have ruled Ontario. While Ontario has not been hit as hard as Europe and the US by the recession of 2008, it has had a major impact on jobs and living standards. Even prior to the recession, Ontario’s private manufacturing sector had started to decline and since the 2008 crisis, the rate of factory closures in Ontario has only worsened. Close to 200,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1990. The recession hit the revenue of the Ontario government, driving up the deficit. The mounting deficit has been made worse by tax cuts to big business and tax changes (introduction of HST), which combined have benefited Ontario corporations, and cut government revenue, by some $7 billion a year. The Liberals, using the excuse of the public sector budget deficit of $12 billion and $270 billion of accumulated debt (40% of the economy), moved to austerity and attacks on union workers, especially those in the public sector. They tore up the collective agreements for teachers and education workers and temporarily legislated away their right to strike. In 2011 the Liberals scraped back into government – but as a minority.
Faced with mounting scandal, Dalton McQuinty resigned as Premier in 2013. Kathleen Wynne was elected the new leader by the Liberal party with a reputation as a ‘reformer’. However, like her predecessor, Wynne has been mired in scandal and allegations of corruption. After just over a year as Premier, and facing defeat as a minority government the Premier jumped before she was pushed and called a provincial election for June 12, 2014.
The Ontario Power Plant scandal cost the province over $1 billion. The Ontario Liberals proposed in 2009 to build two new gas-fired electricity plants in Oakville and Mississauga. There was public opposition and in 2010 the Liberals cancelled the Oakville plant, followed in 2011 by the cancellation of the Mississauga plant. Oakville is a Liberal riding and most of the Mississauga ridings are also Liberal held, and it is widely believed the cancellations were due to political concern over losing seats rather than environmental issues. The cancellation has caused a stir among voters in Ontario, fitting in with the image of the Liberal Party as a corrupt, vote buying party. Allegations include covers ups, destruction of evidence (e-mail deletions) and over $1 billion in wasted government funds.
In times of austerity, it would be impossible for allegations of corruption to go unnoticed. Unfortunately, the hard-right Ontario ‘Progressive’ Conservatives (PC) have led the charge on the gas plant issue, which has included the nearly unprecedented action of a sitting premier suing the leader of the opposition for defamation. The official labour movement unfortunately has been slow to campaign against Liberal corruption and wasteful spending. This has fed the false perception that unions, particularly those in the public sector, are only interested in protecting their own members’ jobs and conditions and that they are out of touch with ordinary workers in the private sector who are facing harsh economic realities. Tim Hudak, the right wing leader of the PC, is exploiting this with attacks on public sector workers and claims of wasteful government spending as the core of his election campaign. The PC hope to win power in Ontario on the disgust at Liberal corruption and claims of a feather-bedded public sector.
New Democratic Party’s Missed Opportunities
The New Democratic Party (NDP) had allowed the previous austerity budgets of the minority Liberal government to be passed. However, the NDP leadership was facing an increasingly restless membership, both in the party and in the unions, for keeping the Liberals afloat for two and a half years. This included abstaining from the first budget vote in 2012 and then forcing some mild concessions; a pledge to keep auto insurance rates down (long a rallying cry for the NDP rank and file that historically favours outright public ownership of Auto Insurance).
The NDP caused a major upset by winning the long-time PC seat of Kitchener Waterloo in a by-election in September 2012. This was called when the Liberals used their patronage to appoint the sitting “red Tory” MPP, Elizabeth Witmar, to head the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. The Liberals had hoped to win the seat and so gain the one seat they needed for a majority in the legislature. A significant aspect of the NDP’s victory in the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election was a mobilization by the teacher unions getting boots on the ground to work for the NDP candidate (the timing of the by-election coincided with the Liberals enacting Bill 115 to curtail collective bargaining in the education sector). The NDP’s victory split the Liberal supporting Working Families Coalition, which played a key role in sweeping the Liberals to power in 2003 and keeping them in power in subsequent elections. This organization was established by some Ontario unions (mainly in the private sector) in 2003 to attack the Conservatives and since then has spent $millions, in practice supporting the Liberals.
Since the victory in Kitchener-Waterloo, the unions and community organizations have opposed austerity by rallying behind the Ontario NDP, even with its right wing leaning leader, Andrea Horwath. This successful coalition has continued unabated with the NDP scoring impressive victories from the Liberals in London West and Windsor Tecumseh in August 2013 and Niagara Falls in February 2014.
It would, however, be uncharacteristic for the Ontario NDP leaders to not waste the opportunities before them: the growing support in the unions; widespread protests against Bill 115 which targeted the teachers and other education unions; a general mood against austerity and corporate greed; and the historic Achilles heel of the Liberal Party: corruption and arrogance.
Liberal “Progressive” Budget or Private Sector Handouts?
The Ontario New Democrats allowed Kathleen Wynne to play her cards well in the run up to this election. The Ontario Liberals, facing growing opposition and electoral defeats, brought forward a budget in May of this year which included: a Youth Jobs Strategy, reduction of auto insurance rates, investment to boost home care for seniors, modest improvement in earnings exemption for those on welfare, cancelled tax cuts for big businesses, a proposal to create an Ontario Retirement Pension Plan to make up for the deficiencies in CPP and an increase in Child Benefits. The Liberals aimed the budget at a likely election campaign, rather than expecting it to be carried.
A section of big business in Ontario around Bay Street (Canada’s Wall Street finance district) and the Liberals are presenting this as a progressive budget, trying to win support for a further term in government. They are concerned that a victory for the PC under Hudak will result in a return to the massive conflicts of the last PC government of Mike Harris in the 1990s. The conflicts included: rotating city wide general strikes; big public sector battles; a two week long political protest strike in 1997 by 125,000 teachers against the government’s attacks on education; students strikes and battles between police and protesters.
They are claiming that this ‘progressive’ budget was defeated by the NDP for cynical reasons. Yet this budget is an insult to the poor and working class. The increase in welfare payments is only a measly 1% and the budget contracts out public works from unionized public sector to the non-union private sector.
According to the Ontario Public Service Employees Union:
“Once inflation is taken into account, the proposed real change in overall spending and revenue was very small indeed. The Ministry of Finance estimates that inflation will be 1.5 per cent in 2014 and 1.9 per cent in 2015. That put the proposed overall increase in both spending and revenues in real terms (after inflation) at just over 1 per cent. Overall spending was barely changed at all.”
Ontario NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, was outsmarted by Wynne and fell into the Liberal’s trap – the traditional Liberal move of governing on the right and campaigning on the left. The NDP should have clearly explained why the NDP could not support the Liberal’s austerity budget, and instead argued for a genuinely progressive budget. Instead, Horwarth swallowed the claim it was a progressive budget and, doubting that the Liberals would deliver, said that Ontario can’t afford anymore broken Liberal promises. This has opened the NDP up to attacks for not offering a clear alternative to the austerity Liberals. Some union leaders like the leader of the Ontario Federation of Labour, Sid Ryan, has publicly attacked the NDP and even posed the question of supporting the very Austerity Liberal government that attacked labour.
Ontario Conservative Sharks Smell Blood
The Ontario Conservative leader, Tim Hudak, has faced internal dissent from the more moderate wing of his party, including resignations, prominent public splits, and threats to his actual leadership, as he took his party in a hard-right direction. He uses populist rhetoric, like his disgraced Conservative ally Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, to gain support. Hudak has pledged to cut 100,000 Ontario public sector jobs and cut corporate taxes another 30%. He will clearly take from workers to give to the rich. But amazingly he claims that this policy will lead to one million new private sector jobs. It is much more likely to throw Ontario back into recession. How such jobs would be created, or the quality of pay and working conditions has not been specified; Hudak, using Tea Party rhetoric, hides behind catch phrases like cutting “government waste”. It is striking that right wing parties across Canada campaign on grandiose claims to create jobs: the BC Liberals, Harper’s federal Conservatives, the Quebec Liberals and Hudak in Ontario. In fact they all have policies that create unemployment or precarious employment, but their jobs claims are not effectively challenged by the NDP.
Hudak has backtracked from his commitment to an extreme anti-union policy, similar to what is falsely called in the US a ‘right to work’. However although he has retracted this policy, it shows what he thinks and it lingers in the consciousness of many trade unionists and socialists as a real threat.
Even though Hudak’s policies are out of sync with the interests of the mass of Ontario workers, the impact of Liberal corruption scandals and an ineffective NDP could improve their electoral standing. The possibility of a “Tea Party North” government should not be ruled out. But whoever wins, one thing is certain: more austerity and attacks on workers’ living standards.
NDP Continues to Shift Right
The NDP has said it would raise corporate taxes a little, though they are against increasing personal income taxes on the wealthy. The NDP has advocated abolishing the HST (sales tax) on Hydro bills and a $100 rebate to each household, policies that would be welcome by most working class people. However, their main thrust is to cut ‘waste’ in government by $600 million a year. Other election policies include cutting Ontario’s small business tax to 3 per cent; giving companies a wage subsidy to hire new workers; raise the minimum wage to $12 (from $11) by 2016 and balance the budget by 2017-18.
Their refusal to campaign for a decisive increase of taxes on corporations and the super-rich, has opened up the NDP to attack for being “anti-tax”, as opposed to “anti-regressive tax”, clearly a big difference.
The NDP has moved further to the right making claims it will cut government spending, opening it to the charge that it is echoing the PC’s Hudak and Rob Ford’s election claim in Toronto to ‘stop the gravy train’. Commentators have pointed to the odd state of affairs of the NDP’s campaign being to the right of the Liberals, “campaigning as wannabe Tories — promising tax cuts to small business and an end to government waste”.
It is clear that the NDP leaders are not willing to shift the campaign landscape. If the campaign continues on its present path it will result in a government, whether Liberal ‘red’ or Conservative ‘blue’, that cuts jobs and pay in both the private and public sector combined with the slashing of public services. With just under a month remaining in the election campaign there is still time for labour and social justice groups to pose an alternative to a continuation of austerity.
Socialist Alternative urges unions, community groups and others on the left to mobilize to challenge the austerity agenda of the both Hudak and Wynne. If the unions and others were to campaign on two parallel fronts – one, exposing the corruption and austerity of the Liberals and, two, alerting people to the real dangers of the Hudak’s PC program – it could have the effect of getting more New Democrats elected which would create a sense of confidence among Ontario’s working class. More importantly, a determined campaign would help to build the movement that will be needed to challenge Liberal/Tory Austerity when the legislature returns following the election.
‘Strategic Voting’ Again?
The labour leadership has an ambivalent attitude towards this election. On the one hand is their successful tactic over the last 20 months of mobilizing to elect NDP candidates and using such a mobilization to pressure the NDP to enact reforms. On the other hand, is the 15 year old tactic of “strategic” voting; supporting the Working Families Coalition and supporting the candidate who has the “best chance” of defeating a Tory. Such a policy is devoid of principle and is based on the view that all organized labour can do is slow down its retreat in the face of the constant attacks on union membership, workers’ pay and conditions, and public services.
In the election campaign, they seem to be leaning towards the strategy of anything but the Conservatives (ABC). Sid Ryan is touring the province campaigning to ‘Stop Hudak’, avoiding calling for a vote for the NDP, and instead leaving it open to vote either Liberal or NDP.
Both the leaders of the NDP and most unions seem to have low ambitions, not offering a clear alternative, or even a minor one, and for only pledging miniscule reforms. In general, they seem to argue that the NDP will be better managers than the capitalists themselves!
The NDP, both federally and provincially, over the last two decades, have moved inexorably rightwards, modelling themselves on the Tony Blair’s version of New Labour in Britain. Although, in this election, they have said they will freeze university tuition, give money to cities to provide bike lanes and raise corporation tax by 1%, their main thrust is pro businees as evidenced by their “promise” to balance the budget by 2017-18, the same year as the Liberals plan to do it. In the current economic climate, any Party that plans to balance the budget within 4 years is inevitably going to find itself making cuts to public services, limiting workers’ wages in the public sector and generally heading on a collision course with the organized labour movement.
The lack of an inspiring platform from the NDP and the ABC strategy of some union leaders mean that many less politically involved workers will vote for the Liberals. Calling on workers to vote ABC accepts at face value the Liberals claim to be progressives – in fact, they fight elections on the left and then rule from the right. This strategy does not warn workers of the likely right shift if the Liberals are re-elected.
Most lefts and active workers will probably vote NDP, as they recognize the real nature of the Liberals. Understandably, some activists dismayed by the NDP’s failure will vote for the Greens or small left parties. Socialist Alternative believes the most important issue is that unions and progressives organize in preparation for the inevitable battles against austerity that lie ahead.
Seattle Shows the Way
The growing movement for a $15 an hour minimum wage in the US, a movement that Socialist Alternative in the US has helped kick start and lead, has had ripple affects across the world including here in Ontario. With unions and community groups calling for $14 an hour, this has forced the Liberals to announce a slight increase in the minimum wage and the NDP committing to a slightly better, $12 an hour, minimum wage.
Many socialists and trade unionists have cheered the election of Socialist Alternative councillor Kshama Sawant in Seattle. Moreover, it raises questions as to what the unions could accomplish with resources of the 700,000 strong Ontario Federation of Labour.
The reluctance of the NDP to put forward radical policies and to campaign for a majority government poses the need for a different electoral option for working people, who clearly need a fighting, democratic party of their own. The Ontario Federation of Labour needs immediately to put their resources towards community meetings to prepare a fight against Liberal/Tory austerity.
Anti-Austerity committees could build opposition to both the Tories and Liberals. It will also build public support to reject austerity. This will be needed after the election to resist the attacks and apply pressure on NDP to fight for the needs of workers and communities. If there is a minority government, NDP will need to be pressurized to resist giving support to a ‘lesser evil’ version of austerity.
Neo-liberalism dominates the political landscape. It means accepting the rule of the market, giving tax cuts to the rich and corporations and inevitably means attacks on the quality of life for working people. The NDP has supported this view, rather than supporting the transfer wealth and power from the rich and the corporations to working people. In a future election, labour should look at standing candidates of their own in strongholds like Sudbury, Windsor, Hamilton, northern Ontario and parts of Toronto where Conservatives are an endangered species. The recent victory by union activists against the US Democrats in Lorain County, Ohio show what can be achieved.
The Ontario working class and the labour movement face mounting attacks. Workers only have to look to Europe and the US to see what the ruling class have planned. The need to build fighting unions and a political alternative to capitalism – to counter its cuts in jobs, services, and living standards and environmental damage – has never been greater.
Glossary of Ontario Parties and Politicians (need 54 seats for a majority)
- Ontario Liberals: leader Kathleen Wynne, traditional centre party moving right, 48 seats
- Ontario Progressive Conservatives (PC): leader Tim Hudak, right wing, anti-union party which has moved further right, 37 seats
- Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP): leader Andrea Horwath, traditional social democratic party moving rightward to a more populist stance, 21 seats