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Ending Harperism

Two days before the Canadian election, Stephen Harper's Conservatives seem on the verge of losing power.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a campaign event in North Vancouver last month. Mychaylo Prystupa / Flickr

We’re now in the home stretch of Canada’s federal election campaign — at seventy-eight days, the longest in modern Canadian history and the most important since 1988, when free trade with the United States was the defining issue.

For the first time in Canadian history, it is a close three-way race between the ruling Conservatives, the centrist Liberals, and the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP). While the NDP held a slight lead at the beginning of the campaign, the Liberals have since overtaken them. The party is now expected to finish third in Monday’s election.

The Liberals have managed to capture the electorate’s desire for change after nine years of Conservative rule.

A change from what? If Harper didn’t create Canada’s neoliberal consensus, his government certainly deepened it, forcing opponents to debate within its terms.

Harper’s economic record has been horrible. Even with rising resource prices — which, though ecologically disastrous, helped Canada avoid the severe economic contraction that hit many advanced capitalist countries — Harper’s economic performance has been worse than any Canadian prime minister since World War II. It was only after his Conservative minority government was nearly toppled that he introduced stimulus spending to deal with the Great Recession.

And while many federal governments have had poor relations with First Nations, Harper’s actions — gutting environmental protections, trying to reform land title on First Nations reserves, proposing contentious First Nations education reform, and dismissing repeated calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women — have been particularly egregious, sparking a significant amount of new First Nations activism.

The government’s approach to First Nations’ issues was encapsulated in Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt’s refusal during the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools in Canada to stand and applaud after a call for such an inquiry for indigenous women. There is now an unprecedented movement to encourage First Nations to vote to sack Harper.

On the international stage, Canada’s reputation has suffered under the Conservative prime minister. Labeled a “climate villain” for declining to seriously tackle climate change, Harper still strongly favors building new pipelines to ship Alberta’s carbon-intensive oil sands to international destinations — and has aggressively lobbied President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Though the country cannot provide the type of military aid the US lavishes on Israel, Canada has become Israel’s most fanatic supporter in the diplomatic arena — so much so that activists are concerned about how far Harper will go to muzzle criticism of Israel.

Even for leftists generally dispirited by electoral politics, the prospect of an end to Harperism is tantalizing.

Harper’s Opponents

After a decade of aggressive neoliberalism, what are Canada’s opposition parties offering? It’s a mixed bag.

The Liberal Party has swung, by turns, to the right and left. Considered Canada’s “natural governing party” given their nearly seventy years in office over the course of the twentieth century, the Liberals found themselves the third party in parliament for the first time after the 2011 federal election. They turned to Justin Trudeau, son of former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Relatively young and telegenic — though with a reputation for gaffes — Trudeau’s popularity has been a boost to his party since he became leader in 2013.

For most of that time, the Liberals adopted the Conservatives’ basic economic and security policy while promising a less confrontational style. When the Conservatives painted Trudeau as inexperienced, Harper’s own approval numbers continued to drop. This gave the NDP the opening to turn the election into a three-way race.

Despite an initial bounce after becoming NDP leader in 2012, Thomas Mulcair languished in third for the two years prior to the election. But while Mulcair pushed for a “modernization” of the NDP along the lines of New Labour in Britain, there seems to have been a rethink in the face of sagging poll numbers.

The NDP came out in favor of a $15 daily child care plan and a $15 per hour minimum wage in federally regulated industries. In addition, they stated their opposition to aiding in the bombing of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and pledged to repeal anti-terrorist legislation that both the Conservatives and Liberals supported. As the campaign approached, the NDP’s poll numbers rose.

Despite the party’s leftward pivot, Mulcair’s progressive shortcomings were apparent. There was his record of praising former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (he did so as a cabinet minister in a Quebec Liberal government in 2001, and later defended the statement). There’s Mulcair’s decision to throw left-wing journalist and NDP candidate Linda McQuaig under the bus for saying most of the Alberta oil sands will have to remain in the ground if Canada wants to reduce its carbon emissions and save the climate. And then there was Mulcair’s embrace of the Trans-Pacific Partership (TPP) in the campaign’s opening days. These gaffes sowed doubts among progressive voters.

Seeing Mulcair’s left credentials coming under fire, Trudeau promised he would run deficits for the first several years of a Liberal government to build badly needed infrastructure. The NDP, in contrast, said they’d immediately balance the budget.

But the Liberals’ shift to the left simply can’t be taken seriously — “campaign left and govern right” has been their tactic for years. And spending pledges notwithstanding, Trudeau still defends the austerity the Liberals carried out in the 1990s.

As for the NDP, they’re promising no sharp tax increases, more spending (new social programs, reversing healthcare spending cuts, boosting income security for seniors), and a balanced budget. The party says they will raise corporate taxes slightly, retain the current tax rate for the wealthy, and decrease small business taxation. While a budget surplus is good news for Mulcair almost as much it is for Harper, something has to give — especially if the economy remains sluggish. Any serious effort to tackle climate change or substantially expand the welfare state will require far more revenue.

There is certainly an anti-austerity mood to be captured. The Liberals are cynically trying to do so, while the NDP brain trust is looking to play it safe and not scare capital. Despite the NDP’s considerable aping of the New Labour project, many Canadians still view them as the party that looks out for working people. Indeed, the NDP leads the youth vote for precisely this reason.

And there are things to like in the NDP’s platform: $15 per day child care would be a huge victory. While the promised $15 dollar minimum wage in federally regulated industries would have a limited scope, it would bolster Fight for 15 movements at the provincial level. The party’s support for proportional representation in the House of Commons would change the way elections are contested in Canada and could give new progressive forces a voice. The repeal of draconian trade union legislation would be a boon. And the party calls for positive measures for First Nations and the elderly — and on housing and environmental issues — that while not enough, would constitute progress in some way.

Any predictions of a dramatic shift leftwards would be premature, however. The élan of a Jeremy Corbyn or a Bernie Sanders has not made it to Canada. After all, the NDP has never been in government at the federal level, and Canada has weathered the Great Recession relatively well. But the contradictions of the Canadian economy — which is now marked by sluggish growth, low resource prices, high household debt, surging house prices, and precarious work — can’t be avoided forever.

The Eleventh Hour

Not that there haven’t been attempts to shift the conversation this election cycle. This fall, amid a campaign that was beginning to appear lethargic, the Conservatives brought on the right-wing Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby. The campaign quickly took on an ugly, Islamophobic tone.

Over the last several years, the Conservatives and xenophobic politicians in Quebec have turned the niqab into a wedge issue. The Conservatives are now vowing that no one will be able to wear a niqab while taking the citizenship oath. A federal court has already said such an action would be unconstitutional. And the number of women donning a head scarf at these ceremonies is vanishingly small: since 2011, there have only been two.

Earlier this year, the Harper government took another odious action: they passed a law allowing the government to strip convicted terrorists of their citizenship. The Conservatives initially presented the measure as intended to remove citizenship from foreign-born terrorists. Though that is repugnant enough, the government has now upped the stakes and announced they will be revoking the citizenship of the Montreal-born Saad Gaya, who is serving an eighteen-year prison sentence for taking part in a bombing plot in Toronto.

To their credit, the Liberals and the NDP have opposed the Conservative policy on both policies. However, there is no question Harper managed to claw his way back into first place thanks to this fearmongering. These are emotive issues that also expose the Canadian left’s inability to effectively combat Islamophobia.

With the Liberals now on top in the polls, and the NDP down to third, the NDP has again jolted left. This is typified by the NDP’s announcement that it will not be bound by a TPP agreement that may be signed over the course of the campaign — a welcome departure from Mulcair’s earlier embrace of the TPP. With just a couple days to go, it is unclear if this can rally the NDP’s base, which might have already found talk of balanced budgets and small business tax cuts too demoralizing. Despite the NDP’s drop in the polls, the situation is still quite fluid with, large numbers of voters wanting change.

The Harper years have seen a surge in popular mobilization, and there is no indication that an NDP or even a Liberal victory would change this dynamic. In fact, there have been calls throughout the campaign for radical action beyond conventional partisan politics.

Two days before Canadians go to the polls, the overwhelming consensus among progressive forces in the country is the necessity of dumping Harper. The debate about what to do next can begin the morning after.