If, as Marx claimed, the state is a “committee managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” then we have reason to assume that Canada’s Coalition for a Better Future (CFABF), founded on August 5, is its focus group. As the country enters its fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, captains of industry and their lackies are dreaming up the post-pandemic world they would like to see. The CFABF will host an economic summit in October to discuss how best to engage a “national conversation” that can ensure that future generations are able to enjoy the “quality of life” to which Canadians are acclimated.
In the group’s first press release, they announced their progressive bona fides:
The goal of this initiative is to build consensus around the need for an ambitious plan for Canada’s economic future — with a clear focus on measures to reduce inequality, raise living standards and tangibly improve the lives of middle-class and disadvantaged Canadians.
While this statement sounds perfectly inoffensive, the group comprises a who’s who of Canada’s elite and the organizations representing them. One of the group’s first plaudits came from the Canadian Banker’s Association. The coalition appears to be a fig leaf for trade organizations representing provincial chambers of commerce, banks, manufacturers, natural resource companies, hospitality, and retail.
Unsurprisingly, this coalition is not intent on making the future better for everyone. If anything, it will provide cover for the capitalist class to attack organized labor. Groups like the CFABF will have a vital role to play coming out of the pandemic — the business class will need someone to provide hollow reforms that keep the status quo in place.
With Friends Like These . . .
The cochairs of the coalition are former federal cabinet ministers Anne McLellan and Lisa Raitt. McLellan served as Canada’s deputy prime minister between 2003 and 2006. Her tenure coincided with the Liberal Party’s pro-austerity program and its neoliberal restructuring of Canada’s economy in the 1990s and early 2000s. In all respects, she appears to be a conventional conservative politician.
Raitt, however, is a somewhat more problematic figure. As the minister of labour from 2010 to 2013, she spearheaded reforms in Canada’s most anti-union government. Since the economic crises of the 1970s, the Canadian government has been using back-to-work legislation to deal with strikes in the federal public sector. Working under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Raitt showed a willingness to intervene directly in the private sector to end strikes.
When Air Canada flight attendants went on strike in 2011, Raitt tabled back-to-work legislation in response. In 2012, she threatened to do the same to striking workers at Canadian Pacific Railway. Her explanation for the use of such legislation was that air travel and rail freight transport were vital to Canada’s economy, which was still recovering from the Great Recession. Raitt’s legacy was to set a dangerous precedent for government interference in private-sector collective bargaining.
The other individuals, corporations, and organizations backing the CFABF are hardly any better. On its advisory council sits Mark Little, president and CEO of Suncor Energy. Canadian mining and oil companies domestically and abroad have such a horrendous track record that their involvement with any project that supposedly promotes the public good should be met with deep skepticism.
Suncor, Canada’s largest oil producer, is infamous for its production practices in the Alberta tar sands and has been at the center of many environmental controversies. Although some global oil supermajors may be able to weather the transition to a fossil fuel free economy by diversifying and investing in renewable energy, Suncor is not one of these companies. The firm has a more pessimistic view of its future and seems intent on riding the third rail to the end of the line.
Not all of the CFABF’s members represent the interests of the business class. One of the group’s advisory council members, Canadian senator Hassan Yussuff, has a labor background, albeit one that is not free from controversy. Justin Trudeau appointed Yussuf to the Canadian Senate mere days after he retired from his role as the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). During his time with the CLC, he was continually criticized by sections of the labor movement for his cozy relationship with Trudeau and the Liberals.
The Canadian labor movement has traditionally supported the NDP, but after nine years of anti-labor Conservative rule, Yussuff saw an opening with the election of Trudeau as prime minister. Yussuff is unapologetic about leveraging his connection to Trudeau. He argues that his relationship with the prime minister has produced results such as the expansion of the Canada Pension Plan and the improvement of labor regulations in the renegotiated United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement. But Yussuff’s endorsement of former Liberal finance minister Bill Morneau to head the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development — a move that infuriated just about everyone in the Canadian labor movement — makes it hard to overlook the charge of cronyism.
Deafening Alarm Bells
The fact that business lobby organizations have signed up to the CFABF is the surest sign that something is amiss. Among these, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) stands out. Representatives from the CFIB are common guests on news panels where they give a pro-business perspective on Canada’s economy. Their role during these appearances is to show why even modest progressive labor legislation is unfeasible.
These reliable business-class stalwarts are always ready to spell out the reasons why labor-friendly reform goes against the interests of Canada’s small and medium-sized businesses. They are particularly fond of complaining about minimum wage hikes. CFIB members are also very ardent about the need for tax cuts for “small” business — a euphemism for tax avoidance on the part of wealthy individuals that have incorporated themselves.
The most reprehensible member of the CFABF is the Businesses Council of Canada (BCC) — the Canadian equivalent of the US Business Roundtable. Established in 1976 in response to economic crisis, it has gone by the names Business Council on National Issues and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Its name may have changed twice, but its mission hasn’t.
The BCC is the premier lobbying group of big business in Canada. And, like its counterpart to the south, it played a major role in advocating for, and giving ideological coherence to, the neoliberal policies of the last several decades. When the BCC speaks, the Canadian government listens. The BCC’s participation in the CFABF is therefore a cause for profound concern.
The council was arguably the biggest booster of free trade with the United States in the 1980s. It has been similarly enthusiastic about all the free-trade agreements Canada has signed subsequently. While it does not deny climate change outright, it downplays the environmental damage of the tar sands. The BCC argues that tar sand development is essential to Canada’s future economic strategy and claims that carbon pricing, while necessary, should be offset by reducing corporate taxes.
The BCC has recently released its recommendations for Canada’s economy in the post-pandemic recovery. The council would like to see the tax and regulatory environment “modernized.” What this means is that corporate taxes must remain low, the regulatory burden on business must not be increased, and, of course, the budget deficit cannot get too high.
Although the Canadian economy is continuing to add jobs — and has nearly reached pre-pandemic employment levels — the pandemic has laid bare the brutality of the nation’s inequalities. Polling suggests that the majority of Canadians expect there will be “broad societal transformation” in the wake of the pandemic. Given these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Canada’s ruling class is trying to push for a new deal of their own.
With pro-worker and environmental proposals like the Green New Deal and the Just Transition, the North American left has shown that they have a strategy to fight back against rapacious capitalism. The problem is, the Right has also been strategizing. As we get closer to recovering from the pandemic, we can expect to see more initiatives like the CFBF from capital and its functionaries. The Left must recognize these groups for what they are and condemn them accordingly.