Last night in Canada, the Conservative, the Liberal and the New Democratic parties competed in what was expected to be a tight contest for control of Parliament. But before polls had even closed, it was clear that the centrist Liberals swept the vote, and many Canadians are now celebrating the victory of the Liberals’ charismatic young leader, Justin Trudeau — the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, one of Canada’s best-known statesmen.
But the optimism on display last night is suspect. Even if the Liberal Party carries out its planned reforms, its agenda will not usher in a substantially new vision of Canada.
This election, which lasted a seemingly interminable 78 days, was a clear referendum on Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose nine years of leadership have marked a dramatic rightward shift in government and society. Harper has overseen severe rollbacks in environmental protections and civil rights; drastic cuts to the public sector, with the beloved Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a recent target; and repeated affronts to the democratic process, including suspending Parliament to protect his party.
In the course of the election cycle, Harper was caught between the failing, oil-dependent economy and a scandal over the expenses of Conservative senators. His record of austerity and draconian security measures that included a recent bill stripping citizenship from dual citizens convicted of terrorism, treason or spying alienated voters. In the month leading up to the election, a call from civil society to vote together against Harper became a major issue of national debate, reflecting a growing discontent over his policies.
Election day confirmed this perception of dissatisfaction. Long lines snaked outside polling stations, with voter turnout of 68 percent of registered electors, compared with 58.8 percent in 2008 and 61.1 percent in in 2011.
With Harper unseated, liberals and progressives are breathing easier. The Liberal Party campaigned on a platform of democratic reforms that would roll back many of Harper’s most egregious moves, such as barring government scientists from speaking publicly about their work. It has promised to promote greater government transparency and abolish an electoral system that encourages strategic voting, which worked very much in its favor this time around. Both Trudeau and the more left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) leader, Thomas Mulcair, have argued that Canada’s first-past-the-post system distorts democracy by encouraging voters to cast ballots on the basis of what they reject — for instance, Harper — rather than for the party or platform they prefer, allowing winners to wield 100 percent of the power with less than half the popular vote. Whether this was the cause of the NDP’s dramatic decline in seats, from 103 to 44, will be hotly debated in the coming weeks. But a host of other problems surrounding democratic participation, which were exacerbated by Harper but predated his reign, will likely remain largely unaddressed.
The most obvious issue is Bill C-51, the national security legislation that became law in June. C-51 expands the powers of the police and Canadian Security Intelligence Service; it raises enormous privacy and due process concerns that echo critiques of the U.S. Patriot Act. Critics ranging from Amnesty International to the novelist Margaret Atwood have noted that the law could be used to quash activism and political dissent. Trudeau, citing concerns over terrorist threats, nevertheless supports it.
Less obvious is the way in which colossal agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership are negotiated. The free-trade agreement was finalized two weeks before the elections, after many years of closed-door negotiations; it includes provisions about data storage that could threaten the privacy of financial and health data. Most significant, it will eliminate import tariffs on manufactured goods — which Unifor, the Canadian autoworkers’ union, has claimed will ruin the auto industry.
Despite the shock waves this agreement could send through the Canadian economy, its contents have yet to be publicly released. Trudeau has complained about this secrecy and is advocating for debate in Parliament to ensure that Canadians have a say in the matter (he is withholding full judgment until details are released but has reassured voters that he supports free trade), but with the deal effectively set in stone, any debate would be merely for show. A week before the vote, Mulcair castigated Trudeau and Harper for supporting the secretive trade deal, given its potentially catastrophic effects on workers, consumers and the economy at large. But without the power it once enjoyed, it’s unclear how much clout his party will have.
The future of energy development in Canada has fallen the farthest behind in ensuring that the voices of all those affected are heard. All three leading parties supported cross-continental pipeline projects to bring the oil sands to market. In Alberta, oil sands development — encouraged by generous corporate tax breaks under the Harper regime — has destroyed First Nations traditional territories and led communities such as the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation to call for a moratorium on all new oil sands development until baselines for safe and sustainable development can be determined.
Despite his pledge to reform the National Energy Board in favor of more public participation and aboriginal consultation, Trudeau’s support of pipeline projects such as Keystone XL and Energy East — which enable the expansion of the oil sands — signals a disregard for First Nations rights. Mulcair was only marginally better: Although he opposed Keystone XL, he supports Energy East.
In the past decade, Canada’s progressive parties have gradually shifted rightward. This has eliminated real, institutional alternatives to the status quo; as in the United States, it’s virtually uncontested for profits to continue to be concentrated in the hands of oil investors and executives while First Nations communities remain effectively disenfranchised.
Plunging oil prices, which have already begun to stall the development of new oil sands projects, present a unique economic opportunity to shift away from the production of dirty, expensive oil to clean, renewable forms of energy. It’s up to the Canadian left to make that happen.
The NDP, which does not explicitly oppose oil sands development and (like the Liberals) supports reforming the National Energy Board, was reduced in the elections from the official opposition party to a position of marginal influence. It now finds itself in a similar position to the oil sands producers — the wind in its sails vanished, its relevance having suddenly dwindled. Perhaps it can find opportunity: By supporting a grass-roots movement for democratic rights, it can be revived as a true alternative to the status quo.