Australian progressive movements know that this federal election will be a crucial marker for many core issues: climate, jobs, inequality, fair taxation, globalisation, and more. The re-election of the Turnbull government, which has kept intact the harsh agenda of Tony Abbott but put a new face on it, would mark a setback for all of these campaigns. Yet while mobilising as energetically as possible during the campaign, and welcoming the visible erosion in public support for Coalition trickle-down policies, activists naturally worry that the government may be re-elected anyway.
Canada held a federal election on October 19 last year, and the results – while far from perfect – confirm that activist movements really can affect electoral outcomes. Moreover, the results prove that the influence of progressive movements is felt in ways that go beyond the traditional “horse race” between parties, and can reach more deeply into political culture and “common sense” values. This post will briefly review the Canadian result, and consider several lessons arising from that experience for Australian progressives.
The Canadian Electoral Landscape
Canada was ruled from 2006 through 2015 by a hard-right Conservative government led by Stephen Harper. There were numerous parallels between the Harper agenda and Australia’s conservative leaders (first John Howard, then Tony Abbott). Indeed, the Conservatives borrowed liberally from the calculated, opportunistic electoral strategies of their Australian counterparts – right down to contracting the services of Lynton Crosby (the so-called “Wizard of Oz,” architect of several Australian Liberal campaigns) as a key advisor.
Harper was limited to a minority mandate during his first two terms (in 2006-2008 and 2008-2011), and hence his legislative power was constrained accordingly. But in 2011 he prevailed with a majority, and that is when the full force of his harsh agenda was imposed on Canadians. Under Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, majority governments can be attained with a surprisingly small share of the vote: Harper won his in 2011 with only 39% popular support. Vote-splitting and harsh competition among the opposition parties (including the centrist Liberals, the social-democratic NDP, and the Greens) helped facilitate this perverse outcome. Harper’s majority tenure was marked by a sharp pro-business shift in economic policy (especially favouring the petroleum industry), fierce attacks on union rights and labour standards, regressive tax changes (including lower corporate taxes, huge loopholes for financial investors, and tax subsidies for stay-at-home parents), and great damage to Canada’s once-respected international reputation (including teaming up with Abbott to sabotage global climate negotiations).
Anyone with a progressive bone in their body knew that if Harper was re-elected (especially with another majority), these painful changes would be cemented for decades. Harper’s growing arrogance and corruption within Conservative ranks undermined his political momentum going into the election. But his carefully calculated platform, strong campaign skills, and the siren call of further regressive tax cuts, still posed a dangerous threat. Progressives agreed that preventing another Conservative victory was a political priority of historic proportions. And for most, that goal superseded any loyalties to a particular political party.
Activist strategies were further influenced by a continuing no-holds-barred battle among the opposition parties. The NDP was emboldened by strong performance in 2011 under the charismatic Jack Layton (who tragically died shortly after the election), and had its sights set (not very realistically) on forming government for the first time. New leader Thomas Mulcair engineered a substantial move to the centre, hoping to further cement the party’s credibility as a “government in waiting.” Meanwhile, the Liberals, consistent with their own history, portrayed themselves as more progressive than they actually are (“run from the left, rule from the right,” is the slogan that sums up Liberal strategy!). The Greens have never held more than two seats in Parliament, but often attract enough votes (high single digits) to prevent riding victories by the other parties. Amidst this continuing and unrepentant in-fighting between the opposition parties, activist movements understandably tried to rise above this battle of party logos. Most focused their electoral efforts on exposing and damaging Harper, and mobilising an “anything but Conservative” sentiment.
The Economic Context
The Conservatives’ chances were further damaged by the poor performance of Canada’s economy in the period leading into the election. The much-vaunted oil boom, led by enormous bitumen projects in northern Alberta, went bust along with global commodity prices. Where Harper had once boasted of Canada as a new “energy superpower,” by 2014 the costs of Canada’s unthinking extractivism (including painful de-industrialisation, an overvalued currency, and terrible environmental performance) were increasingly apparent. Canada’s economy actually slipped into an official recession in the first half of 2015 (defined as two consecutive quarters of shrinking real GDP), due primarily to the sharp contraction in energy-related business investment.
Poor economic numbers posed a sharp contrast to the traditional assumption (promoted so loyally by the commercial media) that Conservatives are “naturally” the best economic managers. Progressive campaigns pounced with strong arguments that a change in direction (emphasising job creation, physical and social infrastructure, environmental investments, and more) would strengthen Canada’s economy. This helped voters break out of the traditional “economy versus values” frame that has traditionally benefited Conservatives. (One example of this work was a major project by Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector trade union, proving that Canada’s economy in fact performed worse under Stephen Harper than any other government in the postwar era.)
The Union Movement and the Election
Canada’s union movement also played an important role in defeating the Harper Conservatives. They directed major resources into educating and mobilising union members, tying their campaign to key union and labour issues. Here, too, the strategy was nuanced, influenced by recognition that defeating Harper was the top priority. Most union campaigns focused on the ideas and issues at stake, rather than explicitly instructing their members to vote for a particular party. (A few unions still advocated voting for the NDP as their main message.) By linking Harper’s rule to attacks on unions, the rise of inequality, and the failure to create jobs, unions were able to maximise their credibility as a genuine but largely non-partisan voice for workers’ interests during the election. (In this regard, the unions’ campaign was reminiscent of the successful “Your Rights at Work” campaign run in Australia by the ACTU and its affiliates in 2006-07.)
A Stinging Defeat
Lasting nearly 12 weeks, the official campaign was the longest in modern Canadian history (Harper hoped a long campaign would benefit the Conservatives, who had the strongest financial base of any party). After many twists and turns (all 3 major parties led the polls at some point during the campaign), momentum shifted decisively to the Liberals in the last days. This was because anti-Harper voters eventually decided the Liberals had the best chance of unseating the government, and hence shifted their support there – causing a self-reinforcing snowball effect. Mulcair’s conservative economic platform (he consciously positioned the NDP to the right of the Liberals on several key issues, including balancing the budget and rejecting higher taxes on rich Canadians) squandered the NDP’s chance to capitalise on Canadians’ strong desire for change. The Liberals won a majority (with 39% of the vote, almost exactly as Harper did in 2011), the NDP lost over half its seats and a third of its vote, and the Conservatives remain a strong, unapologetic opposition (winning over 30% of the vote despite negative anti-Harper sentiment across the country).
The new Liberal government, under the charismatic Justin Trudeau (son of Pierre Trudeau, perhaps Canada’s most progressive Prime Minister), acted quickly on several high-profile issues: including appointing a cabinet with full gender equity, dramatically shifting Canada’s stance at the Paris climate talks, and fully revoking two of Harper’s anti-union bills. However, after picking that low-hanging fruit and cementing its aura as an agent of “change,” the longer-run character of this government remains unclear and contested. Liberals have strong connections with big business, and are not likely to fundamentally shift the direction of Canadian policy without strong active pressure from the same movements and campaigns that made such a difference in the election. Nevertheless, the defeat of Harper is a huge positive step for Canadian politics and policy, and opens the door to further issue-based activism and further victories.
Lessons for Australia
Some key lessons from the Canadian experience, that may be relevant in the Australian campaign, include:
- It is essential to challenge the economic credibility of the neoliberal government, and show concretely that most Australians would be materially better off with a change in direction. This undermines the traditional assumption that neoliberals know best how to “manage” the economy, and that any change in direction would risk Australians’ jobs and prosperity. The failures of neoliberal policy are abundant, and provide plenty of ammunition for this effort; these arguments work best when described in concrete material terms (jobs, incomes, security, equality), not in economic jargon (“confidence,” “rationalism,” “efficiency”).
- The ongoing battle of ideas in society is not synonymous with, and in many ways more important than, the electoral competition between parties. If progressive campaigns succeed in shifting the goalposts of received “common sense” around key issues and values, they can force politicians of all stripes to change their orientation accordingly to keep up. The Coalition government’s enactment of limits on tax preferences for high-income superannuation funds is an example of this effect.
- And by making an independent, non-partisan appeal to core values, and emphasising the importance of those values to the future quality of life and cohesiveness of society, activist movements can do great damage to the credibility and appeal of the ruling agenda.
This is not to deny the importance of partisan activism in successful election campaigns. Of course we need principled progressive parties to support the demands of the activist movements, assemble composite platforms, and meaningfully challenge the right to govern of the existing government. But parties will naturally be guided by their own immediate interests and calculations. That’s where the ongoing activism of issue-oriented campaigns and movements is essential if we are indeed to create “losing conditions” for a conservative government.
This article originally appeared in Australian Options magazine, and is reprinted with permission. Jim Stanford has a longer commentary on the “battle of economic ideas” during the 2015 Canadian election, at https://www.progressive-economics.ca/2015/11/03/election-2015-and-the-battle-of-economic-ideas/ .