Manitoba’s austerity threat

David Camfield

The Manitoba NDP has been in office since 1999. This means that many people don’t realize what a Tory win in the April provincial election will mean.

It’s not that the NDP in government has done much for social and environmental justice — far from it! After winning office, the NDP undid some of the damage done by the Tories in the 1990s. But they accepted the neoliberal status quo (such as the Tories’ balanced-budget law) and implemented only very small progressive reforms. There is much to criticize in the record of the NDP government.

However, they haven’t done much of what almost all other provincial governments have done: actively work to weaken rights and regulations that are barriers to corporate profit. For example, they haven’t pushed privatization, public-private partnerships or the neoliberal “reform” of education. They haven’t rewritten the Employment Standards Code and Labour Relations Act to  roll back the rights of workers and unions. That’s why so many employers want to see the NDP defeated.

A win for the Tories (or the Liberals, though a Liberal win is unlikely) will mean a big shift in policy in the direction of austerity, especially if it’s a majority government. No matter what the Tories and Liberals say during the campaign, we know from what’s happened in other provinces that if either party wins they’ll soon announce that public finances are in a worse state than they’d realized and the solution is austerity.

This will mean cuts to spending on government programs and to public funding for schools, universities and colleges, healthcare and social services. Services will suffer and decent public sector jobs will be lost. This is bad news for most people, and most of all for women, indigenous people and people of colour for whom public services and jobs in the public sector are particularly important.

A Tory (or Liberal) government will probably also bring in regressive changes to a variety of laws and regulations. It will likely implement big increases to university and college tuition fees, roll back workplace rights and union rights and make life harder for people on social assistance. It will almost certainly move to privatize public services and Crown corporations.

Although an NDP defeat will definitely lead to change for the worse, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that even a large Tory majority of seats in the legislature means there’s been a decisive shift to the right in the population. In the Canadian electoral system, the popular vote is rarely accurately reflected in seats in the legislature. For example, in 1995 the Manitoba Tories won a majority government with 43% of the vote. In 2011 they got 44% of the vote but the NDP got 46% and won its fourth majority government in a row (this is because the Liberals got 24% of the vote in 1995 but only 7.5% in 2011).

Even if the Tories win decisively in 2016 this doesn’t mean that a majority of people actively support the vicious austerity that Tory leader Brian Pallister (a former member of the very right-wing Canadian Alliance) dreams of implementing. The more dramatic the shift to the right in law and policy is, the bigger the gap will be between what the government does and what many people want to see happen. That gap is an opportunity for people who want to stop austerity.

If the NDP loses the election it will probably become very inward-looking as factions fight over who’s to blame for the defeat, who should lead the party, why they lost and what the party should do. Expect many top figures in the NDP to argue that the party needs to move “more to the centre” — in other words to the right. The NDP’s main political message will undoubtedly be that people opposed to what the new government is doing should focus on electing the NDP in 2020. The NDP leadership won’t encourage militant anti-austerity protest. In fact, in other provinces NDP leaders have actively opposed strikes and protests.

If the NDP loses we can expect the union officialdom (top elected leaders and top staff) to be in disarray. After so many of years of cooperating with the government they don’t know how to mobilize a fightback. The leaders of the Manitoba Federation of Labour and its most important affiliated unions may support some protests, but don’t expect them to develop the kind of response that would be needed to actually defeat attacks from a determined right-wing government: campaigns of protest that escalate to higher levels of resistance including strike action. Worryingly, years of unions tailing behind the NDP government no matter what it did or didn’t do (instead of mobilizing to place demands on the government) have contributed to a withering of union activism at the grassroots level. Efforts to mobilize against austerity will start from a very low level.

If the NDP loses we should also expect the heads of community organizations that deliver services to keep their heads down and oppose any involvement in protests for fear of losing government funding.

However, many people (including union activists) will be opposed to austerity and other neoliberal policy changes and open to initiatives to start organizing protests and resistance.

If the NDP somehow manages to pull off an election victory, it’s likely that the government will bring in at least some austerity measures because it fears a downgrading of its credit rating by the rating agencies like Moody’s and Standard and Poors, which are run by ardent neoliberals.

In this situation, voting NDP is the best option on election day. But voting NDP isn’t nearly enough. People who support social and environmental justice should start organizing now so that no matter who wins the election we’ll be in a better position to resist austerity and fight for the kind of change that’s really needed.

That’s what Solidarity Winnipeg is beginning to do. We encourage people to join or work with us, and to start educating themselves and others about the turn to austerity that will probably hit Manitoba this year (see for useful resources).

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Solidarity Winnipeg.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *