Why it's hard to talk about austerity during the election

150,000 demonstrate in Montreal. Photo: MADOC

Canada's elections have made it difficult to talk about austerity. 

(To find out more about the austerity agenda in Canada, click here.)

Green Party leader Elizabeth May started things off well by taking a stand against fiscal austerity at the first debate. Leading in the polls in BC and Quebec in late August, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair attempted to shore up his party's appeal in right-leaning Ontario by issuing a series of fiscally conservative pronouncements. He appears to have miscalculated. August 25 marked both the beginning of these pronouncements, and the beginning of the NDP's long, continuous decline in the polls.

In an opportunistic move in the aftermath of the first debate, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau took up the mantle of anti-austerity, attempting to brand Mulcair with the term. Paul Martin and Jean Chretien, who permanently cut billions from health care and social spending when they were in power, were even trotted out to sell the new Liberal plan, which promises to invest in infrastructure and run mild deficits. (Less attention has been paid to their support for privatization, likely to funnel billions to corporate cronies.)

War is peace, up is down, and the Liberals are against austerity. The NDP strategy of moving right -- which has helped Adrian Dix, Olivia Chow, and Andrea Horwath squander leads -- has not helped matters. Campaigning against austerity in English Canada during this election means taking the risk that one may inspire a confused electorate to send Liberals to Parliament.

A sobering thought in a grim political landscape.

But even as corporate media roll out fawning multi-page photo features of Justin Trudeau in an attempt to complete his coronation and strategic voting is promoted as a stop gap for a broken electoral system, movements are stirring at the margins of business as usual.

August saw a surge in activity in the Black Lives Matter movement in Toronto. The demonstrations were fuelled by the grind of police violence and racial profiling. Despite falling crime rates, Conservative legislation and racist policies at the municipal level have driven an overall increase in prison populations, and a disproportionate increase in the number of imprisoned people of colour.

Early September saw a large, Canada-wide mobilization in support of refugees, with thousands rallying in cities from coast to coast. The Never Home project, launched in early September, lent a depth of analysis to the occasion, carefully documenting the ways in which migrants are systemically marginalized and exploited. Many are connecting the refugee crisis to Canada's interventions abroad. Canada has helped directly to create the crisis by bombing Libya, Iraq and Syria and selling arms to Saudi Arabia. There is also considerable evidence that the stream of people fleeing from Africa is linked to climate change.

Later in September, Smart Change was one of many organizations that launched the Leap Manifesto. Initiated by Naomi Klein as a way to lend political ballast to positive proposals to address the radical implications of climate change, the manifesto calls for wealth redistribution, green energy and infrastructure for a caring society. It was met with sneering derision by many media commentators, but has been signed by over 20,000 people.

Smart Change's sister organization, Friends of Public Services, is currently working with thousands of members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers distributing over 100,000 brochures about austerity and cuts to door-to-door in swing ridings across the country.

Last weekend, an estimated 150,000 people hit the streets of Montreal in another massive anti-austerity demonstration. The English-speaking media have almost completely ignored this latest show of people power, part of a long mobilization against cuts. But make no mistake: things are heating up once again in Quebec as unions face off against a provincial Liberal government set on cutting public sector jobs.

In the UK, long-time MP Jeremy Corbyn entered the Labour party's leadership hoping to replace a respectable third, but his anti-austerity credentials and bold proposals attracted hundreds of thousands of new members to the party. He won in a landslide. Now, he faces an onslaught of media attacks that let up only briefly after revelations about Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron's "pig incident". As many have noted, he'll need movement support to survive.

Meanwhile in Greece, the formerly anti-austerity Syriza Party won a new, but decidedly unhopeful mandate after accepting the terms of the European Union and agreeing to impose very similar austerity measures on the Greek population. Popular Unity, a new party formed by some of the representatives who campaigned on a plan for leaving the EU, got 2.8% of the vote and fell short of putting a representative in parliament.

After long stagnation and decades of heart-rending neoliberal lockstep, political parties have become a way to popularize an alternative agenda with remarkable speed. However, all signs point to the difficulties they face in actually implementing that agenda, even with a popular mandate. The need for powerful movements immune to the pressures of power that can hold political parties to account has never been clearer.

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Smart Change brings people together to resist the austerity agenda and supports efforts to build a just and ecologically sustainable society and economy.