Canada’s New Democratic Party

Jean and Gerry Friesen

Greg Patmore was interested by Manitoba politics during his recent visit to Canada. Because Jean and Gerry Friesen were active in the New Democratic Party, then the governing party in the province, he invited them to explain its past and present to the Sydney Labour History group. This is a summary of their talk.

Is the Australian Labor Party as bankrupt as our acquaintances imply? If it is, the Australian party has plenty of company in its misery. The Canadian New Democratic Party, for one, would love to have the ALP’s troubles if only it could hold national power. It started later, was divided by serious fragmentation of the Canadian electorate, and has always been handicapped by Canada’s proximity to the United States. But it is closer to the ALP in policy than you might have expected. Some of you will argue that the ALP-NDP dilemma simply reflects the bankruptcy of social democracy.

The Canadian left was marked by the number and intensity of its factional loyalties in the 1880-1930 era. There were four main groups. On the revolutionary left, members of the Socialist Party of Canada were known as “impossibilists” because they opposed other left candidates in elections, believed in the inevitability of social revolution and were content to educate others while they awaited Der Tag. Syndicalism, in the form of the Industrial Workers of the World, was strong in the mines and forests of western Canada until the IWW was outlawed in World War I. Ethnic European socialists overlapped with these two movements but created separate “language locals” of a third group, the Social Democratic Party, because of hostility in the English language movements, no doubt, as well as a preference for familiar traditions. The major parties on the left were not called socialist but Labour. They were moderate and reformist in outlook and local, not national, in organisation. Though they elected a few city aldermen and provincial assembly members, they were not significant in national politics. Numbering perhaps 50 – 100,000 members at their height in 1919, (to perhaps 5 – 15,000 members in the three radical movements), the Labour parties were handicapped by the North American craft union hostility to a separate labour or socialist political party. (After 1902, the American Federation of Labor dominated Canadian affiliates, including about 70-90% of union members in the period before 1930).

Despite the left factionalism, the various groups took part in a dramatic working class challenge to the established order in 1919. Usually associated with the most famous Canadian event of that year, the Winnipeg general strike, which shut down the prairie’s largest city for six weeks, the radical challenge was much more widespread than the concentration on Winnipeg might suggest. The uprising was met by a substantial business and government effort to defend vested interests. In sum, 1919 was a year of challenge to the established order but it produced no immediate victories for the socialist and labour movements.

The decade of the 19208, far from “roaring”, was one of recession in parts of Canada. Unions sustained serious reverses in most craft constituencies and the new industrial sectors – autos, electrical apparatus, paper – were not easily organised. Moreover, factionalism still plagued the labour movement. Two rays of hope did exist: one was the growth of a powerful farm-based protest movement that captured 65 seats (one-fourth of the House of Commons) in the 1921 federal election and won 3 provincial governments (Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta) in 1919-22; the other was the election of one and then two Labour Party representatives to the House of Commons in 1921 and 1925-26. These Labour MPs were able politicians. They extracted concessions from the then governing Liberals, including Canada’s first old age pensions in 1927, and they organised the farmer reformers in Parliament. .

By 1930, after two generations of labour and socialist politics, the left alternative in Canada was far weaker than in Australia or Britain. However, we must remember the North American context; in that perspective, it was more successful than the American equivalents. Factionalism was a greater problem in North America, partly due to ethnic differences, partly to Marxists’ disagreements with social democrats, partly to the strength of government-business opposition, and partly to the AF of L opposition to an independent Labour party and to state-run social welfare programmes. Canadian and American political history diverged in the 1930s when Canada took a decisive turn toward the Australian, British or northern European models with the creation of a viable third party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, in 1932. To understand the Canadian left, one must appreciate that the CCF was the result less of labour influence than of farm, co-operator and social gospel activists. Its strategy and literature, too, were shaped by men and women raised in the British parliamentary tradition and supportive of Fabianism and the British Labour Party. Finally, one should acknowledge the vision, commitment, ability and sacrifice of the individuals who led the part in adverse circumstances. Survival of a socialist party in North America was not a foregone conclusion, nor was its reliance on parliamentary action. In the context of left politics, the CCF was in the British family; but its Regina Manifesto (1933), which advocated production for use, not profit, nationalisation of the principal means of production, a planned and socialised economy and the “eradication of capitalism”, was certainly an unusual phenomenon in North American politics.

The CCF record in national elections was “mixed.” That is a polite way to describe their claims of moral victories and their many electoral defeats. Their nemesis was the artfully ambiguous Liberal party which dominated the centre of the spectrum but retained a social reform wing and, thus, was able to adopt reformist policies that reduced the appeal of the CCF. After achieving 10-15% of the popular vote and 10-25 seats in the 235 – 26S seat House of Commons, the CCF fell on hard times in the late 19508. It had made its peace with capitalism in the Winnipeg Declaration of 1956 but serious losses in the 1957-58 elections prompted a transformation, first into the temporary New Party and then, by allying formally with the Canadian Labour Congress in 1961, into the New Democratic Party. It promised more Keynesianism and social assistance programmes and better labour relations. One more strand needs to be added to the 1933-61 story. The federal system, in Canada as in Australia, gives important powers to the provinces. In this regionalised society, there were important differences in policy and social perspectives among Canada’s ten provinces. For the left, the success story was Saskatchewan, a wheat-growing province of 900,000 citizens that elected CCF governments from 1944 to 1964. The great innovations were in health and social services, especially the first universal, state-run hospital insurance and medical care programmes on the continent which was achieved despite the concerted opposition of the North American medical lobby. It was the precursor of a national system established in the late 196Os.

The federal New Democrats have enjoyed modest success since 1961. Their popular vote has risen from 12% to about 20% and they now hold 43 seats of 295. The party has governed Saskatchewan and Manitoba for half the years since 1961, British Columbia for one term, the Yukon Territory for two, and now forms the official opposition in both Alberta and B.C. It is usually the third party in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces with about 20% of the vote. In Quebec, which is 80% French-speaking and different in perspective, it has had almost no support outside Montreal, though it won 14% of the vote in the 1988 federal election. This record may not sound impressive to Australians but it represents a long, hard-fought struggle in a resistant society.

The NDP is still a moderate social democratic party. One attempt to push it to the left, the Waffle movement of 1969-72, was broken up by party leaders. The Waffle faction had favoured strong controls on foreign investment, more nationalisation of business, and a nationalist cultural policy. Just as it collapsed, the NDP found itself in a balance of power situation in the 1972-74 Parliament and pushed the Trudeau Liberal government to create the Foreign Investment Review Agency since gutted by Mulroney) and a nationalised oil company, Petro Canada. This was commonly the process by which the NDP found a measure of success and consolation: it prepared the way for other parties to implement reform policies.

The great opportunity for an NDP electoral breakthrough was supposed to be 1988. The Liberals were in disarray and Mulroney’s Conservatives, elected in a 1984 landslide, had implemented a New Right agenda – privatisation, deregulation, lower taxes on the wealthy, higher defence spending and free trade with the United States – ,so Ed Broadbent, NDP leader, planned a broadly-based campaign aiming for a big win. His platform appealed to many reform groups, including day care supporters, environmental activists, opponents of the defence establishment, advocates of multicultural policies, French Canadian nationalists and English Canadian cultural nationalists. As you know, the Liberals enjoyed a resurgence, the opposition to free trade (53% of Canadians) was split, and Mulroney won an historic victory (170 Tories, 81 Liberals, 43 NDP).

Where does the party turn? Mr Broadbent will step down in November and free trade will be four years old when the next election is called. The major issues will then concern economic and social policy, if the past is any measure, but what path should the party choose? The Canadian people insisted on the retention of the medical care plan and the rest of the social service net in the 1988 election, but, by choosing free trade, they expressed their wish to be part of global currents in trade, finance, and manufacturing. The NDP has always been dubious about this path, not just because it threatens to destroy Canadian unions (34% of the workforce) as it has American unions (about 17% and declining), but because it undermines redistributive and state planning measures. The NDP has, in recent years, called for content rules for foreign firms in Canada so that their Canadian production matched Canadian sales. It has advocated plant shut-down legislation, a special business tax for job retaining, stronger foreign investment reviews (including performance criteria), an expanded Petro Canada and the nationalisation of one major Canadian bank, and new initiatives to sustain research and development, especially in automobiles, mining, machinery, forestry technology and health products. This ‘guidance’ for the private sector is often called state capitalism. Can this be made to seem a viable perspective for Canada in 1993?

In his retirement announcement, Ed Broadbent said the NDP stood for “greater equality, deeper feelings of community, and expansion of liberty for the majority.” Free trade is not an obvious policy choice if Canada is to achieve such goals. But can the clock be turned back?

Let’s put the question in an Australian perspective. What would Mr Keating do if offered a Free Trade Agreement with a major trading bloc? Presumably he would say yes, at least in principle. Keating believes in competition. His attempts to open the Australian economy to global competition and to restructure Australian industry are not comparable in scale to the F.T.A. but they address the same issues. Nevertheless, from a Canadian vantage point, Keating is a lot closer to social democracy, despite his openness to economic competition, than is the Mulroney-Reagan trade deal because he does attempt to shield the “Aussie battler” from the worst effects of the so-called global economic restructuring. And Australia retains a much clearer popular sympathy for the battler than is the case in North America. Canada might be able to offer Australia a little advice about medical care systems, public schools and multicultural policy perhaps a very little – but it may never enjoy the Australian empathy for working people’s rights and perspectives. From their apparently permanent mode of Opposition, Canadian New Democrats would recognise a kindred spirit in Mr Keating. They would also envy the ALP’s electoral success.