Liberal governments introduce nasty surprises in year two–here’s how we stop them

To further a progressive agenda and prevent nasty surprises in 2017, movements will have to seize the initiative… and take the streets

Liberal government denied visitor visas to 200 activists who planned to attend the World Social Forum.

This weekend saw two indicators of what’s to come in the second year of the post-Harper era in Canadian politics.

The first was news that over 200 people travelling from all over the world to Montreal for the World Social Forum had their visas denied by immigration officials. Nine months in, a government that has taken great pains to show itself as progressive has seen fit to deliver a slap in the face to social movements on a global scale.

The second was a demonstration of over 1000 postal workers and their allies in Justin Trudeau’s riding. Less than a year into a Liberal government that’s flying high in the polls, a major union mobilized its members and allies to take the streets. A bold decision in contrast with the usual wait-and-see, will-they-won’t-they attitude.

Visas denied will not be surprising to careful observers on the left. This is partly because we on the left are deeply committed to our efforts to anticipate the worst in order to never be surprised by reactionary government moves.

Beyond a lack of surprise, there are important strategic understandings to be gained from the experience.

On every front, the Liberals have sought to gain political capital by making a show of being on the side of hard-fought, righteous causes. At the same time, they have often directly undermined these causes in their policy measures.

A few examples for those who didn’t spend the summer sharpening their cynicism:

In every case, the Liberal calculation is clear: a few activists will be angry, but most of the public will see good intentions and reasonable compromises. With the NDP still sagging under the weight of its neoliberal (and ex-Liberal) leadership, effective opposition is missing in action.

So far, the calculation is working. Polls show that the party would win a stunning landslide if elections were held anytime soon. Even under the proportional system that the Liberals will be loath to put in place, the party would come close to winning an outright majority.

This puts us in dangerous territory.

The last time the Liberals replaced the (Progressive) Conservatives federally, Chrétien spent his first term in relatively benign fashion. The newly-minted Prime Minister fulfilled some of the promises of the infamous “Red Book” (cancelling a helicopter deal and a privatization plan for Pearson Airport) and backpedalled on others (renegotiating NAFTA).

It wasn’t until 1995 that the Liberals–under pressure from international financiers and the local club of billionaires–lowered the boom, throwing out their promises and cutting public spending by billions while simultaneously slashing corporate taxes. That fateful budget set in motion a de facto privatization of health care and growing levels of inequality that continue to this day. The tax burden shifted massively from corporations to lower income earners, and stayed there.

The Ontario Liberals–elected to a majority in 2013–provide a similar cautionary tale. Many on the left regarded them as mildly progressive, and they came to power after the NDP moved several steps to the right. Less than two years in, Wynne’s Liberals announced they would be privatizing Hydro One–a massive and unnecessary giveaway of public wealth to private investors that was attempted unsuccessfully by Mike Harris’ right wing regime.

Trudeau’s Liberals have much more than broken promises in their back pocket. They’ve already floated the idea of privatizing airports. Trudeau has expressed support for Public Private Partnerships at a time when Liberals are planning to sink $120 billion into infrastructure—a combination that surely has Bay Street salivating.

Those are just the cards they are showing.

2017 could have additional nasty surprises in store.

A winning strategy to counter this could take many forms, but any of these would have at least one quality in common: they must reach beyond activist circles, and capture the imagination of the broader public.

We’re not going to see stop signs with Trudeau’s name on them anytime soon. Opposing Trudeau probably won’t gain a lot of traction for now. But raising expectations might do the trick.

The Liberal strategy is to drive a wedge between social movements and their issues. Our strategy has to reunite social movements with the public and call the Liberals’ bluff.

That brings us to the second indicator mentioned above. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers gave us a sense of what it might look like to take an “embrace and extend” approach to Liberal policies.

The message was in support of Liberal policies–or at least promises–like pay equity, retirement dignity, and reversing cuts to Canada Post. No one even said that the Liberals are rank hypocrites, but instead expressed support for the promises. The medium that delivered the message was a noisy, militant demonstration of well over 1000 union members and activists.

To quote a Trudeau-era Canadian intellectual: the medium is the the message.

Organizing such a demonstration is a bold move, and not without risk. Posties are the first to stick their necks out under Trudeau, which might not work in their favour. (It’s not the first time; CUPW president Jean-Claude Parrot was jailed for two months in 1979 after defying Papa Trudeau’s back-to-work legislation.)

More than 1000 postal workers and allies march in Trudeau’s riding of Papineau last Saturday. Many came from Ottawa, Quebec City and Toronto.

Posties have pointed the way forward on other fronts as well. With the Delivering Community Power campaign (which, full disclosure, I am currently working on), postal workers have begun to build alliances with other constituencies that have been the subject of Liberal promises: First Nations and environmentalists.

Both the demonstration and the campaign are attempts to seize the initiative by embracing the momentum created by Liberal promises and mobilizing people around them in a way that defines the agenda and raises expectations.

No one has ever won a game of chess by moving a few pieces back and forth, waiting for the opposing player to offer up checkmate. To get the limited progressive agenda we were promised, and to prevent the nasty surprises we know lie in store in 2017, progressives have to mobilize now to define the agenda on our terms and keep Trudeau’s Liberals on the defensive.

That doesn’t mean backroom negotiations and online campaigns. It means taking up space in the streets, in the media, and in the public imagination. The temptation to write stern op/eds and leave it at that is strong, but someone has to do the actual mobilizing.

While many protests have emerged since the Federal election, few have directly targeted the Liberals. Only one group has had the guts to mobilize a national demonstration in Justin Trudeau’s riding of Papineau.

As they are wont to do, postal workers have taken on some of the heavy lifting early. Now it’s time for everyone to pitch in.

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