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Voters reject Harper and demand change

Jesse McLaren

October 22, 2015

After nearly a decade in power, Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada were voted out of office. Harper has been the face of Canadian austerity, racism, war and climate chaos, and has been challenged through multiple movements. The anti-Harper majority has now defeated him at the ballot box and demanded change, and the Liberal surge and NDP collapse both speak to a desire for change.


Harper had a majority in Parliament going into the election, but there was an anti-Harper majority outside Parliament which has mobilized over a series of issues. In 2011 the Occupy movement exposed the system of the 1%. In 2012 the Quebec student strike defeated a tuition hike and toppled the Quebec government. At the end of that year Idle No More emerged to fight for Indigenous sovereignty, and  Indigenous communities have led a rising climate justice movement that recently mobilized 25,000 in Quebec and 10,000 in Toronto.

There have been campaigns to stop Harper from ending public mail delivery, restore cuts to refugee health, challenge his attacks on civil liberties, and in Quebec a rising struggle against austerity.

While some elections see movements collapse into electoralism, resistance to Harper and austerity continued throughout the campaign. When he used the refugee crisis to demand war and to criminalize refugees, there were mass rallies across the country to welcome refugees. When he created a campaign of hysteria against women who wear the niqab there was resistance. In the midst of the election campaign Quebec public sector unions organized a series of one-day strikes against austerity, and on October 3 a demonstration of 150,000 people. 


The Tory vote only dropped 200,000, from 5.8 to 5.6 million, showing that their campaign of fear and hatred succeeded in mobilizing and maintaining their base. But it failed to win anyone over or to win new voters. On the other hand there was a surge in voter turnout against Harper, increasing by 3 million votes. By a margin of 2 to 1, voters rejected the Tories and voted for change.

As well as Harper no longer being PM, and resigning as leader, 67 MPs were voted out, including:

-Finance Minister Joe Oliver, who presided over austerity and attacked climate activists

-Immigration Minister Chris alexander, the face of the Tories’ cruel and unusual treatment refugees

-former Veteran Affairs Minister, Julian Fantino, who closed veteran centres

-Aboriginal affairs minister Bernard Valcourt, who showed contempt for missing and murdered Indigenous women

-Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who presided over massive attacks on health while being indifference to the food crisis in Northern Canada

-and Wlzdyslaw Lizon, who first suggested Kenney ban the niqab and that the government criminalize late-term abortions

In 2011 Harper gloated that there would soon be a tory “hat trick” with the provincial Tories winning after Harper won federally and Ford in Toronto. That Harper had to return to the now disgraced Fords in last-ditch effort to win was a sign that his grip on power was slipping. We can happy to have driven Tories from all levels of government, but in every case the beneficiaries were not the NDP but the Liberals—and in every case it’s because the NDP campaigned to the right rather than mobilizing from the left.


In 2011 the NDP became Official Opposition for the first time, based on anger at Harper, disillusionment with the Liberals and inspiration from the Arab Spring, and the occupation of the Wisconsin. While the Orange Wave showed the desire for an alternative The NDP leadership reacted by taking the party further to the right

In Ontario there was a workers’ right campaign to stop Hudak and growing campaign for $14 minimum wage and against Line 9. But the NDP campaigned refused to support $14 minimum wage, promised budget cuts and said nothing about the climate. This allowed the Liberals to tack left, bury their history of austerity and pretend to be an alternative. This then encouraged “strategic voting,” which defeated left-wing MPP Jonah Schein where Tories weren’t a threat

Then came the Toronto mayoral race. After a series of protests, deputations and a strike fought back against Ford’s agenda personal scandals removed him from office. Olivia Chow began the campaign in the lead, with the hope of clear alternative, in the context of Kshama Sawant winning in Seattle support $15 minimum wage. But the campaign began supporting small businesses and balanced budgets, blurring what should have been clear lines between her and John Tory. This allowed Tory to portray himself as an alternative to Ford, and win.

Thanks to movements outside Parliament against Bill C-51 and for $15/hr min wage the NDP began the federal election ahead by a wide margin. In the context of Jeremy Corby and Bernie Sanders packing stadiums, the NDP could have demanded corporate taxes and climate jobs. They could have become a megaphone for the rising climate justice movement, and exposed the Liberals as the twin party of corporate Canada.

But instead the NDP leadership tried to reassure Bay St it could manage capitalism. First Mulcair turned his back on movements. While the climate justice movement has delayed Harper’s tar sands pipeline, Mulcair promised more tar sands. While the anti-war and Palestine solidarity challenged Harper’s militarism, Mulcair silenced his own pro-Palestine candidates and defended fighter jets. While Black Lives Matter has challenged police brutality and anti-Black racism, Mulcair promised more police. Then Mulcair chased Tory voters, scaling back corporate tax hikes and promising a balanced budget.

This results were devastating for the NDP. The NDP began in the lead with 40% and ended up in third with 20%, losing Official Opposition status to the Tories. The NDP lost 59 seats, including most of their gains in Quebec, and were driven out of the Maritimes and the GTA. The NDP lost votes in nearly 300 ridings, including those seats they held onto. While the Tories/Bloc/Green had roughly the same number of votes, the NDP lost a quarter of their votes, dropping a million (from 4.5 million to 3.4 million).

The NDP assumed a static electorate and chased Tory votes, which failed to win over Tories, while also sacrificing NDP and ignoring new voters. The Liberals portrayed themselves as a force for change and monopolized new voters. It’s actually the higher voter turnout that cost the NDP in the GTA: Peggy Nash, Andrea Cash and Mike Sullivan only lost about 500 votes each but the Liberals that defeated them gained 8-10,000 new votes.

The collapse of the Orange Wave can’t be blamed on the niqab debate in Quebec.

Quebec has now had a provincial and federal election in which Islamophobia was a theme, and in both cases the parties pushing it lost. This time it was only after the NDP had blown their lead, by promising a balanced budget, that the niqab debate emerged. And the Liberals had the same position as the NDP and made gains. There was no riding in which NDP/Liberal vote fell, while Tory/BQ (who attacked the niqab) rose. Instead the Liberal vote rose in every riding in Quebec, and every riding across country.


This is a contradictory situation. The Liberals are the twin parties of corporate Canada, who made deep cuts to social services in the 1990s. They joined the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and were only stopped from joining the 2003 Iraq war by a mass anti-war movement. They propped up Harper’s minority rule from 2006 to 2011, and continued to support his recent majority government. Trudeau even voted for the draconian “anti-terror” law Bill C-51.

But that’s not there was a surge in the Liberal vote. When Mulcair lurched to the right, Trudeau campaigned to the left, claiming to be the progressive alternative to Harper. Trudeau rejected a balanced budget and said he would run deficits to pay for infrastructure and create jobs. He criticized spending on fighter jets, promised to tax and rich and warned that the NDP would bring austerity.

Trudeau campaigned for “real change” and that’s what people voted for.

The Liberals won 150 seats to get to 184, more than Harper ever had, and they did so by doubling their share of the vote—from 20 to 40 per cent. While their percentage of the vote is no higher than what Harper had, the higher voter turnout meant that the liberals gained 4 million votes—from 2.8 million to 6.9 million. With the Tories preserving their number of votes, and the NDP losing a million the Liberal surge translates into taking a million from the NDP and the other 3 million from the higher voter turnout.

This was not an endorsement of the Liberals history of complicity with Harper but a vote against Harper. Years of opposition outside Parliament demanded change at the ballot box and voted for the party that people perceived best spoke to that change.

Strategic voting

“Strategic voting” also cost the NDP. The “vote together” campaign presented swing ridings to challenge the Conservatives; half were ridings where people were encouraged to vote Liberal, half NDP. If you look at the Liberal ridings, it went as advertised: Liberal vote went up, NDP vote went down, the Liberals took the seat from Tories. But the same didn’t apply to ridings where NDP were endorsed: in those seats they won they was still a net gain for the Liberals and in 3 ridings the NDP failed to beat Tories because Liberal vote didn’t transfer.

So “strategic voting” was not a riding-specific tool for the NDP and Liberals to avoid “vote splitting” and cooperate to defeat Harper, equally transferring votes from one party to the other. Instead “strategic voting” fed into the rhetoric that we should vote Liberal to stop Harper, which became a unilateral mechanism of transferring votes NDP to Liberals—allowing the Liberals to rebuild themselves by splitting the NDP vote.

The main victim of strategic voting was not Conservatives but the NDP. The Liberals took 1 million votes and 51 ridings from the NDP—including many MPs who have supported social movements, like Andrew Cash, Peggy Nash and Rathika Sitsabeisan. Instead it elected Liberals like former police chief Bill Blair. But the reason why this pull was so strong is because of the NDP strategy, which allowed the Liberals to outflank them to the left

Contradictions and change

This election had the biggest voter turnout in 20 years. Years of opposition to Harper’s agenda mobilized 3 million more people at the polls, who rejected Harper and demanded real change.

It’s tragic that the main beneficiaries are the Liberals, who regained the majority they had in the 1990s when cut social services and the backing of corporate elite demanding pipelines and austerity. Like Obama, Canada’s 1% are hoping a new face will can continue the same policies. But the contradiction between people’s expectations and reality can produce change: under Obama we’ve seen the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15 and the climate justice movement.

This election was a clear rejection of Harper and demand for real change, which resulted in both the NDP collapse and Liberal surge. The NDP appealed to Bay Street rather than fight for an alternative. Not only did this waste an opportunity to build the movements but it also cost them at the polls—which should be a lesson for the future. Trudeau filled the void by appealing to people’s desire for change, which has raised people’s expectations.

Trudeau was elected to stop Harper, and there will be expectations he deliver

-A national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women

-A reversal of cuts to refugee health

-An end to the deportation of war resisters

-A re-opening of Bill C-51

-A welcome to thousands of Syrian refugees

-an end to war


Corporate Canada may have strengthened their hold inside Parliament, but they did so by appealing to resistance outside Parliament and this is what matters most. In 2003 the Liberals majority wanted war with Iraq and had support of the Tories. But a mass anti-war movement outside Parliament won over the NDP, split the Liberals and stopped the government from going to war. The recent election of a majority government in Quebec hasn’t stopped a growing anti-austerity movement from mobilizing strikes and protests.

Despite talk of “Trudeaumania” there’s already a calendar of resistance that can build on the anti-Harper mood and begin pressure on Trudeau.

-on November 5 there will be direct action at 24 Sussex to demand climate action

as well as an anti-austerity protest in Montreal

-on November 29 there will be global climate marches, preceded by a people’s climate assembly in Toronto

We should take joy that Harper is gone, that he was voted out on desire for change and that movements outside Parliament should feel emboldened to fight harder.

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