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Lessons of ‘93

Social movements, party politics and the last time the Conservatives got booted

by Scott Neigh

The last time the Conservatives were voted out of power federally, the year was 1993.

It was an era when movements "had a national profile that would be hard to imagine today," says long-time feminist and social justice activist Judy Rebick. Yet vigorous interventions by social movements in opposition to the Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement in the 1988 election had not been able to forestall Conservative victory. There was no similar burning issue in 1993, so movements did relatively little as the country went to the polls.

Still, the lingering association of the Conservatives with widely-opposed policies, the inevitable fatigue of voters with long-term rule by one party and a series of high-profile scandals took their toll. Though movements viewed the Liberal platform, known as the "red book," with considerable skepticism, its progressive veneer mixed with scandal-based voter disaffection produced a huge Liberal majority.

For movements, it felt like a routine changing of the guard. Rebick, who was president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women for a period in the '90s, recalls that the women's movement did not feel "any particular optimism about the Liberal victory"—they had needed to fight to make gains under the Conservatives, but they had done so, and, she said, "I don't think the Liberals were any more sympathetic to our demands than the Conservatives were."

Even the AIDS movement, which had what long-time anti-capitalist and queer organizer Gary Kinsman describes as a particularly "hostile, confrontational relationship with the [Conservative] government," was skeptical about the significance of the shift in power. Kinsman says, "There might have been a sense of some relief, but then there was a sense that the struggle continues."

The real change in direction, however, came in 1995.

Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin's budget of that year began in earnest—the serious neoliberal damage at the federal level that would characterize the Liberal reign that lasted until 2006.

According to Rebick, that budget "did more to implement an austerity environment in the country than any single act of any government."

For at least some long-time activists, the lesson to be learned from this history is that while elections can matter a great deal, they are not the only moments that do. When movements allow our energies and attention to be drawn into a framework that confines analysis of how change happens solely to elections, we end up making bad decisions.

Jean Swanson was the president of the National Anti-Poverty Organization when the '95 budget hit, and she feels strongly that we must take a much longer view than the electoral cycle. "I'm 72. I started getting active when I was about 31. And when I look at the history of my activism, it seems like...things have gotten worse, progressively, in each of those forty years."

She links this trajectory to the fact that in that period in the 1970s, the corporate reaction to the social movement victories of the preceding decade was beginning to take off. In Canada, it found institutional expression through groups like the Business Council on National Issues and the Fraser Institute.

And in response to that legacy of loss that marched forward regardless of tides of electoral fortune, she is very clear that movements need to do things "differently" than they have been. While she has no magic answer as to how that should look in practice, she suggests that one important element is continuing the work of challenging how movements often reproduce marginalization, particularly of people of colour and Indigenous people. Over her four decades of involvement she says that issue has "improved" somewhat but "probably not enough." More generally, she thinks that doing things "differently" has to mean "more militant."  

For Rebick,  the society-wide pull to focus on elections and the consequent obscuration of the importance of other moments can lead to significant misdirection of movement energies. She argues that, at least sometimes, a party with a progressive reputation might be "more adept at implementing an austerity agenda than the Conservatives," so a simple change of faces on top may not on its own be as much of a victory as it appears. And it is possible that "a huge mobilization to defeat the Tories" might be followed by a dangerous period "where everyone relaxes to see what happens."

Rebick continues, "Whether the government that hopefully replaces Harper is Liberal, NDP or a coalition, the first year after the government is elected is key for mobilization." She warns, "The corporate elite does not relax. They are immediately mobilized to pressure the government in their direction."

Kinsman agrees that it is a "real problem when the focus is on one single individual...[or] on one political party." Rather, if our concern is with "the policies of austerity and neoliberal capitalism," then we need to focus on those policies and their impacts. And if that is what we are truly working against, then by saying that "Stephen Harper is the source of all evil, we open ourselves up for a situation where, if Stephen Harper is not the next Prime Minister...that we'll think we've won a major victory when we haven't...[because] the same policies are in place."

Kinsman hastens to add that in terms of the mainstream political parties, there are "differences between them, and those differences can actually be significant." Nonetheless, to one degree or another, all of them are "invested in" those policies of neoliberal capitalism and austerity.

He concludes, "If we don't see our major hope for progress is actually organizing really powerful, grassroots, radical movements that are willing to put in question the very bases of austerity, and at least neoliberal forms of capitalism if not capitalism much more generally, we're not going to be able to make progress."

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