No coup! No foreign intervention! Imperialist Hands Off Venezuela!

Speech to Rally held August 1, 2017 in Toronto, near the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland.
by Barry Weisleder, federal secretary, Socialist Action

We should begin by congratulating the people of Venezuela. Over 8 million voted on July 30 to elect a National Constituent Assembly. That is more than voted for President Nicolas Maduro in 2013, or for his party in the 2015 legislature election. It is 1 million more than the votes claimed in the right wing’s fake referendum two weeks ago.

The people of Venezuela stood up to a mountain of media lies, to threats by a number of capitalist governments, and to months of violence organized by reactionary fanatics, who were chiefly responsible for 125 deaths and over 2,000 injuries in the streets.
Efforts to foment a coup, to cause panic by creating shortages in medicines and other imported items, were frustrated by the resilience of the Venezuelan working class.

But Ottawa and Washington will not take Yes for an answer, not even 8 million times. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland denounces the election. She says the Constituent Assembly will cause more violence. It sounds like wishful thinking on her part. I think Freeland, whose grandfather was editor of a Nazi newspaper in German-occupied Poland during WW2, shows that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

I think Freeland and Justin Trudeau should be more concerned about electoral reform in Canada, about the police spy law C-51 (which they promised to amend substantially), about the lack of clean drinking water and proper housing in many indigenous communities, and about taxing the super-rich, instead of increasing the Canadian military budget by 70 per cent.

And what about their friend in Washington? President Trump, who got three million votes less than Hilary Clinton, calls Nicolas Maduro a dictator, and threatens more sanctions against Venezuela. Sunday’s vote was mandated by the Venezuela constitution. But Trump says No. Please tell me: Who made Trump head of Venezuela’s Supreme Court? The arrogance of imperialism knows no bounds.

Sadly, the New Democratic Party foreign affairs critic, Helen Laverdiere, called Sunday’s vote “illegitimate.” Well, in light of the massive turnout, despite an organized right wing boycott, and in light of the achievements of the Bolivarian process, we must say that the NDP criticism is illegitimate.

Clearly, a new chapter in the history of Venezuela is opening. Big challenges and tests lay ahead. As someone famously said, “The revolution is not a tea party.”

Nicolas Maduro in a recent speech told the rulers of the Empire that he “will not be taken for a sucker.” In other words, this is no time to put faith in conciliation, or the OAS or the Vatican. It’s time for the Venezuelan working class to settle accounts with the exploiters, the hoarders, the drug smugglers, the banksters, the violent thugs who would burn, not only Chavistas, but every leftist, every union member, everyone who benefits from social housing, medicine and education.
We have to support Venezuela as the hour of reckoning approaches. The road forward is

workers’ power. The road forward is socialist revolution, the road of Russia 100 years ago under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, the road of Cuba in 1959, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Haydee Santamaria and Vilma Espin. As Che said, “The revolution will be a socialist revolution, or it will be a caricature of a revolution.”

There must not be a repeat of the tragedy of Chile in September 1973. Forward to socialism! And our task here is clear. We should ask all the working class organizations to take up the call: “Self-determination for Venezuela. Respect the vote. Ottawa, Washington, Hands Off Venezuela!”

Socialist Action Policy on Basic Income

We are seeing a revival of the concept of basic guaranteed income (BI or GAI), both in Canada and internationally. The Ontario Liberal government is about to launch a pilot project. Prince Edward Island will do likewise, while other provincial administrations have expressed interest. Finland initiated a basic income experiment in 2016, and The Netherlands is soon to follow.

Basic income has its supporters and detractors on both left and right. Free-market and libertarian ideologues like Milton Friedman and Charles Murray see the possibility of eliminating publicly funded entitlements in favour of impoverished members of the working class having to purchase those services in the market. On the other hand, many conservatives fear a disincentive to work.

Positions on the left also vary. Basic income has been promoted as a solution to precarious work in the gig economy, as a way of liberating impoverished people from an oppressive welfare bureaucracy and as a panacea for the work-less world that some predict will result from robotization. But there are many who believe basic income in the current context is illusory.

Some on the left propose a ‘progressive’ version of basic income that would provide a net advance over existing benefits. No one wants to defend the current system of social assistance with its paternalistic bureaucracy and grossly inadequate level of support. A socialist society would guarantee decent social provision for all. The question of what form this should take remains hypothetical at this point.

Those advocating a ‘progressive’ version of basic income are acting from genuine concern for the impoverished, and frustration with the injustices of the current social welfare system. But in the harsh world of actually existing capitalism, basic income schemes offer the illusion of improvement in the lot of marginalized people while streamlining the existing social welfare system so as to diminish state responsibility and push individuals to purchase their needs privately.

Absent a socialist transformation, basic income schemes will reflect the priorities of capitalist governments. They will be grafted on to an austerity and privatization agenda. The aim is to move the impoverished into low wage precarious employment, provide a wage top-up to employers and give governments an exit route from services they currently provide. Ontario Liberal Premier, Kathleen Wynne sees basic income as a way of reducing government expenditures in housing, health care and other supports for the poor. Finland’s centre-right wing government will judge its basic income experiment on whether it moves the chronically unemployed into taking low wage jobs.

Labour has been on the defensive for almost 50 years. The relationship of class forces does not favour significant democratic or egalitarian policies orchestrated from above.

Labour’s traditional approach has been to fight for full employment at union rates, for a significant rise in the minimum wage, for adequate social assistance and unemployment benefits and for social entitlements that apply to the whole working class including impoverished and marginalized people. The labour movement has recognized the danger in means tested programs that break with the principle of universality.

It is naive to think that basic income can circumvent the capitalist labour market or transform the use of leisure time.  The real transitional demand here is for a reduction in the work week with no loss of pay and a sharing of work. Within that framework, massive retraining and expansion of unionized employment in green and socially useful occupations is the route to go.

Some sort of income guarantee would be integral to a socialist society. But this would not be the principal mechanism for social provision. Cuba gives us a glimpse. Basic needs such as housing, transport, health care and education are provided out of central state revenues and are free for every Cuban at the point of use or in some cases as a subsidy. There is a big difference between social programs as universal entitlements provided out of a collective pooling of resources, and services obtained by individuals from private providers as a market transaction. Both may exist, but any aspiring socialist society would and must try to limit the commodification of basic services.

If introduced by capitalist governments, as looks increasingly likely, basic income schemes will require the labour movement and socialists to respond.  Socialist Action will evaluate any specific basic income program according to:

  1. whether it lifts the beneficiaries out of poverty representing a net gain over existing social assistance benefits;
  2. whether it will have a positive effect on wages and job quality not acting as a wage subsidy to employers and accelerating the trend to bad jobs at low pay and
  3. whether it will protect existing services to which the impoverished are entitled, and provide the scope to expand access.

In formulating its position. Socialist Action should not lag behind the most advanced elements in the labour movement who are highly critical of basic income (see John Clarke’s and David Bush’s arguments and the positions adopted by CUPE Ontario and OPSEU).

To summarize, for the foreseeable, basic income will be initiated from above by capitalist governments requiring a response on our part. But we believe the main battles lie elsewhere.  What the working class gains, it has to fight for. We look to advances in the class struggle to better conditions for the impoverished. Battles for unionization, higher wages and benefits, mobilizing to obtain decent social housing, to abolish barriers to higher education, to win free public transit and defend the most vulnerable and exploited workers – that is the way to strengthen the confidence, self-organization and unity of working people and change the balance of forces in society.

July 2017

Policy on Proportional Representation adopted at the 2017 SA/LAS Convention

The Trudeau Liberal government in Ottawa has reneged on a promise to reform the electoral system by introducing some variant of proportional representation (PR) that would replace the long-in-the-tooth Winner-Take-All system (aka First Past the Post – FPTP). PR was put in the Liberal program when the party was languishing in third place and needed to draw votes especially from the NDP. This was classic bait and switch.

Electoral reform is off the immediate agenda but it is not likely to go away.

But why proportional representation?  Aren’t there more pressing issues in the class struggle?

Firstly, because PR has become a contentious issue across the political spectrum. The labour movement and the small minority of socialists within it should not abstain from this debate. The issue cannot be left to the opportunists, neither the Liberals nor NDP governments that have never pursued electoral reform.

We don’t choose the battles we fight according to some preconceived schema. Discontent will focus on this or that injustice, opening cracks in the façade of the ruling order.  Canada’s undemocratic First Past the Post (FPTP) system is just such a fissure.

Confidence in bourgeois electoral politics is faltering. Voter apathy based on the correct perception that most votes don’t count, a suffocating ideological consensus, the under-representation of women and racialized minorities – these are among the manifestations of a gathering crisis of legitimacy.

Parliamentary majorities are now routinely constructed on less than 40% of votes cast based on scarcely more than 25% of the electorate.

The second point is that electoral reform including proportionality has been a consistent demand of the labour movement internationally.  The unions as well as the NDP and its predecessor, the CCF, spearheaded the struggle to extend the franchise, first to working men then in the battle for women’s suffrage and in support of the vote for aboriginal peoples and youth. PR is a continuation of the struggle to democratize the electoral system.

Many forms of proportional representation have been proposed or implemented.  The following are the most relevant to the Canadian context and our discussion:

  • Party-list PR (used in 85 of 94 countries that have PR). Parties present lists in large regional or even provincial multi-member constituencies. The lists can be closed or open.  This system achieves the greatest degree of proportionality and situates representation firmly in the party orbit.
  • Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) is used in 7 other countries. The NDP has supported this option and it figures prominently in the campaign of Fair Vote Canada.  It is a hybrid, two tier system that is at least semi-proportional. Voters would cast two ballots, one for a single candidate elected by plurality voting and the other for a party list. This would involve multi-member constituencies larger than current electoral districts. The idea is to achieve a compromise by amalgamating winner-take-all and PR.
  • Single Transferable Vote is a system used in parts of the English-speaking world, notably Ireland, Scotland (local elections) and Australia (the Senate). It involves a ranked or preferential ballot in multi-member districts.
  • Former Liberal MP and Cabinet Minister, Stephane Dion, has put forward his own version of STV which he bills as preferential, personalized and proportional (P3). It too involves a ranked ballot with transfer of 2nd choice votes. Its main effect would be to strengthen representation across the country for the major parties while disadvantaging or eliminating smaller parties.

PR systems also establish a minimum threshold of popular vote a party must attain before it can win seats. This ranges from 10% in Turkey to 0.67% in The Netherlands. In Germany, it is 5% and in Israel it was 1% but has been raised to 3.25%.

Our preference is for a fully proportional party-list system. In Canada, this would have to be broken down by province or large regions within a province.  We want to preserve the party identification of voters based on political program and ideology. We also argue for a low threshold of 2% of the popular vote to qualify for seats because it will encourage smaller parties and stimulate democratic debate.

Party-list PR can be based on open or closed lists. Closed lists mean the political party has pre-decided in what priority candidates will be allocated a seat. Voters have no influence on the party-supplied order in which candidates are elected. If voters have some influence by registering their preference then we refer to it as an open list.

Closed lists can be used to include women or minority group candidates.  On the other hand, open lists may favour more social or ideological diversity than a closed list pre-determined by the party brass.

In the absence of a fully democratic internal process for selection of party candidates, we prefer an open party-list system.

We are less enthused about the Mixed Member Proportional model even though this is the one the NDP supports. There is a sacrifice of proportionality in deference to the lone sitting MP whose role is to intercede with government on behalf of his or her constituents.  In New Zealand which has a mixed member system, some have observed that the MPs elected by plurality tend to be long-standing party hacks while party list candidates are more dynamic and diverse in their backgrounds and political commitments.

Advocates of STV cite voter choice within or between parties, local representation and encouraging “common ground” as advantages. To the extent that this system would reduce the influence of political parties especially small ones, we see it as a disadvantage. It is also not fully proportional. However, a version known as STV+ adds a variable number of top-up seats to achieve better proportionality.  In such a case, we would favour a high ratio of top-up seats, as in the Scottish local assembly elections where there are 2 top-up seats for every 3 seats.

A reformed electoral system for Canada must accommodate diverse regional and national realities. But it is a myth that voters are united by mainly local concerns. The “honourable member” is increasingly a relic of a bygone era. Better to strengthen democratic participation in political parties and engage voters in issues of society-wide and planetary significance which of course have their local and regional dimension. This aim would be facilitated by a voting system that is fully proportional, that is, one based on party lists.

The Trudeau Liberals are facing justifiable censure for their electoral reform betrayal. At this point, with no government legislation on the table or indeed the horizon, the purpose of this resolution is more to guide us in discussion and debate with other forces advocating Proportional Representation.

Adopted at the Convention of Socialist Action/Ligue pour l’action socialiste, May 14, 2017.

Khadr Deal Exposes Ottawa’s Hypocrisy

By Barry Weisleder

Omar Khadr, the Canadian who was captured in the frenzy of a firefight in Afghanistan, and who was tortured in Guantanamo, remains a lightning rod for controversy.  At the same time, his case reveals much about the character of the political parties that inhabit Parliament.

The $10.5 million settlement and apology by the Justin Trudeau Liberal government have raised the ire of the Conservative Party, right wing bloggers and talk show hosts.  Former Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper weighed in to congratulate the demagogues and racists who seek to re-direct the funds to a U.S. military widow and to further punish Khadr.

But the Liberal Party deserves neither praise nor credit for trying to close this embarrassing file.  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s hand was forced by decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada, including its 2010 ruling that Khadr’s charter rights were breached.  In that light, Khadr’s $20 million law suit seemed more than likely to win.  And don’t forget that it was the Liberal government of Jean Chretien that sent thousands of Canadian troops on an imperialist mission impossible into Afghanistan.  The same Liberal regime refused to press Washington to release Khadr, a Canadian citizen, into Ottawa’s custody.  Indeed, Canadian officials interrogated him in Guantanamo in 2003 and 2004, without legal representation, knowing he was a minor and had been subjected to torture.

Largely overlooked in the latest round of disputation is the clincher argument.  It applies equally to the hard and soft factions of the pro-military patriots:

Washington had no business charging Khadr with murder, whether he caused the death or injury of U.S. personnel in uniform, or not.  If Khadr was a child soldier, which the United Nations says he was by virtue of being under 18, then he wasn’t responsible for his actions.  Alternatively, if Khadr ought to have been regarded as a soldier, then he did what all soldiers are expected to do – fight with weapons at hand when attacked.

Despite the demise of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Khadr remains the only captive charged with killing a soldier.  Is there another example, going back to the beginning of warfare?

The Tories and Liberals, like bad actors in a hard cop, soft cop drama, equally join the fray for power and plunder.  They differ only over the rhetoric and timing to be employed, not principle.

The union-based New Democratic Party, on the other hand, has no material interest in supporting imperialism.  Still, the NDP regularly gets sucked into backing wars due to a combination of pro-capitalism and cowardice on the part of its leaders.  It wasn’t until after the 2006 federal NDP convention in Quebec City, where the NDP Socialist Caucus and other anti-war delegates won the issue, that the NDP parliamentary caucus under Leader Jack Layton finally demanded “Canada Out of Afghanistan.”  For that policy, the corporate media dubbed him “Taliban Jack.”

More recently, the NDP has supported the bid for justice for Omar Khadr, but did so, sotto voce, and on purely legalistic grounds.

The Green Party, to its credit, lambasted the Conservative Loyal Opposition for its transparent racism and high disregard for civil liberties.  The Bloc Quebecois took a similar stance.

Unfortunately, none of the parties addressed the root of the problem, the profit system – not even to the extent of demanding that Canada exit NATO.

The Omar Khadr case shows that progress has been made, and also that there is far to go.  We learn again that gains come from grass roots, mass, independent working class political action.  That principle is the best guide now to stopping the western-backed war on Syria, and the threats against the elected government of Venezuela.

Ligue pour L'Action Socialiste