Federal Election Coverage: Interview with Liz Rowley, Communist Party

As part of our special federal election coverage, People’s Voice will be preparing a series of articles, analyses and interviews, for both our print and online editions, that examine the key issues and discuss real solutions.

Here, we speak with Liz Rowley, leader of the Communist Party of Canada, about what’s at stake for workers and their communities in this election.

PV: Liz, election campaigning typically picks up steam after Labour Day, but there’s already been a lot of politicking by the big parties. What are the main issues for the working class?

LR: There are probably three main areas of concern to working people across the country. The first, obviously, is the climate crisis. The second, which doesn’t have the same public attention, is the issue of peace and Canadian foreign policy. And the third area is what we might call “bread and butter” issues.

So, talking about these in reverse order, a poll last winter that showed 50% of people in Canada are $200 or less away from financial disaster at the end of every month. This is a reflection of 30-plus years of austerity, cutbacks, and changes in employment. The government claims that unemployment has virtually disappeared, but that’s not true at all. There are a great many people who are unemployed but are no longer searching for work, so they aren’t counted. The labour participation rate shows that about 30% of the working age population is not employed and not looking for work. On the other side we have a very large group, particularly of young people, who are working contract, part-time and precarious work. So, you have a large portion that is out of work, and a large portion that is working way too much but still earning way below what is needed.

On top of this, democratic and equality rights are under attack. Gains that were won through struggle by Indigenous people, women, racialized people and 2S/LGBTiQ people are threatened, to the point that people’s safety and lives are in jeopardy.
So, we have to confront the issues of austerity, of right-wing governments, and of corporate control over the main levers of the economy and over successive governments. We need an agenda that addresses people’s economic and social needs – it’s urgent.

Now, what about the question of peace and war?

Canada’s foreign policy has certainly shifted far to the right under the Liberal government. They claimed during the last election that they were very different from the Conservatives, but the Liberals have continued with Harper’s very right-wing foreign policy. The government is sending troops to wherever the US administration or NATO demands. Canada is involved in a dirty and undeclared war against Venezuela. It’s also involved with US targeting of Cuba, by freezing up international relations and reducing consular services for Cubans wanting to visit Canada. Canada has troops stationed in hot spots around the world – “hot” because the US has made them that way – which is interference in the affairs of other countries and the right of peoples to determine their own path of development. This has to do with the right of nations to self-determination, and the Canadian government has taken a really dangerous turn.

Related to this is the question of military spending. The government claims there isn’t enough money to increase wages and pensions, to provide a livable Guaranteed Annual Income, for a Canada-wide childcare program, or for all sorts of things that are important to the majority of people in Canada. But, apparently there’s tonnes of money available for military spending. It’s an issue of what’s the priority. In our view, the priority should be a foreign policy of peace and disarmament, and government spending on the things working people need.

You mentioned the climate crisis as a key area of concern. Is the real urgency of this situation likely to be reflected and addressed during this election?

We certainly feel that the climate crisis has the same urgency as the whole issue of peace and the danger of nuclear war. But the proposals that are coming out for dealing with this emergency are absolutely inadequate. The big elephant in the room is the energy corporations and the mining companies, who control the course of development in these areas. People think it’s the government but it’s the corporations who decide where and when a pipeline is going to be built, and then they put demands on the government to make that happen. Because of this, and because of the urgency of the situation, the immediate thing to do is to nationalize energy and natural resources – place them under public ownership and democratic control – and take the profit-seeking companies out of the picture. This would allow the government to really deal with climate change by legislating and implementing sharp reductions in emissions. We call for a 50% cut by 2030 and completely end emissions by 2050. And we mean an absolute cut, not a so-called “net reduction” that allows corporations to trade emissions across jurisdictions. It sounds pretty radical, but what’s called for is radical action.

Now, let’s compare this with the Liberals’ proposal for a carbon tax. The Tories, of course, are just opposed to any kind of action. First, the proposed tax is way too small to make a difference. Second, a carbon tax just becomes a cost of doing business for large corporations, and that cost will be passed onto those who have the least ability to pay, working people. Really, these business parties are just doing what they always do, which is protecting the interests of large corporations who support them politically and financially.

So, when we ask whether the urgency of the crisis will be reflected, I think the public understands the urgency, but we will have to compel the political discussion to reflect that. When the Trudeau government bought the Trans Mountain Pipeline for $4.5 billion, that represented a pretty huge intervention in the economy, against the sovereign rights of Indigenous people, on behalf of the energy corporations. We need to use this election period to demand that kind of government intervention on behalf of the working class, to promote peace and climate justice, and in a way that respects Indigenous sovereignty.

Tell us about the Communist Party’s campaign – what are some of the main demands you will advance?

I already spoke a little about our approach to the big challenges of foreign policy and the climate crisis, so let me talk bread and butter here. We think that creating good jobs has to be a priority. We have to do away with precarious work, so that people have permanent, stable jobs with decent wages and benefits and with union protection. The Canadian economy is really bent, as a result of integration with the US, so this country is a source of raw materials that are exported and a market for finished products that are imported back. What we need is government intervention and supports to build thriving manufacturing industry; instead, we’ve seen corporate free trade deals that have stripped out large portions of this industry. Entire areas – textiles, agricultural implements, footwear and clothing – that employed tens of thousands of people are gone, and basic industries like steel have diminished dramatically.

If corporations are moving their operations to lower wage and lower regulations jurisdictions, the government needs to intervene on behalf of the working class by taking over those operations and putting them under public and democratic control. This way the industries continue, and the jobs are maintained.

We know that new technology is changing the nature of work, so we want to see a shorter work week with no reduction in take home pay. As I said earlier, on one hand you have a large portion of the working class that is unemployed and, on the other hand, you have people working two or three jobs just to get by. If we committed to full employment, one way to do it would be with a shorter work week that was combined with other improvements like livable wages.

There are many issues we need to address in this election – a federal housing strategy to build social housing and reduce rents, action to protect and expand equality rights, free post-secondary education, expanded public health.

It’s important to keep in mind that, unlike the NDP for example, the Communist Party’s strategic aim is socialism, that is, working class political power. Socialism involves systemic change and the elimination of exploitation and oppression. It’s much more than the election of a majority in Parliament which can be swept away in the next election by corporate money and power. We fight to elect Communist MPs to sharpen the critique of capitalism, to fight for immediate reforms, and to build up the forces in the labour and people’s movements for more fundamental change – for socialism.

Certainly, the labour movement has a huge role to play here, to make sure that working class issues and demands get projected strongly into the political discussion.

Let me say off the top that a lot of workers in this country, if they identify politically, would identify as NDPers. But they are increasingly unhappy with the timid policies and pro-business direction of the NDP. Yet, the labour movement maintained, for a long time, a policy of wholesale support for the NDP, even when that party does not advocate labour policies. The stronger course for the labour movement is to set some benchmarks for the NDP and for all political parties to meet. Generally, the labour movement has strong policies around issues like work, social programs, wages, working conditions, peace, the environment, and equality. Were they to campaign for those policies during the election it would help to move politics in a more progressive direction. If it’s left to the NDP and, increasingly, the Liberals to put forward what passes for progressive policies, there will be a real shortage. Rather than settling for what these parties have to offer, the labour movement needs to put forward its own demands, and any party or candidate that wants an endorsement should be expected to campaign and deliver. It would certainly force the issues onto the table and raise the bar in terms of the debate. As things are at present, the Communist Party is about the only party that will talk about things like a shorter work week with no loss in pay, plant closure legislation, changes to bankruptcy laws so that workers are paid first instead of last.

These are longstanding working class demands, but we need the labour movement itself to amplify them. We need to change the dynamic, so that instead of having business-friendly policies penetrating the labour movement, we have working-class policies penetrating public discourse. This would be a very important objective for the labour movement, both in this election and in the struggle that continues afterwards.

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