After fourteen years at the helm, Bob Rae recently announced that he will be stepping down as leader of the New Democratic Party. Once again a heightened debate is anticipated concerning how the party came to power in 1990 with a majority and took the largest free fall of any NDP government in thirty years. Once again a clash is expected on ideology between factions within the party including the centrists such as the United Steelworkers, Communications Energy and Paperworkers, and United Food and Commercial Workers Unions who supported Rae's “pragmatic” vision to achieve power. They will be opposed by the left-wing camp of rank and file activists backed by the Canadian Auto Workers, the 650 000 members of the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) who felt profoundly disappointed and betrayed by the government they helped to elect. One thing is clear - George Martell is likely to be in the thick of such debates arguing passionately for the party to return to its social democratic roots.
Martell makes it clear that his political allegiances lie with the “teacher leaders” who helped to build the party and secured the election for Bob Rae. He makes a case that OSSTF did not have stars in their collective eyes that would expect a social democratic government to alter private production and ownership. They understood that General Motors and Xerox could look forward to business as usual, even if it was business with a human face. Having come through a decade of provincial underfunding of education, they were, however, hoping for a “teacher-friendly” government which would invest in education and would consult with respect to curriculum policy changes rather than “laying things on teachers” as the Ministry was prone to do. OSSTF did anticipate that the NDP would behave as Keynesians, and in the deepest recession since the 1930s, would prime the economy by spending on infrastructure and social services, would protect the rights of workers and would move forth on the agenda of equity. The role of the state, Martell argues, is to mediate between labour and capital in a manner of reasonableness for the benefit of all.
What OSSTF and the people of Ontario got instead was a set of “neo-liberal” policies that were diametrically opposed to this position. The NDP began to govern in an open manner, abolishing the use of replacement workers during legal strikes, raising the minimum wage and integrating an economic vision into a more inclusive and caring society. With a small circle of close advisors, Rae began early in the life of his government to centralize decision-making. He was profoundly affected by the changes occurring in so-called social democratic countries such as New Zealand and Sweden and he felt compelled to let his ear be bent by special interest business groups and to demonstrate he was a capable leader of all the people. Sunday shopping and public auto insurance turned out to be small potatoes compared to Rae's introduction of social contracts to deal with the concerns about the rising deficit from these same business leaders.
Based upon meticulous attention to detail, solid research, interviews with key players and some delightful back room stories, Martell presents an uncompromising critique of Rae and his cabinet who were involved in government restructuring initiatives to raise individual taxes, diminish services, attack the legal framework of labour relations, slash public sector jobs and, according to Tom Walkom, take $ 8 billion out of the economy - the largest single “bite” in Canadian history.
Martell describes the impact of NDP policies on education which result in more centralized decision-making about curriculum and education funding, increased influence of the corporate sector in education, more inflexible streaming and a greater reliance upon higher technology. When the Minister of Education, Tony Silipo opposed cutbacks in education, Rae replaced him with Dave Cooke to head up a super ministry of Education and Training and to usher in standardized testing and the Royal Commission on Learning that focused on the corporate agenda of a “well-trained and adaptable work force”. As a result of the recession and the province's economic and taxation policies, the tax base of the Metropolitan Toronto School Board for example, was reduced by $250 million from 1991-1995. By 1995, in addition to a 3 per cent increase in the educational mill rate, $19 million was extracted from the Metro Board's budget resulting in “a saving of the classroom base”, according to Martell, with fewer classroom teachers, larger class sizes, reductions in continuing education, less teacher release and program development time, educational assistants and student support services.
Educators would do well to read Martell's clarion call concerning the massive assault on the democratic vision of public education. It is clear that he blames Rae for starting the ball rolling in Ontario with massive cutbacks and by undermining confidence in public education. He wants to argue that Rae showed Harris the way to soften us up for continued massive cuts, and the movement to privatize education. He nonetheless allows that, in a few years, the NDP could position itself to mobilize opposition on behalf of the casualties of fiscal constraint. Much will depend upon who is elected leader and the vision posed of a centrist or socially progressive party. In returning to its social democratic roots to win the hearts and minds of people of Ontario, Martell would argue that substantial fence-mending will have to take place with thousands of teachers with whom the NDP broke faith between 1990-1995.
Diane E. Meaghan teaches in the School of Liberal Studies at Seneca College.