OTTAWA—Jagmeet Singh wanted this.
The day before last year’s federal election, the NDP leader urged voters to elect at least enough New Democrats to reduce Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to a minority government. That way, he said, his progressive team could “force” Canada to the left on a range of policies, from taxing the ultra-rich to creating new programs like pharmacare.
Almost one year later, Singh’s NDP is in a position to do just that — at least on paper. It is one of three opposition parties that separately hold the balance of power in the House of Commons, and the only that says it wants make Parliament work. The other two parties have called for Trudeau to resign, with the Bloc Québécois threatening an attempt to topple the government if he doesn’t.
As the Liberals prepare for a confidence vote on their vision for the path out of the COVID-19 crisis in a new Throne Speech on Sept. 23, can the NDP use its position to influence the course forward?
It certainly wants to.
“Our goal is to extract the best policies and programs for Canadians during a really difficult time,” Anne McGrath, a veteran NDP strategist who is the federal party’s national director, told the Star on Friday.
“We intend to act on all of the tools that we have to be able to achieve results.”
Karl Bélanger is the president of the Douglas-Caldwell Foundation and was a top aide for former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair. He said much depends on whether the Liberals are serious about winning the support of at least one opposition party with their Throne Speech, or if they are deliberately staging their own downfall to trigger a pandemic election.
If Trudeau really doesn’t want to go to the polls, that could give the NDP influence over the policies to come, Bélanger said — but only if the NDP is prepared to let the government fall.
McGrath said the NDP is ready to campaign if it has to, despite its less-than-ideal financial situation. The party is still raking in far less money than the Liberals and Conservatives, but McGrath said recent fundraising has picked up — the NDP took in $1.3 million in donations in the second quarter of this year — and the party has whittled its post-election debt down to about $1.5 million from about $7 million in January.
“I would like to go toe-to-toe with the other parties. That is always my goal,” McGrath said. “It wouldn’t happen if an election is in the next year.”
It may not matter if the Liberals present a policy vision the NDP can’t refuse. They’re already signalling they want to pursue a slate of policies that fit snugly in the NDP’s wheelhouse.
Trudeau and his new finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, have promised as-yet-unspecified action to make the post-pandemic economy fairer for women and racialized Canadians, to ensure the recovery programs aide the transition to a greener Canada, and more. On Thursday, the government announced $39 billion in supports for people who lose work during the crisis — $22 billion of which requires legislation that won’t be possible unless the Liberals survive the vote on the Throne Speech.
Could the NDP really vote down such policies?
Bélanger said the situation could force the NDP’s hand — support the government or vote against your own policies — but the party would still be able to claim credit for NDP-friendly policies, even if the party is not directly involved in forming them.
The party has already done so repeatedly in recent months when the Liberals broadened pandemic programs after the NDP called for changes, including when they increased student aid and raised the wage subsidy from 10 to 75 per cent.
“If the Liberals decide to go ahead and take away pages from the NDP policy proposals, then yes, it is a win,” said Bélanger.
It is also important for the NDP to be able to tell left-leaning voters that their presence in the Commons has a meaningful impact on the policies that come out of the minority government, said Farouk Karim, a former NDP caucus press secretary.
“The NDP needs to be able to say to the electorate that it’s useful to vote NDP. It forces (a) more progressive orientation,” he said.
If, as Karim predicts, the next election will be fought over how to recover from the generational crisis of the pandemic, Singh could then pitch progressive voters again on how the NDP can push the policy response to the left without winning the most seats.
The strength of that argument is about to be tested.