What would an NDP federal government be up against? A lot.

LABOUR REPORT by Paul Dechene

Happy Labour Day, Canada! Did you ever expect to be heading into the last long weekend of a summer with an election looming and the New Democrats leading in the polls? The New Democrats?

I never did.

But here we are. The NDP seems to be emerging as voters’ preferred alternative to Harper’s shit show. This time around, the Dippers won’t have to be content with getting “the best third-place finish ever.” Even if they lose, they’re now a legitimate choice for government.

It’s the culmination of all of organized labour’s dreams dating back to the formation of the CCF in 1932!

Or is it?

“I’m not sure it’s the culmination,” says University of Saskatchewan political scientist David McGrane. “It was all about this moment where finally the NDP will form government and finally labour will have a seat at the table and have some influence. But in other ways, the NDP is less close to labour than in the past. It’s sort of ironic that at this historic moment, it’s probably when it’s almost as far away from labour as it’s ever been.

“You’ve seen in other provinces when the NDP gets into government there’s tensions. They emerge like in Ontario. It’s not as if the NDP gets into government and so labour’s won. Labour has somebody to work with that’s a lot more receptive to their concerns than the Liberals or Conservatives. But it’s not a party that’s going to give labour everything it wants. That’s just not the way it works.”

Okay, maybe the labour movement isn’t reaching its conclusion. But I’ll bet recent polls will make for some chipper union activists flipping burgers at the annual Labour Day picnic.

And maybe even some speculation about what an NDP government will look like.

Our Bearded Leader?

If the election were held today, Thomas Mulcair’s New Democrats would win. It’d be a razor-thin minority government, sure. But right now the NDP are beating Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals on popular vote and seat count.

At least that’s what they’re saying over at the CBC’s Poll Tracker, a website run by Eric Grenier of ThreeHundredEight.com. He’s a stats nerd who aggregates data from all the polls released in the country and puts together a collective picture of where Canadian voters are leaning.

Looking at the Poll Tracker right now [10:39 am on Aug. 31], Grenier has the NDP winning 33.5% of the popular vote, the Conservatives getting 29.1% and the Liberals 27.3%. That translates into the NDP capturing about 128 seats in the House of Commons while the Conservatives could take 117 and the Liberals 92.¹

Of course, once you factor in things like margins of error, the prospects of the NDP winning a minority mandate look less rosy. Every pollster is saying that basically the 2015 election is a three-way tie.

Plus, there’s still a lot of election to go before the Oct. 19. There are weeks of attack ads and YouTubed gaffes coming.

With the three main parties this close, anybody could win.

But summer isn’t over yet. There’s time enough for woolgathering in the sun about what an NDP minority government will look like and what they’re likely to try to get done.

“In a minority situation, they have to be rather cautious. And that’s the whole point of a minority government: you don’t get to do everything that you wanted to do,” says McGrane, who has served on the executive of the Saskatchewan NDP and is writing a book on the federal party.

As far as top priorities on the policy front, McGrane suspects a minority NDP will try to drum up support from the Liberals to get something accomplished on childcare. Then, he says, they might push through their $15 minimum wage for federal employees and negotiate some kind of economic stimulus with the opposition.

But the big move McGrane expects to see would be a change to the election rules that ditches the first-past-the-post voting system in favour of some kind of proportional representation.

But would the NDP really want to go that far once they’re in power?

Conventional wisdom holds that parties only talk about proportional representation when they’re in third place.² Once a party knows it can win with the current system, they’re less inclined to meddle with the Election Act.

However, McGrane says there are good reasons why an elected NDP would keep proportional representation on the table.

“You’d never see a Conservative majority government maybe ever again in Canada. Or at least not in the foreseeable future,” says McGrane. “This minority Conservative government that turned into a majority Conservative government with not all that much of the vote really is going to motivate both opposition parties, Liberals and NDP, to push [proportional representation] through.”

Of course, this is all assuming a minority NDP can actually do anything. They do have to overcome the fact that they’re a party that’s never governed federally before. Their inexperience could be their downfall.

McGrane disagrees and points to the fact that many NDP candidates have been MPs for 10 or more years and know from experience how the government works. And as a party, he says, they do have governing experience at the provincial level to draw from.

But, beyond that, McGrane notes there’s the whole professional civil service whose job it is to keep the wheels of government turning despite changes at the political level.

“In fact, I think probably some of [those public servants] might be happy after years of Harper to have a government that’s more left-leaning,” he says.

Revenge Of The Cons

Of course, inexperience isn’t the only obstacle an NDP government would face. The knives will likely come out for Harper in the event of a Conservative loss. So there’s the mercy of a temporarily leaderless official opposition. But the party Harper has built over the last nine years has shown itself more than capable of Republican-style dirty tricks when they can’t get their way. Our parliamentary system would limit their ability to shut government down, but who knows what procedural mumbo-jumbo the Conservatives have planned.

At the very least, you can bet the NDP will be showing up to work on day one to filing cabinets full of shredded paper.

But according to Donald Gutstein, the machinations of a post-Harper opposition will be the least of the NDP’s worries. Gutstein is the author of Harperism and an adjunct professor in communications at Simon Fraser University, and he argues that the neoliberal ideology that Harper has helped entrench within the public and the media will be far more difficult to overcome.

According to Gutstein, Harper’s project was never about making government smaller.

“[Harper was] making government strong to break opposition to markets, to create and enforce them. Prop them up when they fail, which is what happened in 2008 and ’09. And so what I’m saying is that this is the climate of our expectations of the role of government that has settled over the land.

“When I see everybody saying, ‘Well, the economy is the most important issue in this election,’ then Harper’s obviously smiling because he’s moved us away from society and focused almost single-mindedly on the economy. That’s an obstacle to the NDP doing something.”

Does that mean that even if Mulcair wins the election, Harper has still won the nation?

“[Harper’s] won the battle but not necessarily the war. We went from 19th century liberalism to 20th century Keynesianism and social democracy, then to neoliberalism. And these ideas change over time,” says Gutstein.

So maybe, if the voters reject Harper in favour of an NDP-led minority, it’s also a sign they’re rejecting his agenda.

“I do know that the game’s not over yet,” says Gutstein, referring to the NDP’s chances in October. “Every election Harper comes up with some new dirty, corrupt trick. I’m waiting to see what it is this time.”

  1. The Greens and Bloc are well back with 5.5% and 3.6% respectively. That means Elizabeth May may still win her seat in the House. But the Bloc are facing a shut-out. Incidentally, all the seat count projections I’ve listed here are based on the averages each party stands to win. At cbc.ca/polltracker you can see the whole range of possible House breakdowns the polls are currently showing.
  2. Note how the ailing Liberals suddenly seem to think proportional representation is a great idea and how Harper himself used to tout the wisdom of proportional rep back before he became leader of a legitimate party.