Canada’s Official Opposition eyes its first government

ELECTION FEATURE by Gregory Beatty

When I spoke to St. Thomas More College political scientist Charles Smith after Labour Day, polling data had the Conservatives in third place trailing both the Liberals and NDP.

Numbers may have shifted by now, but the early trend, he says, suggests a lot of Canadians who voted Conservative in 2011 were backing away from the party.

“[The anti-Harper vote] was still split between the NDP and Liberals, and it’s not clear to me that either party is going to be able to break from the pack. So what happens on Oct. 20 is pretty much anyone’s guess.”

There’s still plenty of politicking left, of course, but for NDP candidate Erin Weir (Regina Lewvan) these are exciting times.

“I think Canadians are looking at us seriously as a government in waiting. Part of that is having been the official opposition in parliament since the last election,” he says.

“Another major development was our Alberta breakthrough where the most conservative province in Canada elected an NDP government which I think indicated to many Canadians that the NDP couldn’t be that scary.”

If the NDP maintains its lead in the polls, expect the Conservatives to ramp up the attack ads. But if they venture too far into red-baiting, McCarthy territory, that tactic could backfire.

“If there’s an argument being made by Conservative pundits with their talking points that the NDP is a socialist party that’s out nationalize industries and create a socialist economy that’s absolute nonsense,” says Smith.

“Whether the party was ever there is an interesting question, but it certainly isn’t there now,” Smith says. “By current standards the NDP is an extremely moderate left-liberal party in the way that most social democratic parties have gone in the 21st century.”

When it comes to the main tenets of economic policy such as balanced budgets, low taxes and unregulated markets, there’s very little to choose between the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP, says Smith.

“To me, it’s whether you want a government that’s going to be openly neoliberal, or neoliberal with a happy face. That’s the choice between the parties on those issues, and that suggests that, in 2015, there’s been a rush to centre.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the parties are mirror images of each other.

“It’s clear Stephen Harper’s plan isn’t working,” says Weir. “For a few years there was a commodity boom that’s now turned into a bust. The Harper government didn’t do anything to develop other industries or diversify the economy. We see now that Canada is in recession.

“It’s easy to say that now, but even during the oil boom the federal NDP was making the point that we also need to invest in manufacturing and other economic sectors so we have some diversity and resilience in the face of changing economic conditions,” he adds.

Saskatchewan’s economy (which is heavily commodity dependent) is hurting too. Weir says one innovation he supports is investment in green power industries to take advantage of our abundant solar, wind and geo-thermal resources.

Federally, the NDP also supports investment in urban infrastructure to improve the livability and efficiency of our cities and boost the economy.

Other planks in the NDP platform harken back to their socialist roots.

“I see childcare as one of the more exciting ones,” says Weir. “We’re proposing a new federal transfer to greatly increase the number of childcare spaces and make them available for a daily fee of no more than $15.

“I think it’s good social policy to make childcare affordable to Canadian families,” says Weir. “Studies in Quebec, which has $10 daycare, show the program actually pays for itself. The tax revenue from having more parents in the work force offsets the cost of providing affordable childcare.”

Health care is another priority. The Harper Conservatives have capped increases to the Canada Health Transfer which the feds provide to the provinces to help pay for healthcare. Over the next decade, the hit to the provinces will be $36 billion.

The NDP would reverse those cuts.

The NDP is also keen to expand the Canada Pension Plan.

“We think it’s a good program, but the level of benefits is just too low,” says Weir. “So we’d like to increase the CPP over time. On old age security, the main concern is the Conservatives have raised the age of eligibility to 67. That means many seniors could live in poverty for two years before they even qualify. We would restore eligibility to 65.”

The NDP is also committed to electoral reform through proportional representation, where seats would be allocated based on each party’s share of the popular vote. And another thing: an NDP government would also repeal Harper’s much reviled Bill C-51, which critics have lambasted as a major attack on civil liberties under the guise of “national security”.

Some hardcore NDP supporters might grumble about the party’s “almost religious commitment” to balanced budgets, low taxation, free trade, the military, and other pillar issues, says Smith. “But I think there’s enough the party has promised that those people are going to have a very difficult time finding another political party to vote for.

“The NDP is polling high nationally,” Smith adds. “But really, that’s because of its base in Quebec. And I think the thought, for the first time, of a possible NDP government is going to be appealing for even the most ardent left winger — especially after 10 years of Harper conservatism. So it would surprise me to see the base run.”

Saskatchewan could be especially fertile ground. Through boundary adjustments that created three dedicated urban seats in Saskatoon and 2.5 in Regina, the hammerlock the Conservatives have enjoyed on the province in recent elections could be broken.

“Nationally, polls show a three-way race,” says Weir. “But in Saskatchewan we’re really looking at a competition between the Conservatives and NDP. In the last election, the NDP came second in every Saskatchewan riding the Conservatives won. So it’s tremendously important for progressives to understand that if they want to defeat the Conservatives the way to do that is to vote NDP.”