The NDP’s Ballot Question

In its post-Layton, post-Mulcair incarnation, the federal NDP has been feeling its way through something of an identity crisis. This has not been helped by the fact that many of its traditional electoral strengths have been absorbed by rival parties. Can Jagmeet Singh break the cycle by making the 2019 election about inequality? 

Brian Topp 

Going into the fall 2019 federal election campaign, it isn’t too hard to come up with a list of things Jagmeet Singh’s federal New Democrats can’t do.

First, the federal New Democrats can’t run to the right of the Liberals on fiscal and economic policy. The federal party’s unwise decision to try this during the 2015 campaign federal made the New Democrats look like a party of continuity with Stephen Harper’s austerity policies—quite an accomplishment for the NDP, but possibly not one they were looking for. 

In Canada and around the democratic world, voters have had enough of Reagan-Thatcher austerity policies, and the consequent rise of a grotesque, unstable and unsustainable inequality. So nobody runs on those policies anymore. Not even Conservatives, who instead now cheerfully propose endless deficits in order to cut taxes for rich people. It is also true that mathematics haven’t been abolished. There are limits to all things, including public borrowing. But that was not the focus of federal politics in 2015 and it probably won’t be in 2019.

Jagmeet Singh’s NDP has therefore repudiated Thomas Mulcair’s core belief in politics—the former leader’s view that any and all party principles and election commitments are contingent on balancing the federal budget each and every year, come what may. That would not be Prime Minister Singh’s view.

Second, the federal NDP likely can’t successfully frame the election as being about who can best get rid of Justin Trudeau.

If Canadians really want to get rid of Justin Trudeau as their sole and top priority, the short road to doing so is to vote Conservative. There is a certain familiarity to federal politics in 2019. Trudeaumania has once again proved to be a one-shot phenomenon, as it was between 1968 and 1972. And so a first-term Trudeau government once again faces the challenge of giving Canadians a reason to vote for them other than celebrity excitement over the leader.

But framing the election as a crusade to rid Canada of Justin Trudeau would likely not work with New Democrat voters, precisely because they understand that the short road to doing this is to elect a Conservative government. In this era of Trump, Ford and Kenney (political characters that New Democrats view as interchangeable), that is the last thing NDP voters want to see. So making the election explicitly about getting rid of Trudeau, whatever it takes, would likely suppress the NDP vote and flip cross-pressured NDP/Liberal voters to vote Liberal, as they did in 2015. 

Third, the federal NDP also probably can’t successfully frame the election as being about who can stop Andrew Sheer and the Conservatives. The short road to stopping the populist rightwing haters is to re-elect the Liberals. So, if the most important issue facing Canada is to protect women, new Canadians, gay people and First Nations from Andrew Scheer and his dream team of strategists from Ezra Levant’s hate site, Mr. Trudeau goes into the campaign in a better position to do so.

Fourth, the federal NDP probably can’t turn the 2019 election into a referendum about climate change. This is an awkward topic for this writer to talk to you about, gentle reader, because Jagmeet Singh’s NDP has decided to explicitly repudiate the policies of the Notley Alberta NDP government, which I had a hand in developing.

During her term, Premier Rachel Notley offered Canada a grand bargain whereby Alberta would: cap the expansion of emissions from the oil sands; implement a universal carbon price; and eliminate Alberta’s heavy dependence on coal-fired electricity as quickly as possible in favour of renewables—all steps that would slow and then begin to reduce Alberta’s carbon emissions, which were growing uncontrollably. And which, without these policies, would have (and may again) made it absolutely impossible for Canada to meet its international carbon emission targets.

In return, Notley asked the rest of Canada to allow Alberta better access to an ocean port, so that Alberta could sell its more limited energy production into the world market for its full price. The Trudeau government took Notley up on this bargain, made it the core of a federal climate leadership plan centred on a federal carbon price, and invested in the Trans Mountain pipeline to meet its terms. However, for reasons of politics and principle that have an undeniable integrity to many of its urban voters in British Columbia, the British Columbia NDP of Premier John Horgan has mounted a determined and high-decibel campaign against all of this, and in favour of the status quo. And after a period of unhappy prevarication, the federal NDP has decided to follow this lead.

Mulcair was unpopular with Alberta New Democrats, who never forgave him for musing that Canada has “Dutch disease” because of the monetary and fiscal consequences of being an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket major energy exporter. This interesting piece of punditry did not go over well in Alberta. But to his very great credit, Mulcair attempted to walk a fine and balanced line between these contending western regions and NDP governments, mindful of the fundamental duty of federal leaders and parties to find themes that bring Canadians in different regions together instead of dividing them.

Jagmeet Singh, positioning the NDP on its own ballot question for winning the campaign. Wayne Polk Flickr photo

Here again, Jagmeet Singh’s NDP has repudiated their former federal leader—and the Notley NDP. Indeed, in some of their statements about fracked natural gas and the infrastructure required to develop B.C.’s LNG industry, the Singh federal NDP is throwing the Horgan B.C. NDP government into the repudiation bin for good measure. In lieu of Notley’s grand bargain and Horgan’s B.C.-first LNG plan, the federal NDP is going into the 2019 campaign with an uncompromising green agenda that repeats the views of the world’s most committed and alarmed climate change campaigners.

Having done this, the Singh New Democrats almost certainly can’t make it the core of their appeal. Because if they convince their own voters that climate change is the single most important thing that must be addressed now, quite a few of them might well vote for the Green Party. If the next election is about a single issue, there is a single-issue party available on this issue.

So, if the Singh NDP’s campaign can’t be about flanking the Liberals on the right on fiscal and economic issues; probably can’t be about getting rid of Trudeau; can’t be about stopping the populist right-wing haters; and can’t only or principally be about flanking the Liberals on the left on climate change policy—what can it be about?

Going into the campaign, Jagmeet Singh and his team were getting ready to ask this: “The question in this election is, why do Liberals and Conservatives keep making life easier for the rich—and harder for the rest of us?” This campaign frame gets us back to the painful lesson of 2015. Voters—certainly any voters willing to consider voting NDP under Jagmeet Singh—are looking for an alternative to austerity policies that favour the few and betray the many.

Most Canadian families can see themselves in that question. Most Canadian families live the experience of needing two or three incomes to make ends meet. Of creeping precarious employment, everywhere. And of everyone with a claim on their income—the mortgage bank or the landlord, the grocery store, the phone company and the gas company—getting regular raises at their expense. While most people haven’t had a real raise themselves in a generation. While many have seen their jobs shipped overseas, with minimum wage work in retail beckoning as an alternative… maybe. 

Trump spoke to working American families about these themes, and persuaded them he cared more about them than Hillary Clinton and the Democrats did. Other populists on the right are now following suit—and offering their solutions, which are about doubling down on the fiscal and economic policies that created all of this, while bashing your neighbour because she is from Syria.

Jagmeet Singh’s NDP are hoping to make the election about these issues, too. The trick is going to be to get voters to ask themselves that question, without being distracted by the other questions discussed above. If Jagmeet Singh succeeds in doing this, he’ll prove—not for the first time in recent federal political history—that the leader of the third party has been underestimated.  

Brian Topp is a partner at KTG Public Affairs, a fellow at the Public Policy Forum, a director on the board of the Broadbent Institute, and is teaching a course at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. He served as chief of staff to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.