The NDP seems to have spent a lifetime waiting for the wave, yet its fits and starts over the years have continually stymied the quest for power. But the events of the past weeks over the Senate scandal, the continuing narrative of a government that has lost its sense of accountability and transparency, and the growing sense that the Official Opposition may be the only “clean hands” left in Ottawa are signalling what may become a significant shift in fortunes.
The NDP – and its forerunner, the CCF – long styled themselves as the “conscience” of Canada, criticizing sitting governments of all stripes on a range of faults and peccadillos. But they have never managed to parlay that sense of outrage into meaningful enough results at the polls.
Part of the NDP’s problem has been the tendency to have its more popular ideas lifted by other parties. As Lester Pearson gleefully recounted in his memoirs, the Liberals became adept at stealing the CCF and NDP’s clothes as they “bathed in holy water” on health insurance and social policy, for example. And the Reform and Canadian Alliance were only too able to put a populist spin on ethics and good government on the road to power by the Conservative party.
On Senate reform, too, the CCF-NDP – ardent critics of the Senate and all its trappings since before Stephen Harper was born – seemed to have lost their voice on the matter with the re-born Conservatives at the helm of the cause.
But as it stands today, the only party with any credible claim to clean hands and a real reform agenda in Ottawa is the NDP. Conservatives has been collectively spinning overtime for a week – a lifetime in politics – with little to show for it except the ruin of Nigel Wright’s political career.
If the Conservative government was looking for a way to completely discredit the Senate as part of its master plan to abolish it, then we could see some method to the madness. From the perspective of most Canadians, however, the NDP’s message is much more on target: the Conservative party has been using the Senate for patronage in the same way as parties of the past, and for all of the government’s bluster about righteousness, there are some serious ethical issues at play here. In the Senate, it has failed to make sure that every one of its caucus members read and follow the rule-book; and it has failed to reassure Canadians that the inner sanctum of the PMO is functioning as it should.
The shrill voice of the NDP on these kinds of matters is often grating (as we say in Quebec, the tendency to sound like la belle-mère offensée – the offended mother-in-law) but on this particular issue, with the Conservative government in a much more serious situation than ever before, the NDP has a real opportunity to turn that around.
On the other side of the aisle, the silence from the Liberal party is, in a word, deafening. On clean hands and Senate reform, there is no new Liberal face – especially one with an old name like Trudeau – that is going to be able to take a firm stand on either matter.
In Quebec, the NDP was able to ride a wave that had everything to do with a trustworthy image of sweeping the house clean; it may now be at a crucial moment where it can extend that image to enough of the rest of Canada to finally make its mark.
Antonia Maioni is an associate professor at McGill University and president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.