Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

For Ontario New Democrats, there's a cost for playing the populist card

They're months removed from their best election showing since 1990. If recent polls are to be believed, they have the most personally popular leader in their province. And with a minority legislature, they're getting attention that provincial third parties can usually only dream about.

In short, Ontario New Democrats have a lot to celebrate. But as they gathered this weekend in Hamilton, you wouldn't have known it.

It's an unfamiliar place in which they currently find themselves. And when Andrea Horwath took to the stage on Saturday, it was obvious that some members of her party aren't quite sure they want to be there.

Story continues below advertisement

The odds are that within the next 10 days, Ms. Horwath will announce she'll support a decidedly right-of-centre budget, in return for a few tweaks made by the governing Liberals. So her half-hour speech was squarely aimed at justifying her pragmatism to an audience she knows is skeptical about it.

It was a well-constructed text, building a case that it's better to try to build a fairer province by working with other parties than to take "the path of easy, simple opposition to everything." But the response was more polite than enthusiastic, with even party officials conceding a degree of unease in the air.

Earlier in the day, Ms. Horwath passed a leadership review with 76-per-cent support. It was a comfortable result, but not the overwhelming endorsement that might have been expected based on her mostly glowing media coverage. And it was slightly lower than the percentage that Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, generally considered to be on thinner ice, received earlier this year. (In fairness, Tories found a different outlet to vent their unhappiness, in the form of an anti-establishment candidate for their party's presidency.)

To some extent, the tension can be chalked up to backlash from the likes of Sid Ryan, the outspoken Ontario Federation of Labour president who spent the weekend pushing for the NDP to take a much harder line in interparty negotiations. But watching the grassroots at their policy sessions, earnestly debating a thick package of resolutions calling for everything from free tuition to nationalization of steel companies to an end to standardized testing in elementary schools, it was obvious the disconnect goes beyond a few agitators.

Since her leadership win three years ago, Ms. Horwath has been trying to convert the NDP from a party of conscience to one that regularly competes for government. That's meant a willingness to offer what she thinks the public wants to hear, rather than what she thinks it should hear.

Federally, Jack Layton engineered a similar culture change. But Ms. Horwath has been blunter about it, leading to a campaign platform last fall that was so heavy on pocketbook populism, it overlapped heavily with the one Mr. Hudak ran on. Now, the results that election produced are causing the shift to be rammed down New Democrats' throats.

It's not just that Ms. Horwath is willing to bargain with the Liberals; it's what she's bargaining for.

Story continues below advertisement

The closest she comes to traditional NDP doctrine is calling for a surtax on people making more than $500,000 per year. But other big asks – an HST break on home heating, a tax-credit for companies that create jobs, caps on the pay of public-sector executives – are more populist than left-wing. And the social-spending requests, for top-ups to disability payments and child-care funding, are so modest as to almost seem apologetic.

Meanwhile, Ms. Horwath is giving the Liberals a free pass on their emerging battle with organized labour, to the extent that she didn't utter a word about it this weekend. Presented with an opportunity to win back some of the union support that bled to the Liberals after the mid-1990s, she's resolutely declining to do so for fear of playing to type. So giving up on that part of its identity is another sacrifice the NDP is being asked to make.

"I don't want to just provide effective opposition to the Premier," Ms. Horwath said in Saturday's speech. "I plan to be Premier."

It was the line that got the biggest cheer from her fellow New Democrats. But whether they're as keen on what she thinks she needs to do to get to the Premier's office is a different matter.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to