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Maria Fleming is a Venezuelan-Canadian and a former NDP staffer on Parliament Hill.

It has been yet another challenging time for the already-challenged leadership of Jagmeet Singh.

On Jan. 24, as protesters filled the streets of Caracas and countries like the United States, Canada, and the members of the Lima Group issued their prompt support of the interim presidency of Juan Guaido, the federal New Democrat leader released a statement that declined to condemn Nicolas Maduro, whose regime has delivered the worst humanitarian crisis in this hemisphere. “Canada should not simply follow the United States’ foreign policy, particularly given its history of self-interested interference in the region,” he said.

Never mind that Canada led this charge, rather than the United States; Mr. Singh’s mushy stance didn’t capture the sentiment of his foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière, who said that she speaks for the party in being “comfortable” with Canada’s support of Mr. Guaido. When reporters asked Mr. Singh who the president of Venezuela is, he declined to reply with a name, repeatedly saying: “The people will decide.”

There is no doubt that the NDP botched this issue from a political and humanitarian perspective. But the party’s response to the situation in Venezuela has also shed light on a different problem altogether: a moral identity crisis in the NDP.

Before the 2015 federal election, the NDP’s criticisms as the Official Opposition to Stephen Harper’s Conservative government resonated with Canadians. But when the Liberals formed government on the strength of an even more progressive agenda than the NDP – which even adopted some policy propositions that the party had itself put forward – the New Democrats plunged into existential crisis. Without a clear vision, and with Thomas Mulcair’s removal as leader leaving a power vacuum, the party resorted to what it knew best – attack the new government on all fronts.

This approach is now failing the NDP. But it’s also keeping it from doing the heavy lifting of restructuring the party to sell itself to Canadians. While the job of those in opposition is to hold the government to account, attacking for the sake of attacking may not work so well against a government that consults with local activists and is generally liked by Canadians, and such criticism also demeans the grassroots organizations and people behind the issues the Liberals support. A party that attacks its only customer – people – is probably not a good contender for government.

The party has also long suffered from a lack of evidence-based policy development and consultation processes. While too much process leads to bureaucracy, no process and no consultation at all leads to poor quality – and that’s true regardless of the organization’s ideological leanings. As the Liberals gain the support of moderate voters and push the NDP to the radical left, it remains unclear to Canadians what the NDP can offer them. By criticizing government without proposing better solutions, amid intraparty turmoil, the only thing that is clear is that the NDP has lost its raison d’être.

A lack of guiding principles means the NDP must walk the line on every issue, when doing so makes a leader look weak and untrustworthy. Mr. Singh’s equivocation over the course of these past weeks is akin to Donald Trump’s defence of white nationalists, in which he claimed that there are “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville. While absolutes are not usually advisable to those who seek political support from the majority of people, condemning racists and brutal dictators like Mr. Maduro are an exception. This also pushes the NDP out of the public discourse. And with an unknown leader and public approval ratings dropping, the NDP is in no position to adopt a “no news is good news” approach.

Foreign policy is often dismissed for not being a ballot-box issue. But, when it comes to Venezuela, the New Democrats’ failure to stand up for human rights – and their failure to acknowledge their mistake – has hurt them. However, their real challenge was to prove to Canadians that they are not blinded by ideology, and that what’s happening in Venezuela is not their plan for Canada. Venezuelan socialism is not a very compelling import; after all, oppressive measures, organized crime and poor governance have produced over three million refugees, and the absence of evidence-based processes has led to the implementation of damaging economic policies and hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, and unnecessary suffering and deaths.

The NDP was faced with the challenge of reassuring Canadians that if it was elected, it would not turn Canada into Venezuela. It utterly failed. And what’s more disconcerting is that the need to do so appears to have taken the NDP by surprise.

So would the party turn Canada into Venezuela? Canadians might not be sure – and to quote Mr. Singh, the people will decide.

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