Brian Topp is a partner at GT and Company. He was president and national campaign director of the federal NDP, and was Jack Layton’s lead negotiator in 2008 when Layton made a play to replace Stephen Harper’s government with a coalition.
By negotiating a confidence-and-supply agreement with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and his party are doing what most Canadians want our politicians to do when minority parliaments are elected: work together to get things done.
Some of the best work ever done in Ottawa got done that way; Tommy Douglas and Lester Pearson worked together in the minority parliaments of the 1960s to bring medicare to Canadians. Now, the country can potentially look forward to universal dental care; cheaper pharmaceuticals; fairer labour laws; a “Medicare”-like legal framework to enshrine national child care; action on Indigenous housing; and some concrete help for workers in sunset industries as we act on climate change.
An opposition party’s job is to oppose, and the federal NDP will continue to oppose this government when it deserves it. But a political party’s job is also to take advantage of any power given to it by voters to implement its program. Mr. Douglas, David Lewis, Ed Broadbent and Jack Layton all did so. Indeed, you might be surprised to hear that Mr. Layton also strongly believed that doing this was good politics for the NDP. And then he went some distance to proving it.
Let’s talk about that.
We’ll hear a lot about the undeniable fact that the smaller party in accords like this is usually thanked by voters by being crushed in the following election. This recently happened to the Green Party in British Columbia, after doing some fine and honourable work in collaboration with the BC NDP, much to their credit.
Since you usually get killed, why do it?
In order to become a party of government.
Our Westminster political system has shown its basic strength and wisdom in recent years, in contrast to the increasingly dysfunctional mercantile republic we share this continent with. But our system is not designed for the multi-party reality of Canadian politics. It assigns false majorities to our pre-Confederation legacy parties and has been doing a pretty good job, so far, of keeping “new” contenders, like the 90-year-old CCF/NDP, out of federal office.
In avoiding the temptations of oppositionist political populism (which is rotting and marginalizing our convoy-embracing Conservative Party before our eyes), and instead advancing proposals for change and reform, Mr. Singh and the federal NDP are putting themselves forward as a party of government – a party that can get results.
Where do they go with that?
First, they go to Quebec.
This accord gives Mr. Singh and his team a chance to return to the offer Mr. Layton made to progressive Quebeckers, many of whom have once again temporarily parked their votes with an increasingly improbable Bloc Québécois, which frames federal politics as a looting expedition. Quebeckers know their country can’t run that way. They’ve been waiting for a better offer.
Mr. Singh now has one: Instead of electing empty seats, Quebeckers can team up with other progressive Canadians to work on issues we can all agree on. That message worked for Mr. Layton in 2011. The New Democrats’ only route to national office goes through Quebec.
Second, they go to Ontario.
If Mr. Singh and his team can make progress in Quebec, national polling numbers will evolve in their favour. That might earn them another look from voters in Ontario, who have shown a renewed willingness to consider New Democrats in the right circumstances, as evidenced by the last Ontario provincial election.
Mainstream Ontario voters – like most Canadians – reject Trumpian right-populism. Mr. Singh’s challenge is to successfully argue that the degradation and self-marginalization of the Conservative Party doesn’t have to leave voters with no alternative but a Liberal team that, by the time of the next election in 2025, will have been in office for three terms. There will be another party of government on offer that hopefully has some momentum with the help of francophone Quebeckers.
Third, they go to Western Canada.
There are no functioning Liberal parties in western Canada, and populist Conservatives there do a pretty good job of demonizing the federal Liberals, especially when they’re led by a Trudeau. This accord will also be obsessively vilified by trucker-supporting Tories in the West. That will pose a political challenge to provincial New Democrats in that region. They are going to have to play their own cards, remembering that they succeed when they speak up for their provinces. The federal party, meanwhile, has no alternative but to make its case: In a minority parliament, Canadians have told politicians to work together to get things done. Parliament’s best work gets done that way.
There may be a silent majority in much of Western Canada that is waiting for this approach to politics, if advanced without flinching. But this argument won’t be won if it is never made and never heard. Mr. Singh needs to spend a lot of time on Western open-line radio between now and 2025 – starting right now.
And then there are the provinces of Atlantic Canada and the north, which face economic and demographic challenges that could do with a period of real progressive national government.
We’ll see if this accord turns out to be good politics for the federal NDP. One way or another, Canadians can take heart from it. There is now an effective majority in Parliament that is for getting things done in the public interest. We can be a little more hopeful. A little more optimistic. Love, after all, is better than hate, as Jack Layton was saying the last time we heard from him. On that road, you can change the world.
And, maybe, Parliament. And then, maybe, the government.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.