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opinion

What would Canada’s NDP look like if it ceased to be its own distinct party, and instead operated as a phalange of the governing Liberals? Would New Democratic principles, initiatives and behaviours be perceptibly different from what the party is offering Canadians now?

If, one day, the NDP morphed from its current role as the figurative progressive flank of the Liberal Party, to the literal progressive flank of the Liberal Party – would anyone notice? Or would it take NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh donning a red tie and belting out a Queen song in a hotel lobby before the public realized that the two parties had become one?

The Liberals have steadily encroached on the NDP’s territory under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s leadership: on the legalization of marijuana, as first promised during the 2015 election; on setting a price on carbon, though with a tax, as opposed to former NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s pledge of a national cap-and-trade system; on access to affordable daycare through its $10-a-day deal with provinces; on social justice, reconciliation and inclusivity initiatives; and so on.

The NDP will occasionally protest: “Hey, that was our idea first!” Each time, though, they will yield that idea to the Liberals and replace that hitherto occupied space with nothing. The final forfeiture of the party’s leverage and autonomy came through the confidence-and-supply agreement it reached with the Liberals in March, when the NDP promised to back the government until 2025; in exchange, the Liberals would implement certain NDP initiatives, such as dental care, and inevitably claim all the credit all their own.

The NDP can again insist, “Hey, that was our idea,” to anyone who will listen – but now it gets to do so while gritting its teeth and voting with the government on any and all matters of importance. It also gets to yield to the Liberals’ compromised version of its initiatives, including an interim dental care “program” that is more of a plan to distribute cheques, while insisting the party will make no further concessions. (We’ll see!)

The NDP’s seeming role as a Liberal Party offshoot was put to work once again this past week, when the party released a 30-second attack ad against Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre. Channelling the style and substance of the Conservatives’ ads in the run-up to the 2011 election against former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff (“He didn’t come back for you!”), this NDP ad claims that Mr. Poilievre is “not in it for you,” and contends that though he claims to be an advocate for the Canadian worker, he is actually “a friend of big business and the corporate elite.”

From a Liberal perspective, this is perfect. The NDP is doing the dirty work by slinging mud against the new Conservative leader, while the Liberal Party gets to keep its hands clean and maintain the illusion that it is far too busy passing bills on doubling the GST rebate and topping up the Canada Housing Benefit to engage in silly partisan jousting.

Best of all, the ad is non-specific: It doesn’t attempt to promote the NDP, or outline any of the ways that it is advocating for the Canadian worker instead. It merely asserts that Mr. Poilievre is not, and leaves the observer to figure out the rest. Mr. Singh’s communications team should receive a fruit basket from the Prime Minister’s Office, if it hasn’t already.

The NDP knows it is now being squeezed on both political sides. Not only is the party being outflanked by the governing Liberals on social issues, climate, health care and so forth, but now the Conservatives are making direct appeals to the party’s old bread-and-butter: the blue-collar worker. Indeed, what was started by former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole during the last election, with his package of labour reforms, has been picked up and energized by Mr. Poilievre – who has spent the last several months touring the country and lamenting the rising cost of living and its effect on the average Canadian.

This shift has left the NDP wayward and confused, with Mr. Singh both decrying the pain of inflation for the Canadian family, while also decrying efforts to rein in inflation through interest-rate hikes by the Bank of Canada. What does the NDP stand for, then? Uh, better supports for Canadians workers, I guess, but delivered in a slightly different way.

The question of what justifies the NDP as a distinct federal party should not be rhetorical. As it exists now, it is less an alternative option than an influencing force: a progressive nag on the Liberals’ conscience that can influence policy, but not present a viable or electable replacement – and especially not when it has committed to support the governing party for the next three years.

Certainly many Canadians still support and will continue to support the New Democrats, but without much of a raison d’être, that support likely stems more from disillusionment with Mr. Trudeau and revulsion for Mr. Poilievre than it does the appeal of a radically different platform.

So what is the NDP in 2022 all about? Mr. Singh will tell you – just as soon as he’s finished doing Mr. Trudeau’s grunt work.