The NDP, with its disparate provincial and federal factions, is like an old rock band. Its members still occasionally jam together but they’ve largely gone their separate ways, some into the mainstream, some leaning straight-edge, others dabbling in New Age. A couple of them aren’t on speaking terms.
The Ontario NDP is the drums-and-guitar purist. Unlike the oil patch-loving Alberta New Democrats, or the orange centrists of long duration in Manitoba, the Ontario NDP is an old-school, union-oriented outfit, dedicated to social justice through the expansion of state power. It is still in the garage, banging out the same old riffs, in jean jackets.
This election campaign is proof. The provincial Liberals have swung left, but Andrea Horwath’s NDP are not going to be outflanked from that direction. With a promise of universal dental coverage, expanded pharmacare, far more hospital funding and a plan to buy back Hydro One, Ms. Horwath has unfurled a very NDP platform.
The only surprising thing about the NDP platform is that its garage-rock setlist is pulling boy-band numbers this spring. Ms. Horwath is virtually tied with the Progressive Conservatives in the polls and could be premier-designate on June 8. Her party’s familiar brand of social democracy suddenly requires fresh scrutiny.
Its core problem is that the Ontario NDP remains dogmatic on too many issues, reactively backing labour while stigmatizing business.
In contrast with the provincial Liberals, expanded NDP daycare funding would only go to non-profit and public providers, nonsense in a market with plenty of excellent for-profit daycares that parents rely on. The businesses New Democrats accuse of “padding” profits are usually not heartless corporations but working-class women who watch a few toddlers to scratch out a living.
The profit motive still seems to make the party squeamish on some level. Their platform refers derisively to an estimated $80-million in government money that goes to “private profits” in the home-care sector, because of the involvement of private-sector contractors. But of course many people make “profit” from public services: construction companies, doctors, waste-disposal firms, indeed anyone who contracts with the government. That’s often the most efficient way of delivering services.
The NDP’s dogmatism is a particular concern in a climate in which key sectors, such as steel and auto-building, are under attack from the Trump administration. The next government must be willing to stray from its own orthodoxies if the economy suffers, and that is not a given with the NDP.
This is doubly worrisome because, if the NDP remains skeptical of business by default, they aren’t nearly skeptical enough of the whims of unions. In an editorial board meeting with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Horwath couldn’t give a persuasive answer as to why the party was vowing to scrap the province’s standardized testing regime – a wish-list item of the teachers’ unions – or what she would replace it with. Nor could she imagine a case in which strikers should be legislated back to work in the public interest.
For all that, this campaign period has also provided plenty of time for the other parties to throw into relief how relevant some of the NDP’s ideas are.
While the Tories pine for the days of cheap gas and beer, the NDP is offering dental care and pharmacare proposals that respond to changes in the labour market that have driven more people to work as precarious contractors – whether freelance graphic designers or Uber drivers.
The NDP pledge to convert low-income student loans into free grants is another worthwhile idea in the new economy. Post-secondary education is not a frill anymore: For Canadians hoping to build a decent career, it is the same necessary precondition that high school alone once was.
Yes, these programs would be expensive. But unlike the Liberals, who also promise the moon, the NDP don’t rely solely on deficit spending to pay for them. True to form, there would be higher taxes on business (a corporate rate of 13 per cent instead of 11.5) and the rich (a two-point increase for income over $300,000).
Again, not our kind of platform. But in a race featuring a Liberal party offering social democracy on the credit card and a PC Party offering vague populism, the NDP is true to itself. That’s both its strength and its biggest weakness.