Whatever headaches and divisions they are suffering over the Trans Mountain pipeline, federal Liberals can take consolation from the fact that it is hurting the NDP more.
For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, that should be a big comfort. The Conservatives remain his chief rivals for power, but the New Democrats are probably bigger rivals for votes, especially those that are moved by environmental issues. The Liberals can count their lucky stars that the New Democrats are so hamstrung. Some of them know it.
“We’re under no illusions about how controversial these projects are. They divide political parties.” Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr told Liberals at the party’s convention Friday. Then he noted it’s dividing the NDP.
That’s not just uncomfortable for the NDP family. The chief combatants in the political fight over the Trans Mountain expansion are Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and British Columbia Premier John Horgan. But it is federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh who will suffer.
Ms. Notley and Mr. Horgan are doing what most of their supporters want. Ms. Notley is positioning her Alberta NDP as distinct from the federal party, a bit like the Quebec Liberals, and in Alberta, she’s probably better off. Mr. Horgan has to offer a voice to local objections, and keep the support of the Green Party in the legislature.
That left Mr. Singh to lamely suggest that the jurisdictional question be referred to the Supreme Court. That wasn’t just passing the buck, it was a futile suggestion, since the Trans Mountain expansion project (TMX) project is now under a May 31 deadline the top court would never meet.
It was Ms. Notley who provided the most stinging comment about Mr. Singh’s role: “He is irrelevant.” She meant that he has no decision-making power, but it underlines that on this issue, he is paralyzed.
It’s understandable that Mr. Singh wants to paper over the divide and hope his ambivalent stance prevents any damage. Most of his caucus, and probably most NDP supporters across the country, lean to Mr. Horgan’s stop-TMX position. But the NDP also doesn’t want to undercut Ms. Notley, who faces another long-shot election next May.
But it is not going to get quieter. The protests will rise in tone. New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart was arrested in those protests, but remains in Mr. Singh’s caucus. Trying to stand in the middle could make Mr. Singh look hapless.
The federal NDP does have a position, of sorts, on pipelines. The New Democrats are not against them in general, but in practice they’re not in favour of any specific pipeline. They have lots of objections to TMX, but they can’t voice them clearly so that voters across the country really hear them.
And that fits with the NDP’s larger problem, that the party can’t seem to define what it is in a way that garner’s anyone’s attention.
That’s not just because most Canadians don’t know much about Mr. Singh. The same could be said about Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. It’s still a long way to an election and Mr. Singh does have a compelling personal narrative as the first visible minority leader, who grew up dealing with discrimination and channelled it into a hopeful persona.
But the NDP appears to be fading in Canadians’ consciousness. While the proportion of people in Nanos Research polls who say they will consider voting Conservative has grown since Stephen Harper led the party, the NDP’s universe of potential supporters has shrunk since the 2015 election, and since Mr. Singh was chosen as leader.
That’s not a definitive measure of NDP strength, but it should worry New Democrats. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals are making the kind of governing decisions that are bound to turn off some voters on the left. Even some Liberal Party members seem to want their government to burnish their progressive credentials, judging by the party’s weekend convention in Halifax.
Yet far from capitalizing on it, the New Democrats seem to be slipping off of Canadians’ radar.
It’s a good bet most Canadians couldn’t identify them clearly with any major issue or plank. The Liberals are moving to proposing a national pharmacare plan, stealing one of the few major, identifiable NDP planks that ordinary Canadians might associate with them. The NDP is becoming a hazy notion for most Canadians. And on the TMX pipeline, which symbolizes the tug-of-war between environment and resource economy that is so critical in Canada, the NDP’s own divisions are leaving the party in a fog.