The Liberal base is trying to push the party leftward at the national convention in Halifax, hoping to get its leadership to adopt a progressive platform that addresses issues such as pharmacare and the decriminalization of the sex trade and possession of small amounts of illegal drugs.
The pressure is coming from inside the Liberal caucus and some of the party’s most activist wings, such as the Young Liberals, who feel the party needs strong positions on issues that will be promoted by the NDP in the 2019 general election.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who was given top billing Friday evening, said Liberals need to continue advocating for a strong government presence in people’s lives. After pointing to her initiatives in favour of free university tuition and subsidized daycare, Ms. Wynne said that the time has come for a national, universal pharmacare program.
“It’s bold what we are doing … but it’s not radical. If we don’t invest in people, then the cost down the road will be way higher,” she said.
Ms. Wynne said that the type of politics adopted by her opponent, Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, are spreading across Canada with potentially disastrous results.
“This kind of sloganeering, this kind of populism, it’s not isolated to Ontario,” said Ms. Wynne, who faces an uphill battle ahead of the June 7 provincial election. “I hope that we can dig down into the love and support that we feel for each other and we can find a way to defeat in Ontario this brand of politics.”
Afterward, American political strategist David Axelrod warned Liberals about the difficulties of winning a second term, urging them to continue focusing on concrete measures that will help the everyday lives of Canadians. A senior adviser to former U.S. president Barack Obama, he said Liberals must continue offering an upbeat and positive message, while being ready for opposition attacks.
“You have to be prepared to push back hard,” Mr. Axelrod said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will address the convention on Saturday, having arrived midway through the proceedings after a trip in Europe.
In his absence, Liberal ministers have been front and centre to present the party as an inclusive organization that is home to people of diverse origins and life journeys. Treasury Board President Scott Brison talked about the evolution of gay rights in the country, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould addressed the issue of reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen spoke about his life as a refugee in Canada, among others.
The 3,000 registered Liberal supporters voted on Friday in support of four of the 30 resolutions that are on the floor. On Saturday morning, the top 20 resolutions will be prioritized in a plenary session. The party will decide before the next election which resolutions are included − in whole or in part − in the 2019 electoral platform.
The federal Liberal government has already pushed back against some of the proposed changes, most notably a pitch to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all illegal drugs. The idea was championed by Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith at a workshop on health and social policy where he said “old and failed” approaches are inadequate to deal with the opioid crisis.
Immediately after the workshop, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor shot down the idea, which is based on the Portuguese model, saying that the Canadian government has already eased restrictions on methadone and prescription heroin.
On another issue, Liberal MP John Oliver defended a resolution in favour of a universal, single-payer pharmacare program. Mr. Oliver argued that if the Liberals don’t go in that direction in the next federal election, they will be vulnerable because the NDP is already supporting that option.
“This is ours to finish, not the NDP,” he said.
NDP MP and parliamentary leader Guy Caron said there is nothing new with the Liberals adopting left-leaning policies at their conventions. The problem, he said, is that they frequently fail to follow through, as they did on issues such as electoral reform or establishing a guaranteed income level.
“There are many resolutions here that would find themselves at home at an NDP convention,” Mr. Caron said. “It’s a big show as they try to show how progressive they are, but the implementation, when they are in power, is just not there.”