From Toronto: The Ontario New Democrats Shift Left

by Brandy Baker, North Star Editorial Collective and Jason Baines, President, NDP Toronto Danforth and founding member, NDP Momentum (www.ndpmomentum.ca) on May 17, 2017

Last month, on the weekend of April 21-23, the Ontario  NDP (New Democratic Party) held its convention in downtown Toronto. Over 700 delegates were in attendance at any given time to approve such measures as: the elimination of tuition fees; steep increases in inadequate welfare payments; $15 minimum wage; opposition to the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership); the creation of a public childcare programme; the implementation of a Pharmacare programme; and calling for the full buyback of Hydro One, the provincial public electric company. 30% of Hydro One was sold off to private interests by Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Liberal Party, a party that has held power in the province since 2003. The Liberal Party has also been responsible for hiking tuition fees over 60% in the province since forming its government. Currently, because of the selloff of Hydro One, Wynne’s approval rating is just 12% (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2017/03/24/kathleen-wynne-job-approval-rating-poll_n_15570258.html). 80% of all Ontario residents support returning Hydro One to full public control (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=69&v=NVtyC-AiA2w).

The NDP’s Past Rightward Shifts

Some may dismiss the resolutions passed at convention. Historically, many have gone down the rabbit hole, but considering that the NDP, both on the federal level and the provincial levels, suffered devastating electoral losses in the past couple of years because its political leaders have run to the political right. This recent shift left is significant as it shows the mood of the rank and file. In 2015, the NDP lost 51 seats and its role as the Official Opposition when NDP Federal Leader and Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair ran to the right in the final weeks of the federal campaign. This allowed Justin Trudeau to outflank the NDP on the left. Mulcair, a former provincial Liberal Party cabinet member, was in talks with all three of Canada’s main parties—Conservative, Liberal, and NDP— before aligning with the New Democrats in late 2006.

In 2014, Andrea Horwath, the leader of the Ontario New Democrats went to great lengths to echo the late Toronto Mayor Rob Ford when she ran a centre-right populist campaign in the provincial election. What made this dynamic even more frustrating was that the Ontario Conservative Party’s agenda was swiftly rejected by voters after Conservative leader Tim Hudak on the campaign trail called to cut 100,000 public sector jobs. Horwath continues to release ads in the vein of Barack Obama and other US Democrats championing “the middle class” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylXWdAaDi_8) while not mentioning the working classes or the poor. This reaching to the right from the party that gave Canadians their single payer healthcare system (“Medicare”) has been nothing short of disgraceful. They cannot even be called opportunistic as they have presented the NDP with no opportunities except to shrink, lose power, and to drive away many socialists and other principled left organizers who have contributed much to the NDP. The NDP politicians’ insistence on acting like the Liberal Party has robbed Canadians outside of Quebec from having a true opposition party to champion labour (both unionized and non-unionized), the environment, and the poor.

Last Year’s Federal NDP Convention

The first backlash to these losses from the rank and file was not from this year’s Ontario convention but last year’s federal convention where Mulcair lost his bid to stay on as the party’s federal leader, garnering only 48% support. At this same convention, the federal NDP endorsed having a two-year national discussion on the Leap Manifesto (https://leapmanifesto.org/en/the-leap-manifesto/), a document penned by over 60 activists, including Naomi Klein and her spouse, documentary filmmaker Avi Lewis. This was impressive considering the fact that the convention was being held in Alberta, the provincial oil capital of Canada and the country’s most right-wing province. Consideration of Leap passed to the ire of Rachel Notley, the NDP Premier of Alberta (in an upset, the NDP Notley government took power in Alberta in 2015; this is the only provinicial government that the NDP holds). Notley’s support of the Keystone Pipeline, her desire to implement more pipelines, and her overall love of the oil economy puts her on par with pro-corporate politicians such as Hillary Clinton. However, the Notley administration is implementing a $15 minimum wage starting next year and they have fought off the Conservatives’ attempts to lay off public workers. The Alberta NDP is Canada’s (and North America’s) only  anti-austerity government, which is impressive considering Alberta is facing widespread private sector layoffs due to the fall in the price of oil, and the Notley government refusing to implement cuts. The good that the Notley government is doing certainly does not cancel out the bad as we have an environmental crisis and the oil needs to stay in the ground: best to follow the lead of the Green Party of the United States and implement something along the lines of a Green New Deal (http://gpus.org/organizing-tools/the-green-new-deal/), an aggressive transition from an oil-based economy with a comprehensive green jobs programme. Unfortunately, neither Edmonton or Ottawa, the country’s capital, are moving forward on this, though the Ontario NDP passed a resolution transitioning away from an oil economy (more on that below) and embracing a green economy. The oil politics in Alberta make the NDP’s passing and implementing of the Leap Manifesto even more urgent.

The Heroes of the Ontario NDP Convention

Ontario’s NDP convention consisted of various union members such as public sector employees and steelworkers, long-time partisans and other activists, but some of the stars of the convention were those NDP members on unemployment and welfare who came to the mic to recount how difficult it is to survive on so little, including a British-Canadian mother with now-grown children who made an impassioned plea for a provincial childcare program, as well as the ONDY (Ontario New Democratic Youth). One student from the University of Toronto who was advocating on the floor for $15 minimum wage recounted the activist campaign he helped to spearhead at school in which they made a wall and at the top of the wall, people got to see the high salaries of various CEOs as well as the annual pay of Justin Trudeau. On the bottom of the wall, there were the meager hourly pay rates of students working as well as university workers; this was a most appropriate visualization of the wide wealth gap that exists in Canada and this wall got people on campus engaged in the discussions about the fight for $15. ONDY consists of a generation of those in their 20s and 30s who have grown up under austerity, lived under the Stephen Harper Tory government, and saw the movement around Bernie Sanders in the States. These young people are eager to implement various social democratic programs to help that vast majority of people in their province. One example of how serious convention delegates were about real change is when one delegate sought to send back the resolution calling for the elimination of tuition fees. This delegate wanted international students excluded from receiving free tuition. Wheeling out the old xenophobic cliché, “I don’t want my tax dollars going for [those who are not from my country]” this delegate was fortunately shot down with the vast majority of delegates supporting free education for all students: from Canada and all other nations. I was told by one attendee that in the past, the delegates would have struck free tuition fees for international students from the resolution.

One member of ONDY, Angela Zhu, who would later in the day be elected member-at-large for the new Ontario NDP Exec Committee got up and rightfully chastised the NDP for not being aggressive enough on the environment and stated that young people were not going to join the Party unless this was changed. The crowd cheered and this activist was able to get the resolution on climate change calling for a move away from a carbon economy moved up for discussion and vote. One 15 year-old NDP member came to the mic and made the case for this measure and we gave him a well-deserved standing ovation. The delegates overwhelmingly supported the measure despite opposition from some unionists in the room: one union activist took the con mic to admit that we need to transition away from oil, but he expressed concern for wokrers who would be displaced, stating that the resolution was not specific enough to deal with this reality.

Pharmacare

The delegates passed the call for pharmacare on Friday. Leader Horwath held a press conference and presented it on Saturday. Her plan was limited, but promising. Assuming an NDP win next year, Horwath called for its implementation to happen in 2020 with over 100 various drugs covered with an eventual expansion to all prescribed pharmeceuticals. While seniors currently have prescription drug coverage, many struggles with drug costs and while workplaces offer private insurance plans for prescription drugs, it is often inadequate.

Saskatchewan Liberal Party places ad opposing Medicare in 1962. In 2017, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath (left) unveils pharmcare plan for election next year, and Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne (right) tolls out pharmcare for all under age 25

In response to Horwath’s plan, Premier Kathleen Wynne recently announced that the Liberal government would soon roll out a plan covering prescription drugs for those under 25. Some have criticized Horwath for playing it too safe and allowing Wynne to score political points and knock the wind out of the NDP’s sails, but some of us say good: let these two have a race to the top on this issue as all of the people in Ontario can only benefit as pharmacare continues to be expanded, and a successful pharmacare program in Ontario can spread to the other provinces as did Medicare from Saskatchewan in 1962 and with the support of the federal government with the Medical Care Act of 1966. Quebec would be the last province to get Medicare in 1970.

Should We Engage the NDP?

We understand that the NDP is a very flawed party with some backward politics. However, it is a labour party founded on socialist principles and in Canada, though union membership has gone down since the 80s amongst mostly men because of the loss of manufacturing jobs, unionized workers still account for 31.8% of the workforce (https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/collective-bargaining-data/reports/union-coverage.html). Also, its membership, for the most part, seeks a strong public sector with services and unionized jobs. On the federal level, the rank and file needs to pressure the NDP to oppose all US wars of aggression and to not participate in them, to shift immediately from an oil economy to a true green economy, and to engage in and build movements outside of the Party. The federal NDP must also take a principled position on Palestine and support the BDS movement as well as the fights of Toronto’s Black Lives Matter against police abuse. Also, the delegates had the right politics at the Ontario convention on domestic issues, but many of the rank and file may be too partisan to hold their own leaders’ feet to the fire once those leaders are elected. We believe that while the US Democrats as a party are not worth engaging by the US left in any capacity whatsoever, an inside/outside approach with Canada’s NDP is the best solution on the left to move Canada forward. A party like the NDP is only going to be as good as the outside pressures from the left that seek to make true change.

Also, with the socialist left taking on a more international focus in the 21st century, any political gains made in Canada can only help move the United States forward as well. Before the Internet, U.S. right-wing politicians were able to incessantly rail against Canada’s “failed” healthcare system in the corporate media. Now, such ideological rhetoric does not carry the weight that it once did as it can be more easily contested; there are many accurate sources on-line where people can learn the real facts about Canadian Medicare. It will only be a matter of a few years before all Canadians in Ontario, the country’s largest province (12 million) will be covered under pharmacare. As pharmacare spreads across Canada, those in the U.S., a far wealthier country, will want to know why they too cannot have a public health system like their brothers and sisters up north.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Paul Shtogryn May 19, 2017 at 10:11 pm

I wish a lot of this was true in regards to the popularity of the NDP in Ontario but the Tories with Patrick brown are going to be tough and it looks like they are in the lead right now.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: