Wells: Liberals shore up their left flank

In the eternal balancing act of Canadian Liberalism, it’s a week for tilting left. One after another, cabinet ministers are lining up to resuscitate programs that please the Liberal base and that the Harper Conservatives fought tooth and nail.

On Monday, Health Minister Jane Philpott announced approval for three supervised drug injection sites in Montreal. They’ll open in the spring and bring the total number of such facilities in the country to five. A Vancouver site received Health Canada approval for supervised injection 13 months ago. Insite, the country’s first supervised-injection facility, opened in Vancouver after it received federal approval in 2003.

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives spent years trying to shut Insite down. The courts stopped him, but he managed to fight the whole notion of supervised injection to a draw for as long as he was prime minister. Almost as soon as he was out, the idea began progressing again.

Conservatives worry that supervised injection will make it easier for addicts to take their drugs. Liberals counter that addicts will take their drugs even when it is hard, and that if they can do it in a place where they are surrounded by medical assistance and the opportunity to receive counselling, their next overdose might not kill them.

On Tuesday, two ministers, Mélanie Joly and Jody Wilson-Raybould, relaunched the Court Challenges Program (CCP), which pays citizens’ groups to sue governments for their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This one has been even more of a political football than injection sites, if only because it’s been around for longer: Pierre Trudeau founded the program in 1978 to encourage legal fights against Quebec’s then-new language laws. He expanded it after the charter became constitutional law in 1982.

Brian Mulroney at first expanded the program still further, to buy himself some progressive credibility, then cancelled it in 1992. Jean Chrétien brought it back. Harper shut it down again.

Will the program survive the return of Conservative government? Trudeau hopes no such thing will ever happen, of course.

Writing in Policy Options, political scientist Ian Brodie suggested ways the reborn program could be made Conservative-friendly: “Why not let the CCP finance free speech litigation by journalists like Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn? … Why not let the CCP help traditional religious groups protect the rights of religious minorities in court?

The short answer is: “Because that’s not why Liberals liked the program in the first place.” Joly and Wilson-Raybould said an independent panel would decide which court cases get funded.

Announcements like the ones Philpott, Joly and Wilson-Raybould announced this week have long pipelines. Civil servants have been working on these files for months. Any coincidence in their announcements is likely to be an illusion. Still, it is handy for the Liberals to be doing the occasional thing that seems Liberal. Justin Trudeau’s last few months have featured oil pipeline approvals, a conspicuous public apology in Calgary for suggesting he wants to “phase out” the oilsands and a highly conciliatory approach to the new U.S. president, Donald Trump.

The prime minister capped that streak by abandoning any plan to change the electoral system. Resuscitating two cherished Liberal programs and fulfilling a couple of election promises may help him shore up his left flank.

The Conservative leadership campaign is attracting a lot of attention for the official opposition. But there is still both trouble and opportunity for the Liberals on the other end of the partisan spectrum.

Jack Layton’s NDP won more seats in 2011 than Harper’s Conservatives did in 2015.

The NDP led in the polls for months before the 2015 election. The NDP is the second choice of more Liberal voters than the Conservatives are.

It’s always possible for a third-place party to rise, even when its hopes seem dim, as Justin Trudeau, the former leader of a third-place party, could tell you.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer.

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