Opinion: Is orange the new red for PM’s Liberals?

Connect the dots between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s India adventure and Tuesday’s budget and what you find is what was meant to be a pre-emptive one-two punch against the NDP.

Trudeau is hardly the first prime minister to use trips abroad – including to India – to shore up support in selected communities at home. But it is fair to ask whether he would have spent quite as many days touring India and brought along quite as many MPs, including four ministers of Indian origin, if Jagmeet Singh had not become NDP leader.

One of the intended political subtexts of the weeklong India visit was that Canada’s South Asian community does not need to vote for a party led by one of its own to have clout in the major federal leagues.

The partisan thinking behind Tuesday’s budget was equally hard to miss. Some described it as an NDP document in Liberal clothing.

Achieving gender parity, the overriding theme of the budget, has been a long-standing mantra of the current prime minister. But some of the budget measures backing it up were plucked out of the NDP’s last election platform.

Until this week, the concept of a national pharmacare program was not on the Liberals’ radar. In a keynote speech to the NDP’s national convention less than two weeks ago, Singh advertised it as the social policy centrepiece of his party’s 2019 platform.

Looking at the standing of the parties in voting intentions, one might be forgiven for wondering why the Liberals are spending so much pre-election capital on neutralizing the New Democrats.

From poll-to-poll, the NDP comes across as a party on the ropes with few of the elements of a comeback in sight.

But Singh’s presence on the leaders podium could still play havoc with some of the Liberal re-election calculations.

There are 25 federal ridings that are home to a South Asian community large enough to influence the outcome of a federal vote and the Liberals hold most of them. But in many instances, it would not necessarily take a massive switch of votes from the Liberals to the Singh-led NDP to cost Trudeau his edge on not only his rivals on the left but also the Conservatives.

Canada’s South Asian community is hardly monolithic. Still, Trudeau’s 2015 success in his home province, and in non-Quebec ridings where there is a significant francophone population, suggests the native-son factor is not one to be dismissed out of hand.

The 2011 orange wave coincided with Stephen Harper finally securing his coveted governing majority. Prior to the NDP’s climb to second place that year, the party’s best seat score had been achieved at the time of the 1988 free-trade campaign. That election resulted in the second consecutive Mulroney majority.

At a minimum, Tuesday’s budget was designed to give as many otherwise NDP-sympathetic constituencies an incentive to not risk the return to power of a Conservative government next year.

As it happens, many of the organizations that heaped grateful praise on the government for its budget this week would otherwise be described as natural allies of the New Democrats. A word in closing on another thread that links the India visit and the budget, this one more related to style than substance.

Both operations suffered from a heavy dose of message overkill. The prime ministerial fashion show that attended the India tour had led to increasingly pointed questions as to the exact purpose of his trip some time before a glaring security failure turned it into a public relations boondoggle.

The same overkill was at play in the so-called “feminist” budget brought down on Tuesday.

One can beat the gender-parity drum for only so long before attracting attention to the fact that when it comes to structural policies, such as universally accessible and affordable child care that are ultimately more fundamental to the full participation of women in the workforce than any amount of gender-based analysis, the rhetoric-coated “equality” budget has a relatively hollow core.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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