Opinion: NDP slogans have changed, but core narrative remains same

Jagmeet Singh’s keynote speech to the NDP weekend convention was his first major opportunity to start positioning the party for a general election that is barely 20 months away.

Notwithstanding the contention of many New Democrats that the party’s last election platform missed the mark, the rookie leader’s speech fell well short of being a major departure from the recent past.

The broad theme of the 40-minute speech was social inequality – a thread that will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the NDP over the decades. The slogans have changed over the years, but the core narrative has not.

Singh promised to close the tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy and jack up the corporate tax rate.

He talked of stitching a pan-Canadian pharmacare program into Canada’s social safety net.

He restated the NDP’s long-standing drive for a more proportional voting system.

He repeated the party’s commitment to achieve a meaningful reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

There were striking blanks in his address to delegates.

At a time when the 2019 lines between the ruling Liberals and the Conservatives are being drawn on the climate change battlefield, Singh had remarkably little to say on the issue.

He ad-libbed a few sentences on the need to take credible steps to reach significant emissions reduction goals, but was silent on the NDP approach to doing that or on the ruling Liberals’ move to put a national floor price on carbon and implement a federal carbon tax in the provinces that fail to comply.

The NDP under Thomas Mulcair favoured a cap-and-trade system over a carbon tax. That is also the preferred approach of Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath. She is the next leading New Democrat to head for the hustings. The three main contenders to replace former Ontario Tory leader Patrick Brown have all vowed to fight Justin Trudeau’s carbon pricing measures.

Based on his weekend address, Singh is in no hurry to enter the carbon tax fray – in no small part for fear of getting dragged into the increasingly heated Alberta-B.C. NDP fight over pipelines.

Not since the 1988 free-trade election have global trade deals been so high on Canada’s radar. NAFTA is under renegotiation. At some point in the near future, Canada could have to decide whether to forego its current arrangements with the U.S. and Mexico or agree to major concessions.

Earlier this year, Trudeau announced Canada would join its Asia-Pacific partners minus the United States in a new free trade zone. At the tail end of the 2015 campaign, Mulcair had campaigned hard against the original Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.

Despite a lot of ongoing trade developments, Singh’s speech was as silent on the issue as he was on Canada-U.S. relations in the Trump era.

The notion that the weekend’s deliberations have put the NDP on the path of a shift to the left mostly goes to prove that movement on the Canadian political spectrum is often in the eye of the beholder.

Click on Mulcair’s 2015 platform and the first item that comes up is a pharmacare program followed by the promise of a national child-care program modelled on the Quebec system.

Child care did not get much play in Singh’s speech. Yet many progressive activists would consider universal child care to be a better social policy cornerstone upon which to build support among millennial voters than the offer of free prescription drugs.

The commitment to shift the tax burden from the middle-class to the wealthiest individuals and to big corporations was part and parcel of the 2015 platform.

The points of departure between Mulcair’s policy road map and Singh’s are for the most part to be found in the margins.

The party’s recent embrace of the notion Netflix and other digital giants should be under the same obligation to collect sales tax as their domestic competitors falls in that category. The New Democrats are also breaking new ground by calling for the decriminalization of all personal use drugs. They would want dental care to be included in an expanded Medicare program.

When they stole centre stage at the time of Mulcair’s ousting at the party’s last national convention two years ago, proponents of the Leap Manifesto believed his departure would provide an opening for the NDP to join them in pushing for a major transformation of the Canadian economy.

That would have started with the party embracing a fossil-fuel-free energy future for Canada – including an immediate ban on future pipelines – and a renewed push against Canada’s participation in global trade deals.

Based on Singh’s maiden convention speech and its blanks on those very topics, those activists have traded down.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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