NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has been campaigning on the message that “better is possible.” If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau campaigned on almost exactly the same message six years ago.
The difference, Singh says, is that he means it more than Trudeau did. Whatever the Liberals have done or are promising to do, the NDP is vowing to go further and faster.
In that way, Singh’s echo of 2015 is actually a measure of how far progressive politics has shifted over the last six years. There may be irony here. At least some of the NDP’s current level of ambition can be traced to the fact that Trudeau won in 2015 while presenting an arguably more ambitious agenda than then-NDP leader Tom Mulcair did — and to the amount of progressive space the Trudeau government has taken up since then.
Six years later, Singh’s progressive appeal might put a limit on Trudeau’s political ambitions by denying him a majority in the House of Commons.
That might leave the NDP in a position to push a minority Liberal government’s agenda toward greater action. As always, there’s a risk progressives could split their vote enough to make room for a Conservative government.
The NDP might also be testing the limits of how credibly progressive it can be.
Some of the turn toward ambitious progressivism can be attributed to the pandemic, which has shifted the conventional wisdom about what constitutes a “responsible” level of public spending. Singh’s NDP is promising $214.5 billion in new investments over the next five years. In 2015, the NDP platform laid out $34 billion in new spending over four years.
But it’s not just the total amount of proposed spending that has changed.
In 2015, Trudeau proposed to raise taxes on the richest Canadians, while Mulcair opposed doing so. In some cases, Mulcair said, raising taxes on the wealthiest would amount to “confiscation.”
The promises are getting bigger
Six years later, Singh is proposing not only to raise the top income tax rate to 35 per cent but also to implement an additional one per cent tax on families with a net wealth of more than $10 million.
Meanwhile, NDP commitments on child care have gone from $6.2 billion in 2015 to $10 billion in 2019 to $30 billion in 2021, to match the current Liberal promise.
In 2015, the NDP didn’t commit to a specific emissions target. In 2019, after the Liberal government had committed to reducing emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, the NDP said Canada should aim to cut emissions by 38 per cent. In 2021, with the Liberals aiming to reduce emissions by 40 to 45 per cent, the NDP says the target should be 50 per cent.
WATCH: Costing the NDP platform
NDP platform includes $215B in spendingThe promises in the NDP platform would cost $215 billion, including $68 billion for universal pharmacare, dental care and mental health coverage, which would be largely paid for by a new wealth tax and corporate tax hikes. 2:03
In 2015, Mulcair promised $375 million for critical infrastructure in Indigenous communities, including drinking water systems. Trudeau vowed to eliminate all unsafe water advisories in Indigenous communities within five years and the Liberal government later committed $2.2 billion to the project. When the Liberals were unable to meet Trudeau’s goal — 68 per cent of all advisories have been lifted — the government promised another $1.5 billion in funding.
Remaking the health care sector
While castigating the Liberals for not moving faster and insisting only a lack of “political will” stands in the way, Singh is now promising an additional $2.9 billion over the next five years.
The NDP’s ambition goes beyond numbers. In addition to implementing pharmacare and funded dental care, the party says its long-term goals include “making post-secondary education part of our public education system” and “a future where all individuals residing in Canada have access to a guaranteed livable basic income.”
On long-term care, the NDP is promising not just dedicated funding (as the Liberals are) or new legislation (as the Liberals are). It’s also proposing the elimination of for-profit facilities from the provincially managed system within the next ten years, a commitment that ultimately would require taking over the ownership of privately owned centres.
According to data compiled by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, there are about 600 private for-profit facilities in Canada. They include most of the facilities in Ontario.
If a dramatic turn of events were to sweep the NDP into power, it would have a lot to do — more even than Trudeau did when he came to office with 353 promises to keep.
Questions about credibility
The humility of campaign promises can be inversely proportional to proximity to power. That might also explain the difference between Singh’s NDP and Mulcair’s NDP — though Singh probably would be satisfied to win the 44 seats his party won under Mulcair in 2015 (the NDP entered this year’s election with 24 seats).
But the NDP is also running into questions about the credibility of its platform. Earlier in the campaign, the party was criticized by experts for not providing enough detail in its climate plan. The Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy, which assesses parties’ fiscal plans for transparency, responsibility and realism, gave the NDP the lowest score of the three major parties.
WATCH: Singh questioned about NDP platform’s cost
Singh pressed on uncertainty around his platform’s price tagNDP Leader Jagmeet Singh acknowledges there is some uncertainty with some of his platform’s revenue projections, but says it’s because what he’s proposing “hasn’t been done before.” 1:21
If you’re a proponent of progressive public policy, the ratcheting-up of ambition is probably still encouraging. As always, the question now is how that will shake out at the ballot box.
Abacus Data has estimated that Liberal-NDP “switchers” — those who support either the NDP or Liberals and point to one of those two parties as their second choice — account for about 18 per cent of all voters. Those voters could be pivotal in a close election.
Canada is a country with two major national parties on the political left and just one on the political right. As a result, how voters on the left divide themselves is the eternal riddle of federal politics — and a split on the left can conceivably result in the Conservative Party winning the most seats. And Singh has not ruled out supporting a Conservative minority government during the campaign.
New Democrats would say that wouldn’t be an issue if Trudeau had kept his promise of electoral reform and brought in a system of proportional representation after 2015 — as the NDP is still promising to do. Liberals might counter that if this federal election were being run under proportional representation, the People’s Party might now be in a position to win a significant number of seats.
But that’s a fight for another day.
Progressive ambitions may be higher now than they’ve ever been in a federal election. It remains to be seen whether that necessarily will result in a Liberal or NDP government.