On­tario New Democrats need bold, new plat­form

The Chatham Daily News - - OPINION - BRIAN PLATT — Brian Platt is the Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen’s deputy dig­i­tal ed­i­tor.

Mem­bers of the On­tario NDP party are get­ting to­gether for a con­ven­tion this week­end, and there’s an im­por­tant ques­tion they need to an­swer: Are they go­ing to mat­ter in next year’s elec­tion, or not?

All of the re­cent On­tario po­lit­i­cal horse-race cov­er­age has cen­tred on the Lib­er­als and Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives. It’s Pa­trick Brown’s PCs who have ben­e­fited from Pre­mier Kath­leen Wynne’s un­pop­u­lar­ity. The PCs have been polling higher than 40 per cent, while the NDP and Lib­er­als lan­guish 20 points be­hind.

Polls can shift once a cam­paign gets un­der­way, of course. But how is the NDP go­ing to get it­self in a com­pet­i­tive po­si­tion? Re­ly­ing on the hope vot­ers won’t like Brown once they get to know him isn’t a strat­egy.

This will be the first time the NDP has had a con­ven­tion since Novem­ber 2014, when An­drea Hor­wath was un­der heavy fire for a dis­ap­point­ing elec­tion re­sult ear­lier that year. Fac­ing a gov­ern­ing Lib­eral party be­sieged by scan­dal, the NDP failed to gain a sin­gle seat, and lost cru­cial Toronto rid­ings.

But even worse, in the eyes of many party mem­bers, the NDP shed its left­wing prin­ci­ples in an ef­fort to be a safe al­ter­na­tive to the Lib­er­als. The most spec­tac­u­lar part of the back­lash was an open let­ter signed by 34 high­pro­file party stal­warts ac­cus­ing Hor­wath of “run­ning to the right of the Lib­er­als in an at­tempt to win Con­ser­va­tive votes.”

What the NDP tried that elec­tion wasn’t crazy. With the Lib­er­als flail­ing and PC leader Tim Hu­dak stak­ing out a hard-right plat­form, there was an op­por­tu­nity to be the al­ter­na­tive for mod­er­ate-minded vot­ers. If it worked and the NDP formed a gov­ern­ment, party loy­al­ists would have been quick to for­give.

At the 2014 con­ven­tion, it seemed cer­tain Hor­wath was about to be dumped. Among re­porters there, no­body fig­ured the vote of sup­port would come in higher than 70 per cent. The main ques­tion was whether she would try to stay on any­way. But then, the Mir­a­cle at the Metro Toronto Con­ven­tion Cen­tre: Hor­wath got 77 per cent of the vote. The party’s mem­ber­ship gave her one more chance.

It came, how­ever, with a prom­ise on her part. In her con­ven­tion speech, she pledged to re­fo­cus on the NDP’s core ideals of labour rights, so­cial equal­ity, en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and pub­lic own­er­ship of en­ergy util­i­ties. So, fast-for­ward two-and-ahalf years.

The NDP has fo­cused on those ar­eas, par­tic­u­larly on the pub­lic own­er­ship is­sue. It re­cently cam­paigned hard for stricter rent con­trols. The party still en­gages in some eco­nomic pop­ulism: Toronto pro­gres­sives were out­raged to see Hor­wath cam­paign­ing against high­way tolls. But over­all, it has been a more left-wing party.

Yet its re­ward so far has been to watch the PCs, with their new leader, ride high in the polls. A pop­u­lar the­ory around Queen’s Park is that the NDP made a mis­take in stick­ing with Hor­wath — par­tic­u­larly as high­pro­file MPP Jag­meet Singh looks set to leave for the fed­eral party.

I’m not con­vinced the prob­lem is Hor­wath, whose per­sonal ap­proval rat­ings are con­sis­tently higher than Brown’s and Wynne’s. And un­like the PCs, the NDP is head­ing into this elec­tion with a bat­tle-tested leader who has no risk of wilt­ing un­der the pres­sure of a cam­paign.

The real ques­tion is whether the NDP can come up with a plat­form that res­onates with vot­ers.

Rail­ing against the Hy­dro One sale isn’t do­ing it. Tu­ition as­sis­tance has just been mas­sively over­hauled. An ex­ten­sive up­date to labour laws is im­mi­nent. Cap-and-trade is in place. Tran­sit projects are be­ing built ev­ery­where. All of this ground is pretty well cov­ered. New Democrats need some bold ideas of their own, and they need them soon.

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