Hor­wath’s NDP swing­ing back to its roots

Af­ter 8 years as the party’s leader, she is pop­u­lar and her mes­sage is res­onat­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - MARTIN REGG COHN Martin Regg Cohn’s po­lit­i­cal col­umn ap­pears in Torstar news­pa­pers. mcohn@thes­tar.ca, Twit­ter: @reg­gcohn

Is An­drea Hor­wath coming home again?

Af­ter wan­der­ing astray for years as a false prophet of pop­ulism, the leader of On­tario’s New Democrats is slowly cir­cling back to her move­ment’s pro­gres­sive roots. And get­ting a hear­ing.

Hor­wath made head­lines with a phar­ma­care pro­gram for all On­tar­i­ans that won cheers at the NDP’s lat­est con­ven­tion. Earn­ing plau­dits from ex­perts, it pre-empted the gov­ern­ment’s own phar­ma­care plan in the spring bud­get.

The NDP also prod­ded the gov­ern­ment to ex­tend rent con­trols. And it pro­posed a 30 per cent cut to hy­dro rates, grab­bing the spot­light just days be­fore the gov­ern­ment an­nounced its own 25 per cent cut.

Hor­wath’s new-found fi­delity to the party faith­ful may be bear­ing fruit. She scored an im­pres­sive 89 per cent en­dorse­ment from del­e­gates in an au­to­matic lead­er­ship re­view at last month’s pre-elec­tion con­ven­tion.

That vote of con­fi­dence from the party rank and file con­trasts with the re­crim­i­na­tions she faced two years ago when Hor­wath sought ab­so­lu­tion for her un­even per­for­mance in the 2014 elec­tion. And it beats the dis­mal 48 per cent vote that sank fed­eral NDP Leader Tom Mul­cair in 2016.

Hor­wath re­mains the most pop­u­lar of the three ma­jor party lead­ers in pub­lic opin­ion polls. And with the Lib­er­als flirt­ing with third place in party pref­er­ences, the NDP is get­ting a sec­ond wind, al­beit far be­hind the resur­gent Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives who are coast­ing on vim more than vi­sion.

Which is why Hor­wath kept re­peat­ing, as she spoke to the party’s true be­liev­ers last month, that New Democrats are “run­ning to win in 2018.” The ex­hor­ta­tion to “win” cropped up no less than 20 times in her speech as she un­veiled the party’s 40-page vi­sion doc­u­ment for the next elec­tion.

That vi­sion is an­chored in phar­ma­care and hy­dro care. But also bol­sters union­iza­tion and boosts the min­i­mum wage.

“This is the bold and pro­gres­sive change you can ex­pect from a bold and pro­gres­sive NDP gov­ern­ment,” she promised del­e­gates.

That marks a change from the party’s re­cent past, when Hor­wath strayed from NDP or­tho­doxy by court­ing small business at the ex­pense of the work­ing class and lost its voice on the min­i­mum wage. But the NDP may be late to the pro­gres­sive game, play­ing on a more crowded field.

As Hor­wath dis­cov­ered in her un­suc­cess­ful 2014 cam­paign, Premier Kath­leen Wynne’s Lib­er­als are al­ways mow­ing her lawn. In the last elec­tion, Wynne grabbed hold of pen­sion re­form af­ter the NDP dropped the ball. Now, the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment is run­ning hard on phar­ma­care while plan­ning ma­jor work­place re­forms to sup­port unions and a higher min­i­mum wage.

But prov­i­dence is smil­ing on Hor­wath. Af­ter eight years lead­ing On­tario’s NDP, she has a higher pro­file and bet­ter rat­ings than her elu­sive op­po­si­tion ri­val, Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Leader Pa­trick Brown. And she is prof­it­ing from pub­lic disen­chant­ment with 14 years of un­in­ter­rupted Lib­eral rule.

The true god­send, as Hor­wath finds religion again, has been Wynne’s slow sell-off of Hy­dro One’s trans­mis­sion lines, which pro­gres­sives deem a breach of faith. The NDP has also reaped a har­vest of hy­dro con­fu­sion, be­cause many vot­ers be­lieve it’s the old On­tario Hy­dro that is be­ing sold (it was bro­ken up years ago by a PC gov­ern­ment, leav­ing Hy­dro One pri­mar­ily as a trans­mis­sion com­pany that owns power lines). Hor­wath claims rates will soar in private hands, con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the On­tario Energy Board’s role in reg­u­lat­ing rates.

But all’s fair in politics and war, and the NDP is brac­ing for the bat­tle ahead. Af­ter the dis­ar­ray of 2014, Hor­wath has sur­rounded her­self with a more pro­fes­sional team, led by party warhorse Michael Bala­gus, that is mak­ing fewer mis­takes.

Deft con­ven­tion or­ga­niz­ers dodged a few bul­lets, such as an in­flam­ma­tory res­o­lu­tion propos­ing a boy­cott of “the Zion­ist state,” and a peren­nial ap­peal to elim­i­nate sep­a­rate school boards. The party also averted a vote on a “new tech­nolo­gies cor­po­rate tax” that would target in­no­va­tion and au­to­ma­tion, and avoided de­bate on the Leap man­i­festo that would sti­fle the oil­sands.

Does all this mean Hor­wath can strike a bet­ter bal­ance be­tween old-style New Demo­crat dogma and her elec­toral ex­pe­di­ency of 2014 — eas­ing up on pock­et­book pop­ulism while push­ing more pro­gres­sive poli­cies?

As the NDP leader braces for her third (and per­haps fi­nal) pro­vin­cial elec­tion, Hor­wath is hew­ing closer to home.

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