Tough times for Ontario New Democrats

By Steve Paikin - Published on November 22, 2017
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has more campaign experience than her two main rivals — but will it make a difference in the next election? (Fred Lum/Globe & Mail)

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​These really ought to be the best of times to be an Ontario NDP supporter.

You’ve got a leader in Andrea Horwath who polls tell us routinely checks in as the most popular of the three major party leaders at Queen’s Park.

Not only that, but Horwath has already led her party through two province-wide general election campaigns. Theoretically, she is leaps and bounds ahead of the Progressive Conservatives’ 39 year-old rookie leader, Patrick Brown, in the “do’s and don’ts” of campaigning.

In the back rooms, the NDP has handed the reins of the campaign’s strategic direction to Michael Balagus. Unlike so many of his predecessors, Balagus has actually worked on a victorious NDP campaign — albeit in Manitoba, where he was once chief of staff to Premier Greg Selinger.

And unlike 10 years ago, when the NDP couldn’t even achieve official party status in the legislature because its seat count was so low, Horwath currently has the party around its traditional 25 per cent of the total vote benchmark, and certainly within striking distance of the governing Liberals, whom some recent polls have in the low 30s.

And yet, with all that going for it, the NDP just can’t seem to catch a break.

First there was the departure of probably its best known MPP, Jagmeet Singh, who quit to launch a successful bid to lead the federal party.

But even worse, the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne have moved so far to the left that they’ve threatened the NDP’s status as the party of social democracy and labour. The evidence of that is everywhere. Legalizing marijuana sales? The government will run the whole show (no private-sector retailing) and give the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) the right to represent all cannabis store employees.

How about home care? The government is setting up a new agency that which will dominate the field. And that agency’s employees will almost certainly be represented by the Service Employees International Union.

But perhaps the most shocking example of how the Liberals now enjoy the loyalty of the union movement came this past weekend, when the head of OPSEU weighed in on the government’s move to end the college teachers’ strike with back-to-work legislation. In all my years of watching governments forcibly end labour disputes, the only thing I have ever heard a union leader say is something like this: “What an appalling abuse of power this is, by a government that has lost touch with the working men and women of the province.” They’ve said that about every premier from Bill Davis to Dalton McGuinty, whether the premier in question was ordering teachers or public-transit employees back to work.

What did Warren “Smokey” Thomas say about the Liberals’ back-to-work bill?

“If I was the premier and it was down to this particular juncture, I’d do what she’s doing,” he told the Toronto Star over the weekend.

What? The leader of one of Ontario’s most powerful and influential unions sympathizing with the premier as she legislates OPSEU members back to work? In what universe does that happen? Apparently, Ontario.

Of course, the biggest irony surrounding the NDP’s apparent marginalization is that the politics they’ve represented for decades now appears to be hugely in vogue with a big chunk of the electorate. In the United States, Bernie Sanders gave Hillary Clinton the scare of her political life by championing an unambiguously social-democratic agenda during the run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn dramatically exceeded expectations in last June’s general election by moving the Labour Party well to the left of where it was under former prime minister Tony Blair. Corbyn, whom the so-called experts left for dead, improved his party’s performance by 10 points compared to the previous election, as he held the Conservatives’ Theresa May to a weak minority. When all the ballots were counted, Labour trailed the Conservatives by less than 800,000 votes, in a race in which more than 30 million people voted.

In 1990, then-Ontario NDP leader Bob Rae was entering his third general election campaign, armed with a decent platform and the wisdom of someone who’d learned a lot over his two previous campaign efforts.

Horwath now finds herself in the same situation, but unlike Rae, she’s facing a government that has stolen so much of her political thunder — from a new pharmacare program for those 25 and under, to free tuition for low-income post-secondary students, to a $15 minimum wage, to advancing policies designed to secure union votes.

The good news for Horwath and Co. is, she’s still got a little more than six months to figure a way out of this conundrum. The bad news is, other than “We’ll give you the same policies without the scandals,” it’s unclear what the NDP’s battle cry will be. 

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