Why the NDP is refreshing its front bench — and what that means for 2022

ANALYSIS: Leader Andrea Horwath’s recent shuffle sends signals about the party’s priorities and how they’re getting ready for the next election
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Feb 08, 2021
NDP leader Andrea Horwath (left) asks Premier Doug Ford questions at Queen's Park on May 12, 2020. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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Last week, NDP leader Andrea Horwath shuffled positions among her MPPs: some of the critics in the official Opposition at Queen’s Park got new roles, and some other positions in the party’s leadership changed. On its own, this isn’t terribly novel — it’s a new year, and the legislature will return soon, and it’s not unusual for political parties to change things up around this time in the calendar. (A cabinet shuffle wouldn’t be unusual, either, though Premier Doug Ford has so far mostly stuck with the cabinet he had at the outset of the pandemic.) What’s notable about some of the changes Horwath has made is what they say about the NDP’s priorities for the coming year — and what they say about the party’s preparation for the 2022 election.

One of the most notable changes in Horwath’s lineup is the promotion of Peggy Sattler (MPP for London West) to the role of house leader. It’s not always the most visible role — weekly conferences between the government and Opposition house leaders keep Queen’s Park running but are entirely confidential. It’s the house leader who’s responsible for managing their party’s members and making sure the day-to-day business of the legislature isn’t derailed. Sattler succeeds Gilles Bisson, who has been the NDP’s house leader for nearly a decade straight. Bisson has been a thorn in the side of both the Liberal and Tory governments in that time, and the party has benefited from his knowledge of parliamentary procedure. But now he’s stepping back into what one New Democrat called an “emeritus” role and will help Sattler, who was already deputy house leader, take on a larger role.

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“It’s a big responsibility, especially as someone like Gilles has been either house leader or caucus whip for 20 years,” Sattler says. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to get back into the legislature and push the government, to make sure their priorities reflect the people of Ontario.”

One of the NDP’s first priorities when the house returns next Tuesday will be to push the government for paid sick leave — Sattler put a bill forward for first reading before the legislature recessed last December, and the NDP wants to bring that bill to a second-reading vote as soon as possible.

“[The bill] has generated a lot of support from municipal leaders, public-health experts, worker advocates,” Sattler says. “There’s nearly unanimous agreement that this is an important public-health measure that needs to be taken.”

The Liberal party at Queen’s Park had, earlier in January, announced that it, too, would be introducing a paid-sick-leave bill at Queen’s Park, though leader Steven Del Duca later tweeted that the Liberals will support Sattler’s bill. In any event, Opposition private member’s bills are very unlikely to pass unless the Progressive Conservative majority votes in favour.

There have also been some changes in the NDP’s critic portfolios. Deputy Leader Sara Singh (Brampton Centre) had been the party’s housing critic; she’ll now be the face of the party as the NDP goes hammer and tong against the Progressive Conservatives over their handling of seniors and long-term care. And Catherine Fife (Waterloo) is the party’s new finance critic, meaning she will lead the party’s criticism of the next budget, which Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy is expected to present sometime before March 31.

“I don’t think there will ever be a more important budget for Ontarians,” says Fife. ”The connection between the health and well-being of Ontarians and our economy can no longer be denied. I’m hoping that, because we’re in such a unique place in the history of our province, this is the time truly to invest in people.”

This is going to be Fife’s second stint as finance critic; she first held the position from June 2014 to December 2016.

The changes go on. Parkdale–High Park’s Bhutila Karpoche moves from mental health and addictions to early learning and childcare. (Perhaps not incidentally, Karpoche herself has two young children.)  Ian Arthur (Kingston and the Islands) will hold the portfolio for small-business recovery, something that’s going to be no less important in 2021 than it was in 2020. Sandy Shaw (Hamilton West–Ancaster–Dundas) was the finance critic and will now move to the environment, where the government’s policies on conservation areas, as well as it’s lack of a credible climate-change plan, will give the party fodder for the coming year. Taras Natyshak (Essex) adds job creation and economic recovery to his job description, which already included ethics and accountability — he was one of Ford’s most consistent irritants at question period.

Sara Singh, Karpoche, Arthur, and Shaw have something in common: they are all part of the NDP’s class of 2018, still-relatively-new MPPs who either carried new seats or, in Karpoche’s case, replaced an outgoing NDP member (in Parkdale–High Park, that was Cheri DiNovo). Fife and Sattler have been at Queen’s Park a bit longer — Fife since 2012, and Sattler since 2013 — but they both represent ridings outside the core area of NDP support around Hamilton and in northern Ontario.

Also worth noting (as Steve Paikin did in last week’s episode of our podcast, #onpoli): the Ontario NDP may be the only party in Canada right now in which nearly all of the top positions for the cabinet-in-waiting — including the leader, of course — are held by women.

As much as New Democrats who spoke with TVO.org swear up and down that the changes last week are primarily about holding the government to account as best they can over the next year, in politics it’s a waste to only do one thing at a time, and these changes are doing at least one other thing: they’re raising the profile of a number of MPPs around the province in ridings where the NDP need to at least hold on, if not expand, its support in the 2022 election.

It doesn’t hurt that the NDP had a decent fundraising year in 2020: according to Queen’s Park Today, it raised nearly $2.5 million — a respectable amount compared to the Tories’ $3.4 million. (Governing parties frequently have the inside track on fundraising.)

“Andrea has said we are going to show Ontario who our team is,” says Fife. “We will be ready, we want the people of Ontario to know who we are so they can be ready to vote for us, and we can take this province back from a government that has really ignored very pressing issues.”

In politics, nothing is guaranteed, and the NDP could simply fail: prior to 2018, the long-standing pattern in Ontario politics was to watch the New Democrats get squeezed out between the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives, and that could happen again. The Tories have made no secret of their belief that they can make Natyshak an ex-MPP in 2022, while the Liberals believe that such candidates as Kate Graham could make them competitive again in London. And there’s no guarantee that, even if voters are looking for an alternative to the Ford government, they’ll opt for the New Democrats over the Liberals.

But if politics were predictable, it wouldn’t be very interesting.

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