As of today, the 43rd General Election coming this fall promises to be a very tight race with a lot at stake for all of the parties. The fact that we have a dead heat at the top of the opinion polls and the New Democrats and the Greens battling it out to be seen as the progressive alternative of choice, there are many permutations that could result on the evening of October 21st, in both majority and minority government scenarios. This is a new scenario, the likes of which we really haven’t seen in Canadian history (or at least anything close to recent history).
In this hyper-competitive environment on the progressive side, that’s left all of the parties trying to find their niche as a way to stand out from the crowd and make their mark in a way that sets them apart from the others. For the NDP, this has been a particularly difficult challenge because the Liberals have been, bit by bit, coming up with either their own versions of those NDP ideas or simply coopting them all together. That’s a tactic that seems as old as time and is a strong part of Canadian political history.
In the run up to this campaign so far, we’ve seen the Liberals doing this again to some degree on Pharmacare, with a final announcement of what they will do probably coming during the campaign. Bit by bit, the Liberals have been trying to eat away at that unique terrain and give the NDP less and less opportunity to stand out. Another policy area where the NDP has tried to stand out from the others is around the cost of and access to cell phone services and broadband internet. The Orange Team has been campaign around this idea for months and it’s one of the few policy ideas that Jagmeet Singh ran on during his leadership campaign that seems to have risen to the top. The issue so far has been one where the NDP has managed to stand out and I’ve heard that it’s an issue that’s resonating at the doorsteps when candidates are talking to people. In a campaign where the cost of living keeps rising to the top of the list of issues, it makes sense that this issue would resonate.
But with this issue I’ve been waiting for another shoe to drop; what would the Liberals do in response to this? Would they give the NDP this ground and try to minimize this issue or would they embrace it and try to make it their own? Which way will the Red Team go? According to some news that came out last night, it looks like we’ll be getting a better idea very soon:
Looks like the Liberals are going to go through the second door and are going to try to make this issue all their own. According to the reporting from David Ljunggren of Reuters, the Liberals haven’t made a firm decision yet on what exact policy prescription they will offer to Canadians, but it’s clear that they will be offering something that isn’t a defence of the status quo. That will likely involve campaigning against Canada’s telecom companies, which aren’t the most sympathetic figures in the eyes of Canadians at the best of times so isn’t the worse politics, even if it’s not a traditional position for the Liberals to be in.
And that last point I think really speaks to where the Liberals are going in this campaign. It’s been a political tradition in Canada to see the Liberals “run on the left and govern on the right”, so if that was all that was happening here, I really wouldn’t bat an eye. By jumping on this issue, the Liberals are doing everything they can to take reasons to vote NDP off the table, seemingly more so than in most past campaigns. At this point, they’ve managed to take the biggest and broadest ideas that the Orange Team has put forward out of their exclusive domain and offered their own take. When we see the Liberal platform come out though, we’ll see the full extent to just how far into that domain the Liberals are going to go.
While this move by the Liberals is not a new one, this time it feels a bit different than it has in the past. This feels like a bigger existential threat to the NDP and less like a one-off situation. It’s clear that the Liberals feel like the NDP is in a weaker position than normal and it feels like they see this as a chance to remove the NDP from the conversation for a decade or more, like the Chrétien win in 1993 did. Using this Goldilocks approach to co-opting NDP policy (not too hot, not too cold) is an attempt to try to make supporting the Liberals more palatable to progressives who aren’t thrilled with this term. In that Reuters piece you saw the response that they are aiming for, from a quote from Marie Aspiazu of Open Media. When asked about the Liberals potential approach to this issue, she was quoted saying “Is it better than nothing? Yes. But are we doing great? No, I think we can do a lot more.”
Is doing better than nothing going to be enough for most progressives? That seems to be the question that the Liberals would like to put in the mind of Canadians. That leaves the NDP in a position that it is familiar with; forcing Canadians to ask themselves if the Liberals can actually be trusted to do what they promise and convincing Canadians that better is not good enough. If history is a good teacher on this dilemma, it’s not a good place for the NDP to be in, especially given the stakes of this campaign.
Of course there is still a long way to go before people actually start casting their votes, so a lot could still happen. If recent Canadian political history has shown us anything, it is that things can turn on a dime and Canadian voters aren’t as set in their ways as they have been in the past. But to this observer one thing is becoming clearer and clearer; the Liberals are trying to make the Orange Team walk the plank and bit by bit, they are taking away pieces of that plank to stand on. The question remains if there will be enough wood left to stand on by the time people vote. With this latest platform leak, it seems that there won’t be as much left as there was this time last week.