by Barry Weisleder
The Ontario New Democratic Party is heading towards the June 2018 provincial election, stuck in third place behind the discredited Liberal government at Queen’s Park and the chameleon-like official opposition Conservatives, according to most opinion polls.
Hydro electricity rates, which have doubled in ten years, command public attention. Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne’s last ditch plan to cut rates by 25 per cent has NDP Leader Andrea Horwath saying “me too.” But Horwath’s proposals to tinker with delivery costs, time-of-use rules, private profit margins, and her plan to buy back, at top market dollar, the 30 per cent of Hydro One that the Liberals sold off, leave many Ontario consumers cold.
Instead of a bold policy – immediate nationalization of all energy generation and transmission, with minimal, long term compensation to rich stock holders – the ONDP offers only short fixes. Typically, it calls for another study, rather than a phase-out of the dangerous and uber-costly nuclear power plants.
After the June 2014 electoral debacle, Horwath hired Manitoba NDP government guru Michael Balagus. His speeches to ONDP provincial council meetings have been larded with selective poll data he uses to rationalize opposition to free post-secondary education. He proposes commendable, but milquetoast, policies to ease union organizing and modestly raise the minimum wage.
Balagus and Horwath say the party should champion “bold policies”. Agreed. But where are they?
Is the platform now being cultivated in party back rooms, with the usual dearth of membership input, enough to warrant a vote of confidence in the Leader at the ONDP convention in Toronto, April 21-23, 2017?
Recall the Ontario NDP convention in November 2014. After months of intense campaigning, drawing on all the party’s resources, Horwath managed to hang onto her position. But she did so only after promising to atone, and by pledging to turn left.
In the mandatory leadership review, Horwath received 76.9 per cent support from the 1,055 district association and union delegates, only slightly more than the 76.4 per cent she got two years earlier.
The move to remove Horwath sprang from the discontent of NDPers with the June 2014 provincial election campaign she led.
Like Tom Mulcair, whose subsequent “balanced budget no-matter-what” mantra that sank the ship in the 2015 federal election, Horwath embraced moderate, populist themes and discarded social justice issues. Moreover, the turn to the centre was not mandated by the party ranks, and it strained relations with large segments of the labour movement.
The shift mostly helped the Liberals. Kathleen Wynne campaigned for pension improvements and a wage increase for low-paid workers, while Horwath promoted a Ministry of Cost Savings that seemed to target jobs in the public service. She also pledged to hold the line on wealth taxes.
Once the Liberals emerged with a majority government, costing the NDP three key seats in downtown Toronto, Horwath purged her senior staff and apologized to delegates at the party’s Provincial Council. She later told the Convention that she would “keep talking about our ultimate values and goals and not just our first steps.” While this was pretty thin, it persuaded many members to give her another chance – especially as there was no heir apparent to the Leader.
Still, the mood of the convention was angry, and quite critical of the party tops.
Although the establishment dominated elections to the provincial executive with an official slate, the organized party left wing, the Socialist Caucus, and independent candidates did remarkably well.
Debates on convention procedures and resolutions produced a number of upsets. In the opening minutes of the convention, delegates voted to amend the agenda, forcing the vote on Leader to occur late Saturday afternoon, rather than immediately following the Leader’s rah-rah speech set for the morning. This meant that hundreds of delegates summoned by conservative riding and union leaders to vote to sustain Horwath had to hang around an extra seven hours.
Motions of referral, with instructions to integrate tougher language into resolutions from the official vetting committee, succeeded in a number of cases. This radicalized the policy on Social Assistance, Post-Secondary tuition, the bitumen pipeline known as Line 9, the Ontario Municipal Board, and nearly did so on Minimum Wage. The rebellious feeling also produced a win for more time to debate Labour issues. It led over 30 per cent to vote against acceptance of the Provincial Secretary’s Report, a report that was clearly identified with the failed election campaign.
By far the biggest upset to the establishment was the victory for Free Post-Secondary Education, Abolish Student Debt — a long standing Socialist Caucus cause celebre. Sadly, the adopted free tuition policy was buried by Horwath, and remains interred.
In 2014, NDPers were looking for change. But as Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn then wryly observed, “New Democrats are sticking with their leader largely because they are stuck with her.”
That was cold comfort for the Leader who pledged to change her ways. The question is: What have we seen since then? Clearly, not enough to justify a vote of confidence.
In the wake of mass sentiment for the ideas of Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, and the march of 4 million women against Donald Trump’s agenda in January, there are plenty of reasons for the party and union left to continue to press for a Workers’ Agenda.