2015 will undoubtedly go down in history as a disastrous year for Canada’s New Democrats. A series of events, followed by selective blunders on the part of the Party, damaged the federal NDP to an extent that it may not be possible to salvage the Party going forward – at least not as presently constituted.
It all started with Bill C-51. The NDP’s initial hesitancy and waffling saw it cede the moral high ground on opposing the bill to the Green Party. Ultimately – and likely after being shown the way by focus groups – the NDP decided to oppose the bill, which proved to be the right decision with its base, and with a growing number of Canadians. But it was during those dark days when the Green Party stood alone against Bill C-51 that the NDP’s credibility took a hit, leaving many of its base scratching their heads with regards to just where their party stood on important, progressive issues.
This would be a pattern which played itself out again and again throughout 2015, right up until NDP leader Tom Mulcair took a strong, principled position on the niqab during the election period – a position with many have suggested cost him the election. Personally, I’m not so sure that the niqab was what lost the NDP the election. Instead, the NDP’s lack of clarity on important issues of the day appeared to cast a longer shadow with Canadian voters looking for progressive change. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was able to articulate specific promises for action in a way that Mulcair never did – and on election day, Trudeau was awarded with a majority government, while Mulcair’s NDP lost more than half their seats and went back to third party status.
The Victorious Alberta NDP
Things really started to go wrong for the NDP in May, when Rachel Notley’s provincial NDP won an unexpected victory in Alberta. Yes – you read that correctly: Notley’s majority government victory will likely prove to be one of the significant nails in the coffin of the federal NDP, going forward. Here’s why.
Notley’s NDP government probably faces some of the most significant challenges that any provincial government is facing at this time, or any other in Canada’s history. After 4 decades of Progressive Conservative rule, Albertans were looking for an alternative – and a slim majority of them turned to Notely and the NDP. This slim majority – just a little over 40% of 54% of voters who bothered to vote – ended up handing the NDP a majority government – but one facing incredible economic challenges unparalleled in Alberta’s history.
To succeed, Notley has the almost impossible task of steering an economy powered by non-renewable resources, while simultaneously implementing progressive policies which ought to transform Alberta into a more progressive society. Much more likely, Notley's NDP government will enter the pantheon of one-term failures, taking its place beside Ontario’s NDP government under Bob Rae. As the Alberta NDP’s failure unfolds in slow motion over the next 3 or 4 years, it is likely to tank support for the federal NDP, especially if Notley’s ideological soul-mate, Tom Mulcair, stays at the helm, as he said he will.
NDP In the Back Seat on Climate Change
At the end of 2016, Alberta may be the only jurisdiction in federation led by a New Democrat. What happens in Alberta matters to Canada, and to New Democrats in a way that other provincial efforts in Manitoba or Nova Scotia don’t or never did. Notley’s party is supposed to the play the role of the shiny new government on the hill – a veritable beacon for progressivism. It’s already not playing itself out that way, and by this I’m not referring to the death threats she’s receiving from idiot right-wing partisans over Notley’s desire to provide better safety for agricultural workers.
With a growing concern among Canadians about climate change, and with the Liberals at least starting a discussion about what Canada is going to do to lower our greenhouse gas emissions, New Democrats are increasingly taking a back seat. No – change that. The NDP has long taken a back-seat on climate change, much to its shame and discredit.
Climate change was yet another issue that NDP leader Tom Mulcair refused to allow himself to be pinned down on during the federal election. New Democrats in Alberta and the west were advocating building more pipelines, while those in Quebec appeared to be against that approach. Mulcair appeared to be endorsing this confusion during the campaign, by saying different things in different parts of the country (see: "Thomas Mulcair walking a fine cross-country line on Energy East," the Globe and Mail, July 16, 2015). At the end of the day, though, the NDP’s evolving policy position landed on tentative support for the Energy East and Trans Mountain pipeline, as long as the NEB review process was reformed to take into consideration climate impacts. In short, the NDP adopted the position which Justin Trudeau had been articulating for months.
Alberta NDP's Plan to Fight Climate Change By Expanding the Tar Sands
Notley has been a much more enthusiastic supporter of building pipelines and expanding the tar sands (see: "Notley wows business leaders with pro-oilsands speech," the Calgary Herald, July 8, 2015). The centrepiece of her so-called climate change initiative, unveiled after the federal general election, and just before COP 21 in Paris, will see greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands continue to rise for the next 15 years until they are roughly 43% higher than today (see: "Notley's climate change marketing triumph," the Globe and Mail, November 24, 2015). Simply put, this means that Alberta will remain on-target to expand the tar sands industrial enterprise, climate be damned.
Of course, this initiative was spun as a climate-positive – “Oh look – Alberta is going to put a cap on tar sands production”, but this cap will do little good to help meet Canada’s short and medium term emissions targets – and those targets are likely to get even more stringent under Trudeau and Environment and Climate Change Minister, Catherine McKenna – especially if the Liberals are as serious as they appear to be about holding warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.
While Notley’s NDP are proposing to do some good in the struggle against climate change, by putting a rising price on carbon emissions and eventually closing coal plants - measures which should have been undertaken before now - the overall plan only appears to be progressive in the context of the woeful efforts made by every other province. Ultimately, Alberta’s NDP has provided the tar sands with a license to pollute, and the potential environmental cover to lobby for the bitumen pipelines will be needed to ship product from the expanded enterprise. And you can bet that the NDP will not be revisiting this weak effort for the remainder of their mandate – unless it’s to backslide in a manner that we’ve seen from Christy Clark’s Liberals in B.C.
A Pro-Pipeline NDP Has No Future in a Climate-Conscious Canada
I don’t believe that a pro-pipeline, tar sands-expanding NDP has much of a future in Canada – particularly if the federal Liberals and their counterparts in Ontario and Quebec really do get serious about tackling climate change. And although I’m not holding my breath that the Liberals will actually will do that (see: "Sudbury Column: Trudeau is no climate champion," Steve May, the Sudbury Star, October 24, 2015), it looks like the best outcome for the NDP would be to find itself on the same page as the Liberals are with regards to climate change, and that’s hardly the sort of leadership that progressive Canadians are looking for.
Make no mistake. Since Harper’s government went down in flames this past October, climate change has been one of the biggest stories of our times. #COP21 in Paris clearly had a little something to do with that – but the energy and momentum which has been built up around this issue over the past few months isn’t likely to dissipate. Throughout 2016, climate change will continue to make political headlines, as Trudeau and provincial leaders meet to hammer out a process for an agreement this spring, which will no doubt remain in the headlines until some of the details get sketched in. Kathleen Wynne’s government will be telling Ontarians the specifics around their #OnClimate plan, and we can expect the issue to remain front and centre for other provincial governments as well.
And of course, south of the border, we may very well see climate change become one of several defining election issues, especially if Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gets the nod from the Democratic Party. Since most of the Republican Party's front runners refuse to acknowledge the reality of climate change or outwardly call it a “hoax” as Donald Trump has (see: "6 of Donald Trump's most outrageous tweets on climate change," EcoWatch, December 19, 2015), we can expect the Democrats, especially under Sanders, to make hay with the scientific ignorance of the Republican leadership. I can’t think of any better way of keeping climate change front and centre in our news media than an all-out war between Presidential candidates over whether climate change actually exists. Elsewhere, the war between the know-nothings and those who believe in reality was fought years ago, with predictable results. While many Conservatives in Canada may be keen to use Trump or Cruz to re-fight that war here at home, a significant majority of Canadians already understand that the climate is changing, and most of them want our governments to do something about it.
Whither Tom Mulcair on Climate Change?
Which takes us back to the NDP, and Rachel Notley and Tom Mulcair. Both Notley and Mulcair are clearly standing in the way of the sort of progressive and aggressive positioning that the NDP ought to be taking on climate change. As an example, over the past few months, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May – the leader of a party with but one seat in the House – was all over the national media, talking about climate change and equity. Admittedly, May is a bit of a niche expert on the subject in a way that no other elected MP in the nation is. But I heard from many progressives, and couldn’t help but wonder myself – just where was Tom Mulcair? Ultimately, he showed up in Paris with the multi-party delegation put together by Trudeau – but his and his party’s contribution to the national dialogue on climate change was missing in action.
Today, Mulcair says that one of the things the NDP will be doing going forward is to hold Justin Trudeau’s feet to the fire on climate change (see; "How Tom Mulcair plans on opposing Trudeau's Liberals," Maclean's, December 22, 2015). Just how the NDP plan to do that when their own party is largely in agreement with where the Liberals are today is unclear. Going forward, it may very well be that the Liberals in government end up completely outflanking the NDP on climate change. The Liberals have a lot of room to maneuver on climate at this point, as they’ve not even begun to form a national plan. The NDP, on the other hand, have very little room to move their party on this issue, thanks to Rachel Notley’s NDP government sitting on top of what’s been called North America’s “carbon bomb”.
Any policy changes which the rank and file NDP might be thinking of calling for which would end up offending the sensibilities of Albertans are likely to be no-go’s for the federal party. Divesting public sector pension funds of tar sands stocks? Not likely. Slow down pipeline approvals? Only until climate is built into their review, but then it’s full steam ahead. A moratorium on tar sands development? No way. Allocating provincial carbon budgets? Not going to happen.
At one time, the NDP occupied the moral high ground on climate change. The Climate ChangeAccountability Act, first introduced by the NDP in 2006, would have established what were at that time considered to be very aggressive emissions reductions targets. Unfortunately, the NDP hasn’t moved at all since then, and has failed to develop anything resembling a plan on how Canada can achieve those targets. By sitting still on climate change, they’ve been overtaken by the Liberals. And like World War II convoys, since the NDP can only move as quickly as its slowest component – in this case, Rachel Notley – it’s not likely at all that they’ll be able to play catch up.
That is unless the NDP takes drastic action. And they might just do that.
Time for the NDP to Get Serious About Climate Change
Already, discussions inside the Party have percolated out to the public. One of the matters being raised as a concern for the federal Party is just how closely the federal and provincial parties are tied to one another. The NDP is the only political party in Canada which requires its members to join both the federal and provincial parties when they’re buying a membership. If you want to be a New Democrat in Alberta, you’re going to have to be a federal member too. And although the various parties like to claim that they are independent from one another, this multiple membership practice really does bring the provincial and federal elements of the NDP together in such a way that it stretches credibility to suggest that true independence exists.
For the federal NDP to regain the moral high ground on climate change, and to reduce the future impacts of guilt by association, they’re going to need to sever their ties with Notley’s sinking ship. Severance itself might not go far enough – outright repudiation may be necessary. Repudiation is, in fact, just what Canada needs right now, because Canada’s largest emitter, the province of Alberta, has locked itself in to an emissions "reduction" strategy which continues to condemn Canada to rising emissions, or forces the other provinces to pick up the slack in a way that may seriously damage their economies.
Purging Tony Blair
Jettisoning Notley will give the federal NDP the room that it needs to get serious about embracing a carbon neutral economy. But she’s not the only one that will have to go: NDP Leader Tom Mulcair is clearly not cut out for the job of leading the NDP away from it’s mush-middle, focus-grouped populism. Under Mulcair, the NDP has lost its principles. This was entirely evident throughout the recent election: Mulciar ran on a platform of not running deficits, effectively eliminating opportunities for fiscal flexibility and setting his government up for Jean Chretien-style cuts. The non-position on climate change, coupled with lacklustre opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership found voters scratching their heads in wonderment about just what the NDP actually stood for. And of course, who can forget the Party sinking its own candidates because they had dared question Canada’s unwavering support for Israel, or spoke about the reality of having to leave fossil resources in the ground?
To a significant degree, Margaret Thatcher-loving Tom Mulcair owns these mistakes, from which he can’t escape. As long as he leads his Party, he holds it hostage. Mulcair remains more Tony Blair than Bernie Sanders – and it’s the latter that Canada needs a lot more of, and the former we could use a little less of (after all, we already have one Justin Trudeau!).
Why Should Orange Listen to a Partisan Green?
It may be easy for readers to brush this critique aside. After all, I’m not a New Democrat, and I am instead invested in another political party. Further, I have always been tough on the NDP in a way that I have not been on the Liberals – although I have always acknowledged that toughness and explained to my readers that it’s because I have largely given up hope on the Liberals and can’t be bothered wasting much time with them, whereas I continue to believe that a strong NDP is in Canada’s interests – if the NDP could become more like the Green Party.
Partisanship aside, it’s hard to deny where the future is heading – and I am certain than many of my New Democratic friends experience some unease with the direction that their Party has been taking lately. Just as other left-wing political parties are starting to find the courage to denounce Blair-ism (see: Jeremy Corbynn in the UK, and Bernie Sanders in the US), Tom Mulcair’s vow to stay the course and lead the NDP into the 2019 election must create a feeling of unease – one which will assuredly grow as Notley’s New Democrats continue to wither.
B.C. and Ontario may offer some optimism, but again provincial NDP leaders in those two provinces may find that they are unable to offer voters a principled, progressive vision. Ontario might be the better bet for New Democrats, as Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals are doing everything that they can to make themselves the most hated government in Canada. But if NDP leader Andrea Horwarth fails again to articulate a cohesive vision to voters, Ontario could find itself with a new PC government in 2018.
In British Columbia, the NDP will be face a minor challenge from the BC Green Party on its flank – a position that will undoubtedly make BC NDP leader John Horgan contort like a pretzel, which could sink his chances for the Premier’s chair just as Adrian Dix before him was sunk. Horgan and Horwarth are part of the NDP old guard anyway – they’re browns at a time when greens are coming into style.
I believe, though, that unless the federal NDP ditches Tom Mulcair and opts for a new, progressive voice – say a Linda McQuaig or a Naomi Klein – come 2020, New Democrats will look back at 2015 in order to pinpoint when everything went wrong for their party. In 2016, however, rank and file NDP will have a chance to right their sinking ship through a leadership review. Let’s hope they’re up to the challenge, because Canada needs a principled New Democratic Party at this time in our history.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)