National Column: Plenty of unanswered questions about NDP

From a national child-care program to balanced budgets, the abolition of the Senate and the repeal of
the Clarity Act, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has been making some hefty promises on the way to a leading position in voting intentions.

But five weeks into the campaign, he has yet to demonstrate how a New Democrat government would walk its election talk on any of the above.

A national child-care program: The NDP is promising to create one million new child-care spaces over two mandates. The result would be a comprehensive $15-a-day program along the lines of the Quebec system.

But it will not get off the ground unless the provinces agree to pay 40 per cent of the tab. For its part, Ontario has signalled that it would want the money it already spends on child care to be considered part of its share of the bill.

Quebec, whose government has been trying to rein in its child-care costs, would similarly expect to be compensated for its efforts to date.

Looking at the lay of the land in Canada’s biggest provinces, getting to one million new spaces could either take more than eight years or call for significantly more federal dollars.

A balanced budget: When the Liberals, under Paul Martin, belatedly turned their minds to a national child-care initiative in 2004, the federal government was awash in money. Instead of overflowing coffers, an incoming NDP government would find bare cupboards.

The federal fiscal outlook has deteriorated along with Canada’s economy. Over their decade in power, the Conservatives have put billions of dollars of recurring tax cuts on the books and, in the process, curtailed the federal capacity to invest in new national programs.

The NDP is planning to maintain most of those cuts – notably a two-point decrease in the GST; income-splitting for seniors and the recently enhanced child benefit; as well as spend more on a variety of social programs.

The New Democrats will publish a fully costed platform before Sept. 17 – the day of the Globe and Mail-sponsored leaders debate on the economy. Expect skeptics to go through it with a fine-tooth comb.

The abolition of the Senate: Quebec and Ontario – among other provinces – oppose this signature NDP promise. Moreover, Quebec will insist on having its long-standing constitutional demands addressed before it entertains any other reforms.

Some New Democrats have mused about holding a national referendum to force the provinces’ hand on the issue. Good luck with that! Unless a majority votes yes to abolition in every province, the result will lead only to the entrenchment of the opposition of some premiers.

Even if one were to assume that the arrival in power of the NDP would magically be followed by provincial agreement to both clear the Quebec’s constitutional slate and unanimously abolish the upper house, the amendments would still have to be voted in every legislature over a three-year period.

With zero representation in the Senate, how would an NDP government manage its legislative agenda over those years?

And then there is the promise – popular in Quebec but controversial in the rest of Canada – to repeal the Clarity Act and change the rules that would guide the federal government in the event of another referendum on Quebec’s future. An NDP government would negotiate the province’s secession on the basis of a simple pro-independence majority.

In the absence of Liberal or Conservative support, the New Democrats would have to lead a majority government to effect that change. But majority or not, expect that proposal to be dead on arrival in a non-NDP Senate.

Mulcair is not the first federal leader to vouch to pull policy rabbits out of a prime ministerial hat.

In 1993, Jean ChrÈtien promised to make the GST disappear, to finance a national child-care program out of thin fiscal air, and to renegotiate NAFTA, the free-trade agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. As in the case of the NDP today there were plenty of unanswered questions as to how a Liberal government would square the circle of its promises.

That did not prevent ChrÈtien from winning a majority victory and from jettisoning his cumbersome commitments at the first politically astute opportunity.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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  1. Gail Raine: I’m quite sure that Ms. Hebert would be delighted to hear someone refer to her as being a “conservative” in ANY way, shape or form. And if you’ve ever followed her on CBC or her writings for the Toronto Star and that paper’s affiliates, I believe you would retract your comment in a BIG hurry.

    All she’s doing with this particular piece is telling it like it is – the NDP have not and will not give voters a fully-costed budget (you know – much like the Alberta NDP).

    I believe Ms. Hebert is a strong supporter of Mr. Trudeau and the Liberal party and, even though the Libs cannot cost out THEIR election promises, you probably won’t read an ‘anti-Liberal’ column from this particular journalist…

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