National Column: New NDP leader won’t guarantee a new direction

by Thomas Walkom

The New Democrats are guaranteed a new leader when Thomas Mulcair steps down in October.

Whether the party will take a new direction under this leader, however, remains unclear.

We know there will be a leader because at least three candidates, Peter Julian, Charlie Angus and Guy Caron, have said they are vying for the job. A fourth is expected to announce soon. There could be more.

The NDP is thus spared the embarrassment of holding a leadership contest with no contestants.

But what kind of party will it be once current leader Mulcair takes his leave?

Indications so far are that it will be pretty much as is.

The brief excitement over the so-called LEAP Manifesto – a clarion call to fight climate change – seems to have ebbed.

With the exception of British Columbia MP Julian, who explicitly opposes all pipeline projects aimed at moving bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands, the leadership candidates have been eloquently vague on the topic of climate change.

Angus, an MP from Northern Ontario, says Canada must move toward a green economy and away from fossil fuels. But he also says this must be done in a way that doesn’t penalize workers in the energy sector – which is the position of Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley, Mulcair and Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Julian and Quebec MP Caron favour a fairer tax system. But they are vague on how they would accomplish that.

Angus has said he wants to find out what New Democrats are thinking before he comes up with specific policy pronouncements on taxes or anything else.

Caron supports the idea of a basic income – that is, guaranteeing poor Canadians subsidies that would bring them up to the poverty line.

Formerly known as the guaranteed annual income, this is not a new notion.

The federal Liberals toyed with it when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister. A Manitoba NDP government experimented with it in the 1970s. Former Conservative senator Hugh Segal has pushed for it. Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario Liberal government has pledged a basic income pilot project for later this year.

But it is also controversial among those on the left. Some argue a basic income simply subsidizes employers who are unwilling to pay higher wages.

Others see it as an excuse to further cut back social programs such as old-age security and, ultimately, weaken the social safety net.

Free trade? The NDP used to be against it. But the party has watered down its opposition. Under Mulcair, it actively embraced a free-trade pact with South Korea.

In this leadership race, the candidates to date have taken carefully ambiguous positions on trade and investment deals. Julian wants “fair trade,” a term used by both the Canadian labour movement and U.S. President Donald Trump. Caron says he wants “trade deals that work for Canada.”

Deficits? Mulcair was hammered from within his own party for vowing during the last election campaign to balance the budget no matter what, thereby allowing Trudeau to outflank the NDP from the left.

But the NDP’s official policy, like that of the Conservatives, is to balance the books over the length of any boom-and-bust business cycle – by running deficits in lean years and surpluses in fat ones.

Caron, an economist, has come out explicitly in favour of that position. He also argues the Liberal government’s hefty deficit spending hasn’t solved many problems.

In short, I’m not sure this now active leadership contest will produce a radically more left-leaning NDP. The contradictions facing Mulcair and leaders before him still remain.

The party must be social democratic enough to satisfy its own members yet conservative enough to appeal to more middle-of-the-road Canadian voters.

That may explain why its strategy to date has focused less on articulating a new vision and more on Liberal perfidy – on the gap between what Trudeau promised and what he has delivered.

Still, the party’s language may be changing.

The term “working class” is back in vogue. Indeed, Angus is onto something when he says this:

“The middle class has become the new working class – white collar and blue collar workers living through an endless cycle of short-term contract work, without benefits, without pensions, burdened down in student debt and unable to buy homes in the communities they love.”

It’s a cry from the heart for something to be done. But what? To date, the NDP hasn’t said.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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