There’s no point in waiting until a new leader is elected. The NDP should forge a path back to the left, now.
How do you sell a progressive vision to Canadians, when they feel they are already living in the midst of one?
Since the 2015 election, this has been the existential question facing the federal New Democratic Party. The Trudeau government has moved just left enough to satisfy much of the Tom Mulcair New Democrats, making feminism their bedrock, introducing a new Canada Child Benefit, grounding Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets in Iraq and so forth.
Now, with the recent tabling of the legislation to legalize marijuana in Canada, the need for a reawakening of the federal NDP is all the more pressing.
NDP on marijuana
For roughly the last 40 years, the NDP has presented largely the same policy stance on marijuana — a combination of mostly decriminalization with some legalization talk thrown in. In 1993, NDP MP Jim Fulton introduced a private members bill in the House to legalize marijuana, but it was voted down by the then-Liberal majority government.
Former NDP leader Jack Layton advocated for both legalization and decriminalization during the 2004 federal election campaign, but by and large, the official party policy has been one of decriminalization.
The NDP’s position has been predicated on the belief that young people — and particularly those of racialized communities — should not receive criminal records for personal possession. But during the last election, Mulcair was outflanked on the left by Trudeau’s legalization promise, making the NDP’s longstanding commitment to marijuana policy change largely forgettable.
But now, there’s an opportunity for the NDP to regain some ground with the tabling of the Liberals’ legalization agenda.
For starters, the progressive packaging of the legislation, when unwrapped, actually imposes harsher criminal sentences than before for those caught possessing or selling the drug outside the proposed guidelines. Furthermore, the Liberals’ plan does not come with immediate decriminalization, meaning that Canadians will continue to be arrested and possibly charged with marijuana offences, even though we know the exact day by which they will be obsolete.
Since actually forming government, the Liberals have used this progressive-lite approach to enact many of their bold campaign promises. For instance, they approved two of the three earlier proposed pipelines, despite their commitment to Indigenous rights, sovereignty and protecting the environment; and most notably, backtracked on electoral reform — an issue fiercely defended by many of the progressives who voted for them.
It’s faux-progressivism, and the NDP should be calling it out at every opportunity. The only problem? Many of their star MPs seem to have left the building.
Niki Ashton, Peter Julian and Charlie Angus, for example — some of the NDP’s most notable, outspoken representatives — have all thrown their hats into the leadership race, leaving a gaping hole in the party’s day-to-day offence. Not only are these outspoken representatives important in holding the government to account, but necessary if the NDP are to stay above water during such a long leadership race.
As a result, key positions such as government house leader, Indigenous and Northern affairs critic and jobs critic have been vacated and left to lesser-known MPs. The strongest presence in the House — and arguably the last one standing to put the Liberal government in its place — is Mulcair. But what good is it using an outgoing leader to try to defend the principles of a party on the brink of renewal?
Defining progressive politics
The progressive dream many Canadians imagined would come after electing Trudeau has proven to be a disappointment. As the governing party continues to falter on many of its commitments, now more than ever does the NDP need its star players to get out there and define what progressive politics really means — and in real time.
Let’s imagine a leadership race where these candidates agree to moments where they put their rivalries aside and present a united front against Trudeau; where they call out failures of Liberal legislation and policy changes, especially in living up to their progressive promises.
Perhaps, this could be done outside the context of the leadership debate, directed to a much wider, politically diverse audience. This would allow star MPs like Ashton, Julian and Angus to balance the current interests of the party, all while debating what is best for its future. The Liberals’ tabling of its marijuana legalization plan would have been an ideal opportunity to do that.
The NDP should not simply set its sights on the future of the party. There is room to forge a path back to the left, right now.