Andrea Horwath has led Canada’s NDP into a new era. They’ve floundered over an absence of clear principles for a long time, which has been true of formerly socialist and social democratic parties everywhere. It’s been a hard run, with the zeitgeist firmly in their face. But they maintained a sense that, despite their own behaviour, they still believed they were in the grand old traditions. It may have been delusional but it was an honourable attempt to stay anchored. Horwath marks the change. She’s a right-wing populist, full out.

Look whose language she mimics. She’s Rob Ford, thinking always about saving taxpayers money simplistically by cutting waste and public salaries, in order to hand out $100 Hydro rebates: that’s gravy train talk, province-wide. She’s Mitt Romney appealing to his base when she invokes concern for “the job creators and small business,” i.e. the makers not the takers. She’s Margaret Thatcher when she opposes any meaningful revenue increase for public projects like Kathleen Wynne’s pension plan and transit expansion. Thatcher said there is no such thing as society (and when she got through with it, says economist Tom Naylor in a new book, there wasn’t).

It’s remarkable how little Horwath ever says with anything like passion about areas such as health care or education. Even Tim Hudak seems more concerned. She sounds like the poor little iron lady of On-tar-i-o, with apologies to a charming folksong.

And she’s Mike Harris when she advocates “a government that makes sense” and emblazons “Makes Sense” on her campaign bus. That’s no coincidence, it’s an evocation of Mike Harris’s “Common Sense” motto. These things don’t just happen, they’re focus grouped to within a breath of survival.

I know this sounds counterintuitive to many Canadians but there’s ample precedent. Tony Blair’s New Labour embraced Thatcherism ardently. New Zealand’s Labour Party in the 1990s undertook the most zealous neo-liberal agenda — cuts, privatization, deregulation — anywhere. François Hollande became France’s president promising traditional leftism; then, within weeks, reversed course to the austerity program that has devastated most of Europe. In Canada, as is usual with global trends, there was a lag.

It’s presented special problems for Horwath’s opponents. Kathleen Wynne tries to position herself, as Liberals always do, between Hudak on her far right and Horwath to her left. But Horwath is so far to Wynne’s right that she’d have to tack severely back to the left (if she can still remember which hand that is) to catch a distant glimpse of Wynne. Hudak, meanwhile, better guard his right flank. In Wynne’s election announcement, she mentioned, “Andrea Hudak, sorry I mean Horwath.” If I was her, I’d make the same slip every time Horwath’s name comes up and let the voters decide if it rings true.

I have some sympathy for NDPers in this situation. In the absence of a coherent left alternative to the neo-con model — where NDP means, more or less, No Damn Principles — it’s natural to gravitate toward sheer electoral politics, or in Charlie Sheenese, Winning. (The Liberals offer an incoherent alternative, which is their great strength; it gives them flexibility. Having no principles means you might even sometimes do the right thing.) The New Democrats don’t consider this as lust for power so much as just wanting to have their turn too. It’s why they wouldn’t consider co-ordinating with the Liberals after the last federal election.

But “winning” isn’t the only option. The old CCF-NDP was quite proud, even sanctimonious, about leading the way to a better society, even if Liberals claimed the credit and held the power. So Tommy Douglas’s NDP in the 1960s backed medicare though Lester Pearson’s Liberals got the political benefit — as if serving the public good took precedence, if you had to choose. By contrast, Jack Layton’s NDP killed a national child-care program and gave us a Harper government in the bargain — but it finally became the Official Opposition. Now we get Horwath’s NDP killing an Ontario pension plan and willing to boost Hudak.

If I had an NDP card, or ever had one, or any party card, I’d rip it up, mostly in the hope it might feel good to do something in response to this travesty.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Ontario NDP/flickr


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.