A few simple facts emerge from the 2021 election.
The Liberals might have won the most seats for a second time in a row, but, as in the last parliament, they cannot get any legislation passed without the support of at least one other party.
None of the federal parties wants another election any time soon.
Some have big debts to pay, others have internal divisions to deal with, and all must consider the unexpected and unprecedented voter anger over this year’s precipitous and premature election call.
The parties all have a narrow self-interest in making Parliament work.
When a reduced and dispirited number of voters returned almost exactly the same House of Commons as they did two years ago, their message to all parties was:
Get on with your jobs, please! Consider the people’s interests and needs and not just your short-term, partisan political interests.
Who can the Liberals work with?
As during the last parliament, the governing Liberals main and most logical dance partner this time is the New Democratic Party.
The Conservatives are the Official Opposition. Much of their base is unhappy with leader Erin O’Toole’s tack toward the centre.
And Conservatives have the far-right People’s Party nipping at their heels. They will have little political incentive to appear, in any way, to be acting as junior partners to the Trudeau Liberals.
As for the Bloc Québécois, its leader Yves-François Blanchet repeats daily the only criterion for his party’s support: “Is it good for Quebec?”
What is good for Quebec can be a matter of opinion, of course. For instance, the Bloc favours what Quebeckers call “le troisième lien” (the third link), a proposed tunnel beneath the Saint Lawrence River near Quebec City to carry truck and cars.
Many in Quebec, including the socialist Québec solidaire and the Parti Québécois, with which the Bloc was once closely aligned, oppose the third link, on both cost and environmental grounds.
For Blanchet, all that counts however is that Quebec Premier François Legault favours the tunnel. More to the point, Legault wants federal infrastructure dollars to help pay for the massive project.
In this case, the Trudeau government and the Bloc happen to agree. But there will be many more instances where Justin Trudeau will be loath to take orders from the Quebec government’s Ottawa messenger.
That’s where the New Democrats come in.
The NDP’s result in the 2021 election was disappointing: 25 out of 338 seats. Political scientists will tell you they had a highly inefficient vote. Nearly 18 per cent of the votes (almost one in five) gave the New Democrats a mere 7.5 per cent of the seats.
By contrast, with slightly less than a third of the votes the Liberals won close to half the seats.
If a few thousand votes had changed, or if the pandemic had not deterred so many in the NDP’s natural constituency from voting, New Democrats just might have won the 30 to 35 seats most experts had forecast for them.
But in a way it doesn’t matter.
The NDP’s 25 MPS can give the Trudeau government all it needs to pass legislation, without having to call on any other potentially more troublesome MPs.
And that gives Jagmeet Singh’s party a crucial role to play. It is, in large measure, the role the NDP and its predecessor party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), have played since the 1930s.
NDP proposals adopted by governments past
From its founding in 1932, the CCF campaigned for public pensions for all, universal and comprehensive health insurance, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, a state-owned broadcaster, and allowances for families with children.
Over the next three decades, federal and provincial governments turned almost that entire wish list into reality.
Then, from its founding in 1961 onward, the CCF’s successor, the New Democratic Party, has pushed for:
- a federal agency to monitor and regulate foreign investment,
- a crown-owned oil company,
- a ministry dedicated solely to the environment,
- an agency for regional economic development within Canada and another to undertake assistance in developing countries,
- federal programs to increase the stock of housing for low-income Canadians,
- extensions of universal health care to drugs and dentistry
- and a national child care program.
Governments, both Liberal and Conservative, enacted some of those measures on a fast schedule; some, on a slow one. In a few cases, such as that of the Pierre Trudeau government’s Foreign Investment Review Agency, one government enacted the measure only to see it reversed by the next one.
History does not move in a straight line.
There are periods of progress, such as the 1960s and early 1970s. And then there are periods of reaction and backsliding, such as the latter 1980s and most of the 1990s, when the market fundamentalist dogma of U.S. President Reagan and U.K. Prime Minister Thatcher gripped almost all Western countries.
Despite all the progress we’ve witnessed over the decades, we are still waiting for many items which have long languished on the NDP’s agenda. Among those are pharmacare and universal dental care.
A federal role in child care, which was the centrepiece of the NDP’s 2015 campaign — and which Liberals denounced, at the time, as an intrusion into provincial territory — is now becoming a reality throughout Canada.
As well, the newly-elected Justin Trudeau Liberals have, after resisting them for years, promised to enact two longstanding NDP priorities for workers: a big boost to the federal minimum wage and 10 paid sick days for all who work in federally-regulated sectors.
It is, of course, the provinces that regulate conditions for most of those who work for a living in this country. The federally-regulated work force is restricted to such activities as banking, international and interprovincial transport, and broadcasting.
When New Democrats advocated for a federal minimum wage boost during the 2015 election campaign, Liberals scoffed. They were quick to point to the fact of provincial responsibility for most of Canada’s workers.
Now, Prime Minister Trudeau’s government appears to have bought a longstanding NDP argument. By setting high labour standards which other jurisdictions will inevitably feel pressured to follow, the federal government can improve the lives of all Canadian workers.
Taxing the rich: an old policy that is new again
The newest idea in the New Democratic policy book is a wealth tax.
We are used to the notion of a graduated or progressive income tax, whereby the tax rate (and not just the actual amount taxed) increases with income.
That concept was widely accepted in the three decades following World War Two.
During that period, the marginal tax rate on the highest portion of income — over, say, $100,000 per year– was as high as 80 per cent in many countries. Those countries included Canada and the U.S.
Then, starting in the 1980s, there was a well-organized and noisy backlash against what some characterized as “confiscatory taxes” which “discouraged hard work and risk.”
In much of the world — including in Canada — governments responded by slashing the number of income tax brackets and deeply cutting the top marginal rate.
Many governments — including Canada’s — also brought in a suite of generous tax breaks for the purpose of “encouraging investment, innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Now, finally, we’re seeing the tide shift.
Many economists of a variety of political persuasions (not just hardcore Marxists) have concluded that all this tax-generosity has not done much to increase overall wealth. Instead, it has engendered big increases in inequality.
The Liberals showed back in 2015 that they at least partially understood this truth when they introduced the first increase in the income tax on top earners in many decades. At the time, Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman hailed it as a bold move.
The New Democrats now want to go further by increasing the top marginal tax rate on income by two percentage points.
The NDP also wants to reduce the current generous tax break for what are called “capital gains,” which include profits from the sale of stocks and of non-residential property. Currently, the government taxes only half of any capital gain. The NDP would raise the taxable portion to three quarters.
The New Democrats’ most challenging and innovative proposition, however, is their wealth tax, which would target not just income, but accumulated wealth. The NDP wants to apply a one per cent tax, per year, to all such wealth over $10 million.
Justin Trudeau denounced the wealth tax idea during the recent election campaign. He accused New Democrats of pursuing the “successful and wealthy in this country” with “unlimited zeal,” and added we “have reached our limit on tax increases.”
That was campaign talk. Now, the government will have to figure out how it will pay for child care and all of the other costly programs it has promised.
When the Liberals take a good look, with fresh eyes, at the government’s balance sheet, taxing the rich might not seem so outlandish. Indeed, it might start to look like an economically sound and prudent idea.
We have seen in many other cases how the Liberals are all too willing to adopte New Democratic policies they once opposed.
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.
Image: Jagmeet Singh/Twitter