New Democrats attending the party’s policy convention are split over the deal their party has struck with the Liberals, as senior leadership focuses on pitching the NDP as the change voters are looking for in the next federal election.
“NDP Leader Jagmeet (Singh) is doing all the work of kicking (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau’s butt to get him to keep his election promises and Trudeau is getting all the credit,” said Alanna Johnston, a delegate from Toronto.
“This isn’t politics. This is garbage. This is some kind of business agreement.”
The NDP has spent nearly 17 months helping keep the minority Liberal government in power under a confidence-and-supply agreement, and the three-day convention in Hamilton, Ont., is the first to be held since the deal was struck.
Under the agreement, the NDP won’t trigger federal election before 2025 in return for movement on key priorities, but some delegates believe Singh should pull out of the deal if the party doesn’t get more.
“It’s what (former NDP leader) Jack Layton did many times: play the hard ball,” said Lukas Oakley, from Paris, Ont.
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Oakley said he generally favours government collaboration, but acknowledges “in Canada the confidence and supply agreement is a bit of an F-word.”
“In certain places we should have gotten more. I think we’ve had some failures in marketing what we have gotten and differentiating ourselves,” he said.
Many of the affordability measures the Liberals have brought in over the past year, including dental-care benefits for children in low-income households, one-time rental supplements for low-income tenants and a temporary doubling of the GST rebate, were NDP priorities.
But Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has been focused on affordability issues throughout the summer, and his party’s fortunes have risen in the polls at the expense of the Liberals.
“Groceries, the cost of fuel, mortgages and rent have skyrocketed since the NDP have been in power in coalition with the Trudeau Liberals,” said Sarah Fischer, director of communications for the Conservative Party of Canada. “Jagmeet Singh has abandoned hardworking Canadians and has zero credibility.”
Several delegates who spoke with The Canadian Press at the NDP convention expressed their frustrations with the party’s low polling numbers.
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The most recent survey by Leger tracking voting intentions, conducted Sept. 22 to 24, had the NDP as the choice for 18 per cent of decided voters, placing them third. Thirty-nine per cent of respondents favoured the Conservatives and 27 per cent the Liberals.
Senior party officials told reporters in a technical briefing on Friday that the confidence-and-supply deal was not widely discussed with party members before it was signed, but consultation followed.
Talon Regent, from Moose Jaw, Sask., said the agreement is needed because it helps New Democrats fight for their constituents, but he would like to see it used to aggressively push for housing, affordability and pharmacare measures.
An emergency resolution that’s been given top priority on Saturday calls for the party to pull out of the confidence-and-supply deal unless the Liberals commit to a universal and entirely public pharmacare program.
“The Conservatives are not willing to co-operate with anyone,” said Regent.
“They want to kick and scream like children, but when it comes to actually getting work done and moving Canada forward, they refuse to co-operate with anybody.”
Chelsea Broom, who is also from Saskatchewan, said the deal is good because the alternative is a federal election the Conservatives look well-positioned to win.
“And Canada cannot afford a Conservative government at this time,” Broom said.
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Should an election happen before 2024, the New Democrats say they would be prepared to run a full slate of candidates. However, the party still has debt it’s trying to pay down from the last federal election, when it won 25 seats.
The party has less than $2 million left on its $22-million election loan from 2021, and is on track to retire the debt by 2024, said Sussanne Skidmore, its federal treasurer.
About 540 people were at the first day of the convention, with about 1,200 people set to attend throughout the weekend.
Party organizers are hoping to keep issues focused on affordability and efforts to persuade voters to stick with them in the next election.
It’s also a chance to test out new party messages.
“We see a Liberal government that is out of gas, out of steam and no ideas,” said Brad Lavigne, who was national director of the NDP under Layton.
“The New Democrats are positioning themselves as the chief alternative or the lead alternative to Conservatives. This convention will be an opportunity to take stock, and set that new direction.”
That was a theme highlighted throughout Friday by keynote speakers, many of whom are in power after defeating conservative-leaning candidates, or are part of provincial opposition parties that go up daily against Conservative leaders.
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In a speech to delegates, British Columbia Premier David Eby encouraged the resistance of the far-right movement.
And the Canadian Labour Congress president Bea Bruske called Poilievre a sham who is stealing the language of the working class.
“We remember those Harper Conservatives’ anti-union bills. They tried to weaken unions, making it harder to organize workers, and undermined our ability to represent workers. And where was Pierre Poilievre? He was at the cabinet table,” said Bruske.
Jennifer Howard, chief of staff to Singh, said New Democrats are the ones in provinces and cities who are taking on Conservatives and winning.
“And if we can do that in provinces and cities, we can also do that for the whole country,” she said.
But many say there still a long road to victory.
“The NDP has a lot of work to do to position themselves as a party that can win the next federal election, and try to form government,” said Melanie Richer, former director of communications for Singh.