National AffairsPolitics

Singh’s hands tied as he walks tightrope

By Althia Raj / September 8, 2023

You could call it the summer of Liberal discontent.

Since June, poll after poll has shown decline in Liberal support.

Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives are firmly in majority territory, with 38 per cent support, according to Abacus Data’s latest survey. The Liberals are down to 26 per cent – their lowest level ever, since winning in 2015. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s personal approval numbers are at an all-time low, as is support for his government, and respondents’ feelings that the country is on the right track.

People are angry about the high cost of living, and many blame the Liberals.

It’s in this context that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh enters the fall.

The Liberals’ perceived failures haven’t boosted his own party fortunes, nor has the confidence and supply agreement he signed with Trudeau last year. NDP support remains steady at 19 per cent.

Singh still holds the balance of power in this minority Parliament – an enviable position – but he has less influence than he must project. That’s his challenge over the next few months.

With the Liberals’ plummeting support, there is little chance of an election this fall. Singh must know Trudeau wants to see interest rates drop and the tide turn before contemplating pulling the plug on his own government.

The NDP itself doesn’t want another campaign.

Beyond the fear of an anti-labour majority Conservative government, the key achievements of the NDP’s deal with the Grits are due by year’s end: a dental plan for low-income Canadians that extends to seniors, persons with disabilities and those under age 18; the framework for a national pharmacare program; and the introduction of legislation to prohibit the use of replacement workers (scabs) during a strike or lockout by unionized employers in federally regulated industries.

That last demand hasn’t received much public attention, but it is something the labour movement has fought for and dreamed of for decades.

So Singh’s hands are tied. He cannot trigger an election until the anti-scab bill is law.

Yet, he cannot be seen to be Trudeau’s loyal lapdog, tied at the hip, as the Conservatives seek to cast him. The NDP leader must walk a tightrope.

He must show he’s not just a booster of the Liberal government, that he can call the shots and exercise more influence on the government than Poilievre, without resorting to empty threats of pulling support. He must be seen to act on working people’s concerns – those suffering the brunt of the current crisis are his voters – voters Poilievre wants. Singh must deliver concrete results – it is after all the promise of the NDP-Liberal agreement.

It’s a task made somewhat harder, a senior NDP adviser told me this week, because the 18-month-old confidence agreement doesn’t focus on affordability measures as much as it might had it been drafted over the summer rather than after height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “There are different things that we are looking for now than we were looking for two years ago,” this person said.

Singh hopes to sit down with the prime minister in mid-September when Trudeau returns from the G20 meeting in India. But his list of demands is already being formed.

The party wants to see more affordability measures, such as last year’s doubling of the GST (which they pushed for), a robust plan to address the housing crisis, and tangible measures on the climate front to help people protect their homes and communities from severe weather events.

Their proposals, of course, clash with Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s message to cabinet last month that there is no more money. The NDP wants the federal government not just to incentivize private developers to build (by dropping the GST on affordable rental projects, for example), but by building housing itself – on federal lands and newly purchased land. They also want Ottawa to help universities build student housing to relieve market pressures in towns across the country. “If they actually want to address the housing crisis, it’s going to require money,” the NDP adviser stated.

But part of Singh’s tightrope act is knowing what the Liberals might be willing to do, and what they aren’t. There is no point publicly demanding something that is unlikely to get done. He risks looking like he has no influence.

Singh’s fall strategy will be modelled on what the party views as his success on the foreign interference file this spring – where he resisted calls to walk away from the NDP-Liberal deal. Instead, he privately and publicly demanded the prime minister announce a public inquiry, and used his press conferences, his party’s opposition day motion, and committee work to apply pressure. That got Singh what he wanted and the party believes it will again.

So look to the fall economic statement to see if Singh’s been successful. But even if he hasn’t, don’t expect him to trigger the government’s downfall.

Twitter/X: @althiaraj

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