Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been so omnipresent during the COVID-19 pandemic that it is easy to forget we have a minority government in Canada. The Liberals must rely upon some combination of support from the NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Green parties. The NDP and its leader Jagmeet Singh have, in particular, used their leverage to secure increased support for struggling Canadians, although the party has not received much public credit for its actions.
NDP pushes Liberals
After the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in mid-March, the federal and provincial governments were forced to lock down most of the economy. The result was immediate and massive unemployment. The Liberals’ first instinct was to use Employment Insurance to provide an income bridge for workers. The NDP argued that restrictive rules imposed by successive Liberal and Conservative governments meant that only 40 per cent of unemployed workers qualify for insurance. In addition, there is a designated wait time before benefits can flow, not to mention the additional bureaucratic delay in processing claims.
The NDP insisted on a quicker and more universal way to send money to people who lost their jobs. The Liberals responded with the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which provided financial support for 16 weeks to employed and self-employed Canadians directly affected by COVID-19. Singh and the NDP pushed for the extension and the government moved it to 24 weeks. The NDP pressed for aid to students who were ineligible for the CERB and the Liberals created the Canada Emergency Student Benefit.
The government also introduced a program to subsidize employers in keeping their workers employed. However, the program as first announced would only cover 10 per cent of wages. The NDP said that was not enough to make the program attractive or viable and instead called for the subsidy to cover at least 75 per cent of a worker’s wage. The Liberals increased the percentage to 75.
John Horgan, the NDP premier of British Columbia, took the lead in pushing the federal and other provincial governments to provide a paid sick leave program to help prevent workers avoid spreading COVID-19 at their jobs. As a result, Ottawa announced that it is offering a temporary income support program that will provide workers 10 days of paid sick leave related to COVID-19, if they don’t already have access to this benefit. The federal NDP pushed for this program as well.
It would be exaggerating to say that the Liberals have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic as they have only because the NDP was pushing them into it; but it is undeniably true that the NDP has played an important role and continues to do so.
There is a tradition in Canadian politics of having the NDP or its precursors prod governments of the day to support the needs and interests of ordinary Canadians, usually during periods of minority government or national crisis. In 1925, J.S. Woodsworth and his tiny group of Labour MPs propped up the minority government of William Lyon Mackenzie King on the condition that the Liberals promise to establish old age pensions.
The CCF became increasingly popular during the late stages of the Second World War and its aftermath. Canadians had sacrificed and had no desire to return to the cruelties of the Great Depression. To head off the CCF, King and the Liberals promised a new social order which would include family allowances and a national health insurance plan. Canadians did get family allowance but it was left to the CCF government in Saskatchewan to introduce Medicare in 1962. Within a decade all provinces had followed Saskatchewan’s lead, with the costs being shared with Ottawa.
The NDP led by David Lewis got a Foreign Investment Review Act and the creation of Petro Canada in the 1972-74 minority government of Pierre Trudeau. In 2005, Jack Layton convinced Paul Martin to cancel proposed corporate tax cuts in the budget and to increase in social spending. In another minority government in 2008, Layton convinced Prime Minister Stephen Harper to make an apology on behalf of the Canadian government to former students of Indian residential schools.
The current moment resembles the later years of the Second World War. Most people do not want to go back to things as they were, in this case pre-COVID. For example, the pandemic has exposed many privately-run, long-term care homes as death traps for the frail elderly. The NDP wants long-term care to be placed under the umbrella of Medicare.
And as schools and daycare centres remain closed or at least partially so, there is a crushing burden being placed upon working families. Many parents, usually women, will be forced to abandon the work force to care for their children. It is apparent that Canada badly lags most developed nations in providing for their children. The NDP has long advocated for a program of publicly-funded and affordable child care.
New public investments are urgently required but they will have to be paid for. The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that the deficit for this pandemic year has risen to about $260 billion, up ten-fold from $21.8 billion in 2019-20. Accumulated federal debt could soon approach $1 trillion.
Since their election in 2015, the Liberals have chosen to finance new programs and initiatives through deficit spending while largely ignoring a tax system which benefits the wealthy. The NDP is calling for a wealth tax on fortunes worth more than $20 million. It is a proposal which has become even more popular since a report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer showing that the richest one per cent of Canadians control 26 per cent of the country’s wealth.
The wealth tax would raise between $6 and $8 billion per year but much more could be collected if a myriad of tax loopholes were closed, and if the government were to crack down on tax fraud by rich people who hide money in off shore havens. Then there is the question of restoring the balance between personal and corporate income tax. Historically, the amount of corporate tax exceeded that collected from individuals, but this has been reversed over time by successive Liberal and Conservative reductions in corporate taxation.
NDP and just recovery
The COVID-19 crisis has connected people to government in an unprecedented way. The Liberals have used that to their advantage while the NDP plays its traditional role in prodding the government to do more for people in need. In political terms, the NDP must ensure that the Liberals do not receive all the credit and use it to eat away at NDP support in the next election. The NDP’s role in promoting a just recovery will be important for all Canadians but also for the political future of the party.
Note: In the interest of transparency, I served as an NDP MP in the 36th Parliament.