Tom Parkin, CNC opinion
When the coronavirus breached Canada’s borders and began spreading, political leaders were forced into a battle with two fronts.
One front has been the public health fight. But NDP leader Jagmeet Singh put his focus on the other front, pushing to get more help faster for people and businesses whose economic worlds were suddenly turned upside down.
And at year’s end, Singh’s constant push for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to find more courage in the economic fight has benefitted Canadians – and his New Democrats. Earlier this month the NDP announced it has paid off its debts and the average of public polls in December shows the party at 21 per cent support, up five points over the result in the election held just over a year ago.
Politics is always about contrasts. In many ways, the economic response of the Trudeau government was hesitant. In that hesitancy was Singh’s opportunity to sharpen his political identity.
At first, a slightly tweaked Employment Insurance plan was to be the Liberals’ tool to protect suddenly unemployed workers. After Singh and many others pointed to the insufficiency of EI – which excludes gig workers, students, and self-employed workers – the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit was created.
The Liberals’ original plan to support businesses was a 10 per cent wage subsidy program. The NDP brought the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business together to ask for stronger support and wage support was boosted to 75 per cent.
Liberals were slow to support students who didn’t qualify for CERB and couldn’t find summer work. But the NDP kept a focus on the problem with an eventual partial win.
Singh’s pressure reversed a Liberal plan to cut weekly support from $500 to $400 as CERB was phased-out and replaced with the new Canadian Recovery Benefit. He secured a national 10 day paid leave program – an important weapon in the economic and public health fight that the Liberals seem reluctant to speak about or promote.
And now, after the Canadian Revenue Agency spread wrong information about CERB eligibility, Singh has focused on forgiveness rather than clawbacks.
Even during the peak of the WE scandal, the job of accountability was left to NDP MP Charlie Angus and others. Singh stuck to his focus, making few comments on the WE issue.
By focusing on people’s economic needs and avoiding the temptation to play to the story of the day, Singh this year strengthened the political identity he established in last year's election with his campaign slogan “in it for you.”
That focus, and resulting gains, strikes a sharp contrast with the Conservative Party. Leaderless for much of the year, Erin O’Toole took over the party’s reigns in late August and continued his party’s penchant for attacking any flank the Liberals left open, often to their own detriment.
Most regrettably, when Trudeau appeared unclear about the timeline of vaccine delivery, O’Toole impetuously pounced, loudly insisting that Canada was “back of the line.” There could not have been a more serious, worrying and widely-followed claim. And it turned out O'Toole's claim, which played on people's hope and fears, was completely false.
That misstep was quickly followed by a PressProgress report reinforcing a flaw in O’Toole’s political character. After falsely telling some campus Conservatives the original idea of Indian residential schools was to provide education, O’Toole proceeded to coach them to score points using the painful issue by arguing that the Liberals’ record on residential schools was even worse than the Conservatives’.
Add the continuing antics of Conservative MPs such as Pierre Poilievre, Michelle Rempel Garner and Candice Bergen, and the Conservative political identity appears to be little more than a highly-partisan dislike of the Trudeau Liberals backed by a belief they are entitled to replace them. People’s needs play no part in the storyline.
Meanwhile, many in the conservative base seem to have disappeared down strange rabbit holes about globalists, great resets and other conspiracies. And they like it down there. From those holes the conservative base is pulling its party down into a crisis of relevance.
So not surprisingly, the average of December polls shows the Conservatives at 31 per cent, three points lower than in the 2019 election.
The Liberals, like the NDP, also squeezed out an improvement in support since the last election, but at a lower three points, putting Trudeau’s party at about 36 per cent support. Improvements are always welcome in politics, but compared to the leadership bumps some Premiers have received, it’s less than impressive.
While their hesitancy was a constant – and therefore also the need for cajoling – in the end the Trudeau Liberals usually did mostly the right things for people. It’s not a strong identity, nor something that argues for an unchecked majority. But it’s surely better than the Conservatives, and that seems to be enough for many Canadians.