Is this the NDP’s moment? Andrea Horwath readies New Democrats for 2018

Is this the NDP’s moment? Andrea Horwath readies New Democrats for 2018

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is getting ready to run in 2018.

In a year-end interview with QP Briefing, she gave a harsh assessment of Premier Kathleen Wynne — but didn’t train her guns on Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown, even when asked to do just that.

Horwath’s focus is on her own particular brand of progressive politics, and how it’s different than that of “this wildly progressive premier that we’re supposed to have, who turned out not to be so progressive after all.”

How, she wondered, can the provincial government be so allegedly progressive, yet be “so doggedly determined,” not to run a deficit next year when its federal counterpart is running up a big one in the name of progressive politics. Wynne, after all, did endorse Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose government makes no secret of the multibillion-dollar deficits it will run.

Progressive, to Horwath’s NDP, is about “making Ontario as fair of a province as possible.”

“And we don’t see that,” she said. “We hear, constantly the alarm bells going off between the haves and the have-nots. The rich and the poor.

"We continue to see child poverty growing in the province even though this particular liberal government has been claiming for years now that they’re going to deal with poverty and homelessness — and yet we see bankers making money off the sale of Hydro One,” she said, imparting a sense of scorn on the word "liberal."

It was federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair who pledged to balance the books in last October's election, a policy some have cited as opening the door for Trudeau. So, the Ontario NDP of 2018 will run on a platform that includes a deficit if necessary, but necessarily a deficit, Horwath says.

And, based on some of the New Democrats' policy ideas floated so far, they might just need that sort of stance.

Asked during her end-of-sitting press conference with the Queen’s Park Press Gallery earlier this month about what happens if the NDP comes up short in the next election, Horwath said there was still plenty of time between then and now.

“I’m going to wait until I get into that rodeo and once the rodeo’s done then I’ll determine what happens after that,” she told reporters.

Speaking with QP Briefing, Horwath acknowledged she’ll face one more confidence vote in her leadership before the province goes to the polls in 2018, as is mandated every two years by the Ontario NDP’s constitution. But she plans to lead her party into the next election. “I don’t expect there to be any bumps in the road, but it’s a democratic process and we’ll see what happens.”

A brief flashback

It was two years ago that Horwath faced her last leadership vote, deep underground at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. After a disappointing showing in the 2014 provincial election, which saw the NDP go from holding the balance of power to third-party status once more, the leader would ultimately receive the backing of 77 per cent of the NDP delegates, reasserting Horwath's control of the party.

But it was also in the basement of the building where the seed of a plan was planted for the Ontario NDP.

Horwath’s relatively new (at that point) chief of staff laid out that strategy before the party faithful.

“It is very clear to me that I’m in the right place at the right time,” Michael Balagus told the mid-November convention-goers. “I think we have a tremendous opportunity.”

Balagus was just six weeks into the job, after the previous occupants of his office had shuffled out (or been shuffled out) following the Ontario NDP’s lacklustre showing in the election.

But the coming opportunity, Balagus said, would be presented by the three parties. The first opportunity would have to be of the NDP’s own making. The other two predictions were strangely prescient.

The Progressive Conservative Party had also been disappointed by its showing in 2014, watching as another Liberal premier won a majority mandate. “Can you say disarray? Can you say Doug Ford for leader? Say it as often as you can, because it can only help,” Balagus told the crowd.

(It was not exactly to be, as Patrick Brown would ultimately take over for Tim Hudak as permanent party leader.)

The other opening, Balagus said, would be offered by the governing party.

“And then we have the Liberals, who will provide us a glorious opportunity four years from now,” he said. “And my boss can’t say this, and our caucus members can’t say this, but I can say it: One of the reasons we’re going to have the great opportunity, quite frankly, is because the Liberals are Liberals, and as Liberals always do, they lied their way through an election campaign.”

Two years later, DoFo aside (well, maybe; the media can only dream), there is an opportunity similar to what Balagus had mentioned. The Liberals, under Wynne, have slipped in the polls. The PCs, who have pulled ahead, are facing disarray as they grapple with their socially conservative angels and demons.

So how will the Ontario New Democrats grasp their opportunity? Can they?

The price of policy

Asked if this was their moment to win over voters – a plurality of which the polls show as having sided with the Tories – Horwath insisted she would just keep working on meeting with and listening to voters, as well as proposing policies on their behalf. Several of the policies pitched by the NDP have actually been seized on by the Liberal government, such as the notion of an HST-sized rebate on hydro bills (although Horwath had been pushing a permanent removal of the HST on electricity, not a rebate).

Horwath said her party’s policy work is continuing — and much of it based on the input she’s been getting as she tours around the province. But some of the ideas she’s backing — or just considering at this point — would come at a steep cost.

One such cost could be attempting to undo the Liberal government's sell-off of Hydro One. Under Wynne's watch, the Liberals aim to dilute their ownership stake in the utility to 40 per cent. In return for giving up sole ownership of the utility, the government is expecting about $9 billion in proceeds it says will be used to fund infrastructure projects and pay off debt.

Would Horwath buy back the shares the Liberals have sold? Again, she’s not tipping her hand, although she said 2017 may be the year the Premier admits her true "mistake" on the electricity file was the Hydro One sell-off.

“That’s an excellent question and I can’t answer because I don’t know a number of things,” she told QP Briefing. “I don’t know what that looks like in terms of our opportunity to get that back under public control. Even legally, in terms of what kind of obligations we would have to the people … who will have at that time the ownership of the shares. But also I don’t know what the cost would be. So that’s why I’m hoping we can get them to stop now.”

Another cost could stem from the party’s opposition to Toronto’s road tolls. The NDP lost life-long member and former MPP Paul Ferreira over the decision to side with the PCs and oppose Toronto’s plan to toll the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway — a decision he called “reactionary.”

Horwath said  her caucus’s position is that the progressive way to fund transit building is through the income tax collected by the provincial and federal governments.

“Overall, I think pretty much everyone around the table understands that New Democrats believe that user fees and flat taxes are not the progressive way to provide public services,” she said. “I believe that progressive taxation is a principle where those with more ability to pay, pay more and those with less ability to pay, pay less and that comes through the income tax system.”

In an open letter to Toronto Mayor John Tory, she floated restoring the level of provincial funding for transit before the Mike Harris-era cuts, which she pegged at $330 million-year today.

The rationale for the party’s opposition to tolls is arguably at odds with its long-running campaign to take the HST off hydro bills — which inspired Wynne’s government to implement an 8-per-cent rebate for electricity, effective January, which is equivalent to the provincial portion of the HST.

The Financial Accountability Office looked at the plan earlier this year and found it’s regressive in practice, as the bulk of the benefits  will be  going to wealthier Ontarians who tend to consume more electricity and have larger homes.

Horwath acknowledged that, but said her party was being consistent with its position that essential services should not be taxed.

The idea to take the HST off home hydro wasn’t the first that the Liberal government has picked up from the NDP — something Horwath is proud of.

She cited a long list of New Democrat initiatives that have recently worked their way into government policy: Monique Taylor’s private member’s bill on “Katelynn’s principle,” getting worked into the Children’s Aid reform legislation; Cheri DiNovo’s Cy and Ruby’s law concerning LGBTQ families  getting worked into the All Families are Equal Act and her across-the-aisle work in first responder suffering PTSD.

“And that’s a funny thing, you know, because in opposition, the traditional role of opposition is exactly that, oppositional,” Horwath said. “You behave oppositionally, you hold the government’s feet to the fire. You’re a critic, you criticize the government. And then, what we’ve been saying and indicating clearly is we think it’s a bigger role than that. We think we need to bring ideas forward as well.”

Horwath said there’s risk that the government will get credit in the minds of Ontarians for New Democrats’ work, but said she feels it’s worth it.

The future

If she were to form government in 2018, how would the NDP run the day-to-day operations differently? Horwath noted that she hasn’t actually been in a government, but her chief of staff, Balagus, had been in Manitoba. The ONDP Leader said she would tap the experience of his and other New Democrats who have been in power (such as Brian Topp, possibly).

“There’s a lot of NDP experience out there in terms of people who have been involved running governments in this country, in various provinces. So I’d be working with them to put a structure together that works not only for the administration, if you will, of government, but for the people of the province.”

But given Wynne’s recent polling woes, and Brown’s issues with social conservatives of late, is this her party’s opportunity?

“You never presuppose where people are gonna be when it comes to an election,” Horwath said. “We’re 18 months away, which is a lifetime in politics, and I think everybody knows that.”

To contact the reporters on this story:
Twitter: @geoffzochodne

QP Briefing Staff

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