Ontario’s NDP needs to rediscover its core values

Posted on June 21, 2014 in Governance Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Continuing to rely on a political weather vane will take Ontario’s NDP further down the road of irrelevance.
Jun 21 2014.   By: Charles Pascal

Post-election cleanup is in full flight in Ontario. Premier Kathleen Wynne is naturally focused on cabinet making. And Tim Hudak did the right thing by resigning his leadership of the Progressive Conservatives, albeit forced out by a caucus revolt. It’s clear that Ontario is not a Tea Party waiting to happen. Sadly, though, Andrea Horwath actually behaves as though she is deserving of sticking around.

Among the many low points in this election, the lowest is easy for me. When Horwath said in defence of her non-platform that she “walks in the footsteps of Tommy Douglas,” I felt faint with incredulity as I instantly recalled my most treasured moment when it comes to my fascination with politics — a long and deeply memorable lunch with Tommy in the fall of 1983. He said something to me on that late September day that those aspiring to replace Ontario’s current NDP leader at some time, sooner or later, should heed.

But first, let’s review Horwath’s political “bidding.” We all know she brought on the election by rejecting the most progressive budget in memory and lost any shred of political influence for no less than four years. Since she has become NDP leader, she has consistently rejected things that are clearly Tommy-like, opting instead for populist mush. For example, in the previous election she railed against the HST, ignoring research that noted its benefit for middle- and low-income Ontarians.

In 1983, while federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent’s personal numbers began to rise, the seat count for his party and its popularity in the polls remained abysmally low. I asked Tommy how it felt to see the NDP down in the dumps. His response was stunning.

My diary entry notes: “While it would be wonderful if we were higher in the public’s favour, I actually cherish these times when we are forced to get back to our core principles unencumbered by those occasional cocktail party socialists who want us to be something we are not.” Tommy also made it clear that while changing times require some recalibration regarding how the social democratic “core” is applied, the basic moral compass should be immutable.

While the Ontario PCs need new leadership capable of constructing a politically palatable centre-right, the NDP has a much tougher challenge.

Enter, stage left, Premier Wynne, who seems far closer to Tommy’s sense of what truly progressive politics is all about than does Ms. Horwath. Like Tommy, the premier is clearly someone who is driven by core values of equity and authenticity. Wynne also seems to understand that fiscal prudence must be part of the balance. As premier of Saskatchewan, while Tommy was developing province- and nation-changing ideas, including medicare, slowly but deliberately he took care of his province’s debt load.

Naturally, this balance between fiscal responsibility and province-building will be a huge challenge for the premier. There will be bumps and political bruises along the way, but her sense of purpose will likely remain clear.
Tommy had his own rocky road. The courage it took to take on the medical establishment is well documented. The loneliness he endured when he staunchly resisted the War Measures Act during the Quebec crisis in the 1970s was remarkable and historically validated. He was always clear about what a fairer future would look like and took every opportunity to move in this direction, at times taking baby steps, at times bigger ones.

Rightly or wrongly, it has often been Liberals who have been accused of using a wet finger in the wind to determine what’s best for a better future; the NDP and the PCs, although holding different world views, were clearer about what they stood for. Not so with Wynne, who seems to have Tommy’s sense of societal fairness. And with her occupation of the centre-left for at least four years, and the Tories’ need to regain the centre-right, what will Ontario’s NDP choose to do?

With Wynne’s sense that Ontario, like Canada, is a place of fairness and Horwath’s dalliance with the mushy middle, we would all be better off with an NDP that is truly informed by Tommy’s compass. The continued use of a weather vane will take Ontario’s NDP further down the road of irrelevance.

Charles Pascal is a professor at OISE, University of Toronto, and former early learning adviser to the premier of Ontario.

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