Who’s more progressive, the Liberals or the NDP?

Posted on August 14, 2015 in Governance Debates

OttawaCitizen.com – Opinion/Columnists
August 13, 2015.   Emmett Macfarlane

A significant segment of the voting public is looking for an alternative to the Conservative government yet holds no allegiance to a particular party. Although the NDP have held a lead the past few months, recent polls show a legitimate three-way race. So who should the “progressive” voter support?

Some progressives view defeating Stephen Harper as more important than who defeats him or what ideas they have. This sort of thinking is less than ideal.

Admittedly, the question of who offers the progressive alternative is in the eye of the beholder, but it is worth examining the differences between existing Liberal and NDP proposals, particularly in light of claims from some corners that the NDP has moved to the centre or that Justin Trudeau is campaigning “to the left” of Tom Mulcair. While there are undoubtedly more policy announcements coming from both parties, there are more than enough platform pieces to start thinking about.

On tax policy, the NDP promise higher corporate taxes and lower small business taxes. By contrast, the Liberals will lower income taxes for earners in the middle income tax bracket (in effect, anyone making $44,701-$200,000 pays lower taxes), while creating a new, higher tax bracket for those earning over $200,000. While neither proposal will create much in the way of new government revenue, the Liberal plan makes an already progressive income tax system more so, and the symbolism of raising taxes on the upper class is relatively bold. One point to the Liberals.

On child care, the Liberals propose to combine and enlarge several tax benefits and credits advocated by the Conservatives. The result would be bigger cheques to families with children. This might not sound like a big deal, but the Liberals would also means-test the benefit, meaning lower income families get a lot more money. According to a Library of Parliament assessment, the Liberal plan would lift 315,000 children out of poverty – that is some serious redistribution. By contrast, the NDP promise a $15/day child care system, apparently modelled on the Quebec program. In one respect the universality of the program might make it less progressive than some might think (there is some evidence the well-off benefit disproportionately from Quebec’s system – and why should we be subsidizing child care for rich people anyway?), but the appeal among progressives for universal, low-cost day care, particularly in light of the costs of private care, is indisputable. Moreover, the NDP plan, in my view, is more likely to ensure women have one less disincentive to enter or return to the workforce. If only it were means-tested. Call this one a draw.

On democratic reform (which is not just for progressives, mind you), the Liberals have announced an impressive list of ideas, ranging from open data, increased powers for the information commissioner and the parliamentary budget officer, a prime minister’s question period, and limits on party spending between elections, among many others. The NDP have not announced as comprehensive a list, but are pledging to implement a mixed-member proportional electoral system (in contrast to the Liberal’s vague pledge of post-election consultations on a new system). Deeply troubling, however, is Mulcair’s unconstitutional stance on refusing to ever appoint senators – not a responsible position, even if you don’t like the Senate. This point goes to the Liberals.

On top of these differences are a lot of important similarities. Both parties articulate a need for a nation-to-nation approach to the state’s relationship with Canada’s indigenous peoples, promise to invest in renewable energy and other “green jobs,” pledge to scrap Conservative decisions like income splitting, and emphasize rhetoric focusing on “the middle class.” Some similarities aren’t progressive at all (both parties support the regressive supply management of dairy).

It is hardly clear that the Liberals are campaigning to the NDP’s left, though their proposals so far are generally as progressive. What is remarkable, however, is the relatively moderate nature of both parties. There is no plan to significantly increase government revenues – the tax increases proposed by both parties are at least partially offset by tax cuts. Both leaders steadfastly avoid talking about carbon taxes (Mulcair talks about “polluter pay” as if there would be no cost to consumers, and Trudeau has decided to let provinces deal with carbon pricing) or – gasp! – raising the GST. Aside from significant child care spending, neither party has yet to announce the creation of a major new program (more details on the NDP promise to expand pharmacare coverage are needed).

The parties are operating in a box designed by the Conservatives, one where government revenues are constrained and, as a result of a desire among all leaders to be seen as good fiscal managers, spending is therefore constrained as well. The parties may be looking, even this late in the game, for something to excite uncommitted progressives. And there is a lot of campaign left, so it is more likely than not that the differences between the Liberals and NDP will grow, and there might be a few surprises in store.

What is already clear is that it would be a mistake for those looking for an alternative to the Conservatives to think any option will do when there is plenty of evidence that they have a real choice to make.

Emmett Macfarlane is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. He has given non-partisan advice to the Liberal party on the constitutionality of its Senate proposals.

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One Response to “Who’s more progressive, the Liberals or the NDP?”

  1. To say that one party between the Liberals and the NDP is more progressive than the other is completely unjust. Both of these parties have shown an interesting progression plan for the 2015 federal election. The Liberal party has a better Tax Policy plan to help out the middle class. Helping the middle class is a great plan for Tax Policy because the middle class is indeed the majority of our Canadian population. On the other hand, the NDP’s Child Care Benefit plan fits the a large portion of our population, while giving families with children 15$ per day to help pay for day care so that women can go back to work. Both of these parties do not plan to increase the government revenues, and the tax increases proposed by both parties are in some way offset by tax cuts. The Liberals and the NDP leaders are together on these aspects, which makes the voting decision even harder to make.


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