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Can the NDP overcome Canada’s democratic deficit?

Canadian Politics

The NDP has tried time and time again to enact the popular will in their current role in parliament, only to be slapped down by a coalition of their Liberal and Conservative colleagues. Photo by Onfokus/Flickr.

We all love democracy.

The belief in the idea that government is responsive to the will of the people is what makes society function.

In Canada’s electoral system votes are cast and counted, parties squabble freely, and news outlets feature an endless parade of talking heads.

On paper, our democracy looks pretty damn strong.

Despite the window dressing of democratic process however, it is hard to believe that the voices of Canadians are heard when the major parties not only ignore, but openly flout, the will of the people.

The Liberals and Conservatives are the parties most likely to form government, having been the only two to win power in our nation’s history.

But a cursory look at the issues Canadians actually care about shows the disconnect between the people and our democracy.

Across the political spectrum, a supermajority of voters are unified in their support for universal pharma and dentalcare, a major investment in jobs and clean energy (often called a Green New Deal), and taxing the wealth of the very rich.

This support spans parties, class identification, and socioeconomic status. In the world of divided politics, it is truly a sight to behold.

The Liberal and Conservative parties willingly ignore the will of the people, undermining the intention of democracy and finding any excuse to continue their radically regressive pro-business agendas on the Hill.

For anyone who was at either party’s 2021 convention, the chasm between the people and the party elite was on full display.

Conservative Party delegates voted to continue denying the existence of man-made climate change in the party’s platform, while Liberal Party delegates voted 77 percent in favour of a Universal Basic Income modelled on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

Both were non-binding resolutions whose results were promptly ignored by party brass.

At least the Conservative betrayal of democracy will end with the party proposing some semblance of action on climate change, even if it comes in the form of outright denialism.

Liberal leadership couldn’t even be bothered to entertain their membership’s basic income resolution, saying it is “something they would like to look into at some point in the future.”

This line has no kernel of honesty in it and should be all too familiar to voters who’ve heard it before on proportional representation, pharmacare, taxing the rich, expanding voting access, and a litany of other broken promises.

Canadians now know that for the Liberal Party, “some point in the future” is coded language for never.

No party is perfect, and the NDP has had its fair share of struggle. Party members continue to fight for increased internal democracy, but the party ultimately remains answerable to its base. And the base is clear: it wants bold policy.

Importantly, the NDP’s current platform mostly reflects that, calling for taxing the wealth of the richest Canadians, making medicare truly universal, and reinvesting in programs that will lift potentially millions out of poverty.

The NDP has tried time and time again to enact the popular will in their current role in parliament, only to be slapped down by a coalition of their Liberal and Conservative colleagues, exposing the hypocrisy of the Trudeau government.

In what now looks likely to be a fall election, the NDP remains the only electorally competitive vehicle giving voice to working Canadians and standing with us on issues of generational and global importance.

The party’s platform seeks to level the economic playing field and attempts to rebuild a social safety net that is worse for wear after years of assault from consecutive Liberal and Conservative governments.

In order to win, however, the party will need to run a strong campaign that reaches every corner of the country, making a bold progressive case to Canadians that a better society is possible under its leadership.

Further, the NDP needs to prove it can move beyond simply acting as a watchdog from the sidelines of power.

Fulfilling the promise of democracy is no small order. It is far easier to turn away from promises made on the campaign trail (or to party insiders who are quick to forgive) than to spend political capital delivering on pledges.

Unfortunately for the Liberals and Conservatives, that is what the job demands and what Canadians expect. Obfuscation and outright lies simply won’t cut it.

For the NDP, restoring faith in our democracy presents an opportunity to claim its place as the voice of the voiceless and become a party that actually governs.

New Democrats must make the case far beyond its base that it will act as the voice of Canadians, embracing progressive populism, and answering the promise of democracy.

Joe Roberts is a veteran political strategist in both the US and Canada, Executive Director of the Centre for Canadian Progress, Co-Host of the political podcast New Left Radio, and Managing Director at Jewish Currents Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Joe_Roberts01.

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