On the heels of what members view as a disappointing election result, Ontario’s NDP held its policy convention on November 14-16, 2014, the centerpiece of which was a delegate vote on Andrea Horwath’s leadership.
In the formal leadership review on Saturday evening, 1,055 delegates voted on whether or not a leadership race should be held: 244 delegates (23.1%) voted in favour of a leadership race, while 811 (76.9%) opposed. This outcome shows a significant level of approval for Horwath, higher than the 76% she received at the 2012 convention, and well above the traditional benchmark requirement of 66%.
Questioning of Horwath’s leadership began during the recent provincial election, which cost the NDP three seats in Toronto and influence over the balance of power in the legislature. Stalwarts within the Party, particularly members of the NDP Socialist Caucus, have been vocal in their concerns about the Party leadership’s drift away from the left, which ultimately resulted in the NDP ceding much of the centre-left to the Liberals in the 2012 and 2014 elections.
With her leadership secured, Horwath cannot afford to ignore the grassroots of her party, which demand a social justice agenda from party leadership. Much like former Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak, who received 79% approval rating during his 2012 leadership review, party loyalists will be watching closely, and critics within the party will not sit back should she fail to follow through. Horwath must take to heart the lessons learned during the last election, and work hard to unite the party and offer a compelling, progressive alternative to voters.
NDP Family Squabbles
Recognizing that there remains significant divisions within the Party, influential New Democrats spent a significant amount of time during the convention trying to bring opposing groups together. In fact, a key thread throughout the convention was a call for unity in order to position the Party for success in the next election.
Among the most prominent NDP schisms in recent years has been the shift in support of many labour unions from the NDP to the Liberals. In discussing efforts to help bring these key stakeholders back, Michael Balagus, new Chief of Staff to Andrea Horwath, was clearest among speakers in noting that “labour is neither a stakeholder, nor an ally; it is a founding partner of our party.” Time will tell if labour does indeed return, or if the labour union-friendly Wynne government continues to enjoy notable support from the NDP’s ’founding’ base.
NDP Policy Direction
Policy wise, the usual touchstones of NDP policy were well represented, including: environmental stewardship; opposition to privatization of public assets; worker rights and safety; and opposition to government spending cuts. The convention also included more specific debates over policy resolutions designed to hold Horwath more to the Party’s traditional left-wing orientation. Some of the successful resolutions included:
- Resolution to eliminate distinctions in minimum wage law based on age and occupancy, and increase the minimum wage to a living wage: This resolution is largely a response to Horwath being silent on the issue during the provincial election. One month after the Liberals announced their plan to hike the hourly rate to $11, Horwath stated she would also like to see the hourly rate raised to $11, and $12 the following year. This fell well short of the $14 that many anti-poverty activists had been demanding, for which the NDP received criticism.
- Resolution calling for increased Canadian content for all provincially funded mass transit contracts: This resolution was designed as a populist measure to appeal to manufacturers through protectionism. Additionally, this resolution also cements the support of Unifor Local 103, the union representing 350 workers at Ontario Northland. During the provincial election, President Brian Kelly claimed the NDP was the only party that has consistently supported the workers and communities at ONTC, opposing the sale of Ontera and consistently voicing support for maintaining the ONTC as a crown agency.
- Resolution proposing legislation that resources from the Ring of Fire be processed in the North or within Ontario: This stance dates back to early 2013, when Cliffs Natural Resources released an investor update which showed that nearly half of the raw ore mined in northern Ontario would be shipped to China. This prompted criticism in the legislature, with the NDP claiming that the vast mineral deposits should be used to benefit the province’s steel industry, rather than offshore interests. This initiative aligns with the federal NDP’s recent interest in the Ring of Fire, whose success in northern Ontario is important to their electoral chances in 2015. Most recently, the NDP appointed former Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton as a special adviser for the party on the Ring of Fire.
- Resolution calling for opposition to oil pipeline Line 9 until a full environmental assessment safety plan, emergency response plan, significant insurance to cover catastrophic spills, and First Nation consent have been completed: Since 2013, the New Democrats have pushed for a separate provincial assessment of the proposal to reverse the flow and increase the capacity of Line 9 to include heavy crude oil, claiming that Ontario has a responsibility for protecting its own environmental resources in spite of the National Energy Board decision to approve the pipeline proposal. In recent weeks, the NDP’s energy critic has been supportive of the Quebec National Assembly’s decision to demand a provincial environmental assessment, urging the Ontario government to follow Quebec’s lead. This resolution reaffirms the NDP’s commitment to environmental stewardship, aligning the Party with the numerous environmental activists in opposition to Line 9, and creates a distinct contrast to the current government’s approach.
- Resolution opposing the expansion of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport: In April 2014, Council put off a controversial final decision regarding amendments to the framework governing the BBTCA, instead deciding to await the conclusions of additional studies on the impacts of runway expansion and the use of commercial jets. City staff are expected to report back in the first half of 2015. Discussions in support of the resolution were focused on showing solidarity with mayoral candidate Olivia Chow, as well as the left-of-centre City Councillors who will need provincial support to oppose the proposal. If this issue is raised at the provincial level, most likely in relation to infrastructure funding, it could become an area of distinction between the Liberals and the NDP.
- Resolution to transform the Union Pearson Express into a public transit service, with additional stations, transition to electric trains, and fares similar to other public transit: This resolution shows solidarity with left-of-centre City Councillors who have criticized the link as being elitist, as well as appealing to potential downtown supporters. If the Union Pearson Express is not successful following its opening in 2015, with stagnant ridership impacting cost-recovery, the NDP will be quick to criticize this significant investment by the Liberals.
- Resolution for the independent oversight of the Ontario health care system by the Ontario Ombudsman: This extension of the Ombudsman’s purview was an election platform promise, and was a request that the NDP made of the Liberals in exchange for supporting the Liberals’ budget in May 2013. The NDP believes that giving the ombudsman authority to look into complaints against hospitals, ambulance services, nursing homes and retirement homes would rebuild the trust that people have lost in the health-care system, and help hold government accountable to the five-day guarantee for home care. Following the election, the Liberals called for transparency measures through reintroduction of the Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act. This legislation creates a Patient Ombudsman; however critics say that the decision to make the Patient Ombudsman report to Health Quality Ontario, an arms-length agency, jeopardizes the absolute independence that the Ontario Ombudsman has, who reports directly to the government.