Tuesday, September 09, 2014

On advance notice

Between Joan Bryden's report, Paul Wells' interview and Murray Dobbin's column among other coverage, there isn't much room for doubt that the federal NDP's economic focus - including a national minimum wage alongside a restored retirement age of 65 and reversal of corporate tax cuts - is earning some media and public attention. And we can surely expect plenty more as Thomas Mulcair fleshes out the details as he's promised to do this fall. But what can we take from both the substance of the NDP's policy proposals unveiled so far, and the choice to introduce them a year away from the anticipated election date?

Let's start by noting that conventional political wisdom has long been trending away from meaningful engagement with voters on policy. At all levels of government, the unfortunate tendency has been toward introducing a grab bag of policies more out of force of habit than any expectation that they deserve discussion - with those policies often serving more to obscure a party's real intentions than to reveal them.

But the federal NDP has often offered an exception to the rule, due in no small part to its desire to win some public notice when the media would otherwise be inclined to focus solely on a horse race between two other parties.

Of course, part of the NDP's long-term plan has always been to ensure itself a constant place in that horse-race coverage. And there are still two obvious if distant paths toward that end result: either the Libs' choice to bet the party on Justin Trudeau could fail (leaving a strong NDP-Con clash of ideas), or the Cons could crumble like the PCs did in 1993 (allowing the Libs to assume the explicit right-wing position they have in British Columbia).

In the meantime, it makes a world of sense for the NDP to stake its claim once again as the party of ideas - particularly since this time, it has far more resources behind it to reach the media and voters alike. 

So what about the content of the recent announcements? There, Mulcair seems to have learned at least a few lessons from Andrea Horwath's loss of "core left" and "new labour" support. And so instead of taking the NDP's base for granted, he's starting with proposals which serve largely to consolidate those groups of voters (while remaining palatable across the spectrum).

Of particular note, the minimum wage proposal looks ideally placed as an idea whose overall impact might far exceed its direct effects. While a relatively small number of workers fall under federal jurisdiction, even the NDP has rarely emphasized the concept that the federal government can lead the way in improving standards across the board. And particularly if the minimum wage proposal is just the opening salvo in addressing labour and employment rights more generally, there's plenty of room to present ideas which will make for both sound policy and effective politics.

To be clear, the few ideas presented so far almost certainly won't be enough to rally the base for the next year-plus. And so I'd expect the detailed plans being presented to follow a similar theme: ideas which core supporters will see as worth fighting and donating for, and which force the Libs (and to a lesser extent the Cons) to show their hand as to whether they plan to support business interests over the public.

We'll find out fairly soon how effective that effort is. (And Mulcair can help matters by not stepping on his own policy direction - as Wells seems to have had no trouble pushing him toward anti-tax tropes.) But the resolve to change minds on matters of policy is exactly what differentiates a functional political party from a mere leadership vehicle, and it's a plus to see the federal NDP pursuing the former role.

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