Thursday, November 18, 2021

On priorities

While I've pointed out the absurdity of yet another round of anti-coalition scaremongering, it does seem clear that any discussion between the NDP and the Libs will instead involve a confidence and supply arrangement. And that may well be for the best, as it maximizes the policy outcomes the NDP can expect to generate from an agreement. 

That said, in determining which priorities should be given precedence, it's worth keeping in mind what can realistically be achieved in that type of arrangement - particularly in light of the dynamics it would create between the parties involved. So let's look at a few of the criteria by which we can evaluate possible points of agreement - and which options might best fit within a deal.

  • Public Benefit - Needless to say, the core consideration for anything the NDP requests needs to be a tangible benefit for people. While this might seem obvious, remember that the Libs once considered it a good idea to keep the Harper Cons in power in exchange for partisan progress reports on stimulus spending. The NDP hopefully knows better than to pursue process points over substance - but in case there's any doubt, it needs to view the contents of a policy deal as embodying the belief that political choices can improve people's welfare. 
  • Immediacy - Any supply agreement will necessarily be for a limited period of time, with a risk that Justin Trudeau will see an opportunity to call an election early no matter what time period is agreed on. And that means whatever concessions the NDP can win will need to be capable of implementation within a period of a year-plus. That likely rules out anything which would require starting any major program design or public consultation from scratch without a fairly well-understood end goal. And so while a basic income or electoral reform would make for worthwhile demands on the merits, they may not be practical as core components of a supply agreement. 
  • Durability - That said, there's also reason for concern if any agreement fails to have a lasting impact. For example, while improved pandemic benefits are rightly an important consideration for now, there's surely little value in committing to support a government past the point when they may cease to be necessary. This may be where the NDP's past success in pushing for Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan and Petro-Canada serves as a precedent as to what's possible. And while there may be limits on the structural change the Libs are willing to accept, the NDP should be keeping an eye on ensuring that the effects of any agreement last beyond the Parliament in which it's reached. 
  • Acceptability - Of course, any demand made by the NDP is futile if it's beyond what the Libs can be pushed to accept. And while the Libs aren't setting up any particularly strict lines at the moment, there's a real risk that they'll see options to stay in power by other means (particularly by daring the Cons to bring them down) if the price for a supply agreement is seen as too high.
  • Differentiation - By the same token, however, the NDP surely wants to be able to claim justified credit for the results of any agreement, rather than facing any plausible argument that the Libs would have done the same if they'd had a majority. And there may be particular value for the NDP in being able to claim to have pushed the Libs to action in an area where they'd otherwise proven reluctant to live up to their promises or stated principles. 
  • Progressivity - Finally, different isn't necessarily better - so it matters which types are chosen for emphasis. While platform development always includes some effort to be everything to everyone, the terms of a supply deal will be taken as the ultimate declaration of the NDP's priorities. And it would be a waste of the balance of power to use it to pursue policies which tend toward political gimmickry rather than the expression of supporters' values.  

Not surprisingly, the main goals mentioned by Jagmeet Singh since the election (action on housing, dropping litigation against Indigenous children/providing compensation, and climate action) can meet each of the above criteria depending on the steps chosen. But even on those topics, the nature of any agreement may make a world of difference: indeed, a housing plan oriented toward subsidies for purchasers could easily fail the public benefit, differentiation and progressivity tests. 

Conversely, the best option may be one which isn't at the forefront of Singh's current messaging. The Libs have already put some effort into determining what a national pharmacare program could look like, meaning that it's as "shovel-ready" as any national benefit program is likely to be. But they've abandoned any commitment to following through or funding it, presumably due largely to industry pressure. 

That means the NDP can be the driving force behind a crucial national program which would carry both individual and systemic benefits, and which the Libs would have little reason to oppose directly (even if they haven't been willing to spend their own political capital implementing it). 

With pharmacare (ideally coupled with public-sector pharmaceutical capacity) along with a substantial contribution to a climate change plan (say, redirecting the value of fossil fuel subsidies to the NDP's proposal for a Civilian Climate Corps and green infrastructure investments?) as the centrepieces, there would then be room to add further elements which are either more limited in duration, or more distant in implementation. 

It remains to be seen exactly how willing the Libs are to pursue a more formal arrangement. But there's room for both the NDP and the country to benefit immensely if they can be pushed to do so - and after an election campaign where an immense amount of energy was spent to accomplish very little, it would be for the best if some well-selected pressure now can remind people what effective cooperation can achieve. 

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