Canadian Social Democracy Study


Is the Ontario NDP really more Right-Wing than the Liberals?

Since the provincial election has begun, the Ontario NDP and Andrea Horwath have been pilloried as sell-outs and traitors to social democracy. 

Rick Salutin called Horwath a “right-wing populist” like Rob Ford, Gerald Caplan asked if progressives even have a place in the Ontario NDP, and 34 Ontario NDP supporters accused Horwath of giving credence to Tim Hudak’s policies by adopting a “right-wing program focusing on balanced budgets, austerity or at least public service cuts and ‘common sense.’”

Central to the case of treason against Horwath and the Ontario NDP are two claims. First, they are not “true” social democrats. Second, the NDP is now to the right of the Liberal Party of Ontario. Both these claims are unfair and unjust.

I recently read the Ontario NDP’s platform.  The theme of the platform is raising corporate taxes to expand public services and increase state intervention in the economy. 

Let’s take some examples of expanded public services from the platform: a tuition freeze, removing interest from student loans, billions for public transit, restoring passenger service on the provincially owned northern railway, new health clinics to increase number of people with access to primary health care, 1,400 more long-term care beds, reducing emergency wait times in half, more educational assistants, more public money for licensed childcare centers, lunch programs in public schools, and public dental coverage for low-income children.  When it comes to positive government intervention in the economy, there are also numerous examples: tax credits for business to hire new employees, retraining of older workers, tax credits for companies investing in new machinery, removing the HST from Hydro bills, regulation to reduce auto insurance by 15%, and subsidies for hi-tech/creative industries and energy efficient retrofits.

There are three policies within the Ontario NDP platform that some have pointed out stray from ‘true social democracy’: promising to balance the budget by 2017-18, pledging $600 million in savings through finding efficiencies in government, and reducing the small business tax rate from 4.5% to 3%.  It is hard to imagine how balancing the budget through corporate tax increases is not ‘social democratic.’ Further, there is nothing inherently ‘social democratic’ about inefficient government and reducing small business taxes is a way to create jobs and boost local economies.

Overall, the Ontario NDP’s platform fits into the third way variant of social democracy that has been in ascendance in the western world since the election of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder in the late 1990s. This type of social democracy asserts that the government must intervene in the economy to promote the growth of a vibrant private sector alongside targeting new public services to reduce wealth inequalities.  It holds that the state should not be asked to do everything in society because an overly developed public sector is excessively bureaucratic, inefficient, and does not promote the experimentation and risk-taking needed for economic prosperity. Like other social democratic parties around the world, the Ontario NDP is more about the modernization of social democracy rather than its betrayal. 

The trickier question is if NDP’s platform is to the right of the Liberal platform released yesterday.  Clearly, the Liberals have drifted to the left since Dalton McGunity released his austerity plan in 2012. Since Wynne has became Premier, the Liberals have lurched to the left to persuade the NDP to not trigger an election while at the same time stealing away soft NDP voters.

Still, there is no evidence in Sunday’s Liberal platform to place the NDP to the right of Wynne Liberals.  In several areas, the NDP is slightly to the left of the Liberals: $11 an hour versus $12 an hour minimum wage; targeted tuition relief for those on student loans compared to an universal tuition freeze; reducing electricity rates for low-income earners versus taking off the HST on electricity rates for all consumers; and dental coverage for 70,000 low-income children and dental coverage for 100,000 low-income children.

In other areas, the two parties are on the same page or only slightly different from each other. Both parties want to reduce auto insurance rate by 15%, balance the budget by 2017-2018, build more bike lanes, and give subsidies and tax credits to various sectors of the economy.  The Liberals will hike taxes on the top 2% of income tax earners while the NDP wants corporate tax increases.  The Liberals want to immediately introduce a provincial public pension plan while the NDP is hoping that the federal election will bring the momentum needed to improve the Canadian Pension Plan.  Horwath said that NDP supports the idea of a provincial pension plan “in principle” but wants to see what happens in the 2015 federal election before “committing provincial dollars to it.”

With the current Liberal government aging poorly and hurt by scandal, it makes ‘sense’ for the Ontario NDP to move towards third way social democracy in an attempt to capture disaffected Liberal voters.  As such, the Ontario NDP has carved out a position for itself just slightly left of the Liberals much like Jack Layton did in the last federal election.  Voters will have to decide if they want a social democratic party with long-standing connection to the labour movement and history of progressive politics, or, a party that has recently lunged to the left in attempt to save its political skin.  

David McGrane is an Associate Professor of Political Studies at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan. He is the principal investigator of the Canadian Social Democracy Study and the incoming President of the Prairie Political Science Association.





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University of Saskatchewan St. Thomas More College, U of S

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