Politics·Analysis

That Liberal-NDP deal may be putting New Democrats in an awkward spot

On Wednesday, a little more than a week after the Liberals and New Democrats announced a historic confidence-and-supply agreement, NDP MP Laurel Collins rose in the House of Commons to rip into the government's new climate plan. Could New Democrats be feeling anxious about whether the public sees them as independent?

A cynic might wonder whether New Democrats are feeling uneasy about their public image

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh trade shots during the 2021 federal election debate. (The Canadian Press//Justin Tang)

On Wednesday, a little more than a week after the Liberals and New Democrats announced a historic confidence-and-supply agreement, NDP MP Laurel Collins rose in the House of Commons and attacked the government's new climate plan, saying it lacks "ambition" and offers "massive subsidies to unproven carbon capture technology."

"The government continues to put the interests of big oil and gas above protecting the workers who are impacted by the climate crisis," she said.

Maybe Collins would have been even less generous if the Liberal-NDP accord didn't exist. But her critical read of the Liberal plan might dash any thoughts that the new governing agreement means Liberals and New Democrats will spend the next three years holding hands and singing the old CCF campaign song.

Less than two weeks into the life of the confidence-and-supply agreement, it's still too early to say what it will mean in practice. But the novelty hasn't worn off yet.

NDP MP Laurel Collins rises during question period in the House of Commons on Feb. 28, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

A cynic might wonder whether the New Democrats are particularly eager right now to be heard criticizing the government — whether they're feeling sensitive about leaving any impression that they have capitulated to the Liberals. But then, New Democrats have seldom had trouble finding things to condemn about Liberal governments.

The challenge for New Democrats is to establish that they can criticize the government credibly on some things while broadly agreeing with the government on other things. Modern political parties seem much more comfortable describing other parties in only the most negative terms — as if their rivals are thoroughly unredeemable. A bit more nuance might not be a bad thing.

Some amount of tension between criticizing and supporting the government (or at least not voting to defeat it) is inevitable for opposition parties in most minority parliaments. It often leads to awkward contortions — like the Liberals under Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff skipping votes to avoid toppling Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

Taunted by the Conservatives

But the presence of a novel agreement to keep the government in power for the next three years is going to bring a particular focus to bear on the NDP — as the Conservative Party's recent complaints and taunts demonstrate.

On the day the deal was announced, Conservative House leader John Brassard rose on a point of order to ask the Speaker to rule that the NDP should no longer be considered an opposition party within the House because they had effectively joined the government. NDP House leader Peter Julian called Brassard's intervention "frivolous" and "irresponsible."

This week, Deputy Speaker Chris d'Entremont came back to the House to say that "it is clear to the Chair that there is no change in the status or designation of the members of the New Democratic Party, nor in that of their officers, as a result of this agreement."

"The Chair wishes to point out that it is not unusual for opposition parties to form certain agreements with a minority government without thereby becoming members of that same government," d'Entremont added. (Speaker Anthony Rota is away from the House while he recovers from heart bypass surgery.)

The 'NDP budget' line of attack 

Whatever the formalities, Conservatives have taken to speaking of the "NDP-Liberal government" and referring to members of cabinet as "NDP-Liberal" ministers. The fact that they're putting the NDP first in that description is probably no accident.

On Wednesday, Conservative MP Luc Berthold told the House that "on April 7, we will witness the presentation of the first NDP budget in the history of Canada." That quip ignored the fact that Conservatives described the federal budget in 2005 — which was amended as part of an agreement between Paul Martin and Jack Layton — as an "NDP budget." (Even Stephen Harper was at least willing to talk to Layton about the budget.)

How much of Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland's pending budget will be pulled from the NDP's wish list? (Blair Gable/Reuters)

The budget seems likely to include a tax credit for investment in carbon capture, utilization and storage that the NDP opposes; the Liberals announced their intention to move forward with that incentive in last year's budget. But Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland is presumably also going to mention things that New Democrats are willing to support, including perhaps some nods to the list of two dozen shared priorities that the Liberals and NDP put together. Maybe she uses this budget to lay out the plan for dental care or to implement a one-time increase in the Canada housing benefit.

That might not be enough to dissuade the New Democrats from describing the Liberal climate plan in scathing terms. And it might only encourage the Conservatives to refer to Freeland as the "NDP-Liberal finance minister."

But the budget could be an opportunity to start laying out what the confidence-and-supply agreement means in practice.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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