Singh invokes Tommy Douglas to pitch 2019 election platform

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh summoned the legacy of Tommy Douglas — the father of universal health care in Canada — while unveiling his party's 2019 election platform, pitching voters on a plan to dramatically expand that system to cover mental, dental, eye and hearing.

'New Deal' promises drugs, mental, dental, hearing coverage for all

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh arrives to speak at the Ontario NDP Convention in Hamilton, on Sunday, June 16. (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press)

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh summoned the legacy of Tommy Douglas — the father of universal health care in Canada — while unveiling his party's 2019 election platform today, pitching voters on a plan to dramatically expand that system to cover drugs, mental, dental, eye and hearing.

"Seventy-five years ago yesterday, Tommy Douglas was elected the premier of Saskatchewan, where he led a movement that gave us medicare and, ever since, being Canadian means doctor visits, hospital care — without having to worry about how to pay for it. That was a powerful dream, but we know that dream is not complete. We can take it further," Singh told a crowd of supporters in Hamilton on Sunday morning, netting a standing ovation. 

"It's time for the party that brought medicare to Canada, to take another major step forward."

The reference to NDP lore comes as Singh, whose third-place party has been struggling in the polls, tries to differentiate his party from the governing Liberal Party and stave off a strengthening Green Party.

New wealth tax proposed

Breaking with tradition, the NDP launched its election platform before MPs take off for the BBQ circuit this summer and just four months before voters head to the polls.

For NDP MP David Christopherson, just one of the few federal member on hand for the platform unveiling, the historical references sent a clear message to the faithful.

"I really like the idea that he's moving back to the roots of Canada where we've made the biggest difference in improving the lives of Canadians through Tommy Douglas and bringing in Medicare," said the Hamilton MP, who is not running in the upcoming election.

"It's risky to put out your whole platform this early, but as Jagmeet said the purpose is to let Canadians know what the NDP stands for. Going back a few decades, it was always clear what the NDP was and we're in an era now where it's not that clear."

The NDP's main challenge is to lay down the case of why vote for them.-  Farouk Karim, former NDP strategist

At the heart of their platform, called "A New Deal for People," and shortened to NDP, is a pledge to reform Canada's health-care system to first include universal pharmacare and later another suite of services, like dental, eyecare and hearing.

Singh said it would save families who already have an insurance plan $550 a year.

To pay for the seismic shift, and other platform promises like drug decriminalization, the creation of 500,000
more affordable housing units, improved child care and enacting all recommendations of the missing and murdered Indigenous inquiry, the party is proposing a new one per cent wealth tax on those with a net worth of more than $20 million.

It's also promising to roll back corporate tax cuts brought in by previous governments to 2010 levels, increasing to 18 per cent from 15 per cent.

"To bring these commitments forward we need to be daring, we need to have imagination and it means we need to have the courage to dream," Singh told the audience at the Ontario NDP convention, who are his former colleagues at Queen's Park.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speaks to delegates and supporters at the Ontario NDP Convention in Hamilton, Ont., Sunday, June 16, 2019. (Tara Walton/Canadian Press)

"The courage to, not only dream of a better future, but the courage to make that dream a reality. Like our friend, Tommy said, 'Dream no little dreams.'"

Singh's NDP would run deficits and hasn't set a deadline to balance the budget — a different path than the one set by former leader Thomas Mulcair in 2015, who was accused of allowing the Liberals to outflank the NDP on the left.

"Jagmeet is a very different leader than Tom. Tom was different from Jack. Jack was different from Ed. The reality is modern day politics are very leader centric and whether that's good or bad, that's the reality," said Christopherson.

"Being different is not necessarily good or bad. That will be determined on election day by the voters as to whether or not it would be a good change. But you always get change with a leader."

The Liberals have also been looking to create a drug plan. On Wednesday, a government-appointed advisory council recommended a $15-billion single-payer pharmacare plan and the federal health minister says Ottawa is considering next steps. 

Liberal MP Marc Miller said the government welcomed the NDP's support on pharmacare, climate change and affordable housing, but questioned the NDP's ability to pay for its pledges.

"We hope that the NDP will soon provide the details that Canadians expect from any national party about how it will pay for its promises," he said in a statement.

Targeting those disillusioned by the Liberals

Former NDP strategist Farouk Karim said it's important for the party to get the message firmed up before the summer BBQ circuit season begins.

"It can only help," he said, pointing to the NDP's stagnant polling numbers since Singh entered the House of Commons.

"The NDP's main challenge is to lay down the case of why vote for them."

The early platform reveal also sends a signal to disappointed Liberal voters, said Karim.

"The other strategic element of the vision today is that it targets precisely the crumbling progressive coalition of the Liberals that put them in power in 2015," he said. "The NDP needs those votes back."

While the NDP platform promises some big ticket items, there's little costing in it.

The party says the Parliamentary Budget Officer, an independent officer of Parliament, will review the plan and more numbers will be released, likely closer to the Oct. 21 election.

This election is the first time the PBO, which typically reviews government spending and policy initiatives, will make itself available to review the fiscal soundness of party platforms.

Douglas has been name-dropped a few times in the last month of politics.

Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland, the grandson of the former Saskatchewan premier, took to Twitter earlier this week to ask Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Ottawa MPP Lisa MacLeod to stop using his grandfather's name for political gains.

In a Financial Post editorial, MacLeod argued that Douglas would have approved of Ontario Progressive Conservatives' attempts to move toward fiscal discipline.

"I knew Tommy Douglas and you Sir, are no Tommy Douglas," Sutherland wrote.

With files from the CBC's David Thurton and the Canadian Press