Concluding a three-day Edmonton caucus retreat, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says that after holding both a series of closed-door planning sessions and community outreach meetings, he’s concluded that Canadians “need New Democrats more than ever.”
“We’ve spent a number of days here now in Edmonton and we’ve heard from a lot of people, and what has become very, very clear is that people are feeling the weight of the cost of everything going up, feeling like ‘how do I get ahead’?” Singh said.
“Instead of having that hope you normally have for the new year, they’re feeling a lot of worry and fear.”
Singh said his caucus is ready to head back to Parliament Hill determined to “make Ottawa work for people.”
Over the last few days, New Democrats have heard from housing affordability advocates and embarked into the city in small groups to visit local labour, business and First Nation leaders, as well as dentistry and nursing students.
At a town hall earlier in the week, Singh and the MPs seated behind him on stage heard directly about Canadians’ troubles making ends meet, and pleas to pin down the, as Singh characterized them, at-times eel-like Liberals on pharmacare.
All of this feedback, and the days of internal deliberations, have helped NDP MPs focus in on what should be prioritized when the House of Commons resumes next week, and what they could try to negotiate into Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s 2024 federal budget.
In his closing press conference on Thursday afternoon, Singh did not offer specific ideas or new measures the NDP wants to press for progress on, speaking broadly about using its “power to lift up people.”
Over what the New Democrats have called their “strategy session,” there have been two central themes: finding ways to leverage their confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals and, in case they need to pull the plug on it, election readiness.
Asked what he makes of NDP supporters in Edmonton expressing some discontent over the deal with the Liberals, given his goals of electoral growth in the city, Singh said he’s confident that voters will see how New Democrats have been able to use this agreement to cement meaningful policy.
“We’ve been delivering and that’s something we can go confidently to the doorsteps with,” Singh said.
NDP ties to Liberals a risk?
Six years into his leadership, Singh has avoided the kinds of leadership questions being raised at the Liberal caucus retreat in Ottawa. While Liberal MPs largely say Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to have their full confidence, some suggestions have been made that at least a conversation should be had to clear the air.
In a fiery 30-minute speech to his caucus on Thursday, Trudeau made a direct effort to call out individual MPs by name to credit them for the work they’re doing on various files, extolling the virtues of Liberals having a diversity of views, while going hard at Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his caucus.
Though, with the Liberal polling numbers declining over the fall and the New Democrats’ popularity remaining relatively stagnant, Singh was asked whether he is concerned that the NDP’s close ties to the Liberals through the deal could become a political liability for his party.
“For us, whether the Liberals are popular or not doesn’t make any difference. We’re going to keep on fighting for Canadians,” was Singh’s response, in part.
Repeatedly in the press conference he pivoted his remarks to drawing contrast between New Democrats and the records of past governments, while indicating no desire to stop helping prop up the current government.
While progress has been made on some key pillars of the Liberal-NDP pact, such as initiating a national dental care program, and tabling “anti-scab” and “just transition” legislation, New Democrats at the caucus retreat have indicated that they feel the need to be on the Liberals’ heels, ensuring follow-through.
Actually accomplishing the entirety of the two-party deal keeping Trudeau in power is what MPs CTV News has spoken with indicated is a primary objective for 2024, indicating they want real action and not just Liberal announcements.
Pressing pharmacare priority
Likely the first test of the NDP’s resolve will be advancing legislation to implement a national pharmacare framework before March 1.
While the agreement originally required the federal government to pass a “Canada Pharmacare Act” by the end of 2023, the Liberals and New Democrats agreed to an extension, after being unable to even table a bill.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, NDP MP and health critic Don Davies said there has been some back-and-forth on the parties’ positions about how far the legislation should go, after the initial draft of the bill was rejected by Singh as offering “insufficient” coverage for Canadians.
“We’re battling for the proper way to deliver prescription medication to Canadians,” Davies said. “We’ve set down a very clear line in the sand. We know that single-payer pharmacare is the only way that you get a fair distribution of medication … so we continue to take that position with the government.”
Davies said he will be picking back up on his meetings with Health Minister Mark Holland when they’re both in Ottawa next week, stating the NDP has some “creative” and “bold” proposals to see an agreeable version of the legislation materialize.
Optimistic about the possibility of both introducing and passing legislation before the deadline, Davies said he hopes both parties can work together to make it happen.
“It’s rare in Canadian politics when you have a policy that not only would make a dramatic improvement to people’s health, but also give them significant profound relief to the economic pressures that they’re facing right now, and pharmacare does both,” he said.
While other budget wins are on their minds, Davies said money for actually implementing a pharmacare plan is not necessarily one of the line items they’ll be looking for.
“It’s less of an issue of a dollar amount, and more of setting up that system in the legislative way that we can build on in the future.”
In a statement to CTVNews.ca, Health Minister Mark Holland’s office said that conversations with the NDP “continue to be productive and collaborative,” and they “remain on track to introduce pharmacare legislation by the agreed-upon deadline.”
Speaking with reporters in Ottawa, Holland was asked about Singh’s wrestling with slippery eel quip and said it was “disappointing.”
“I think any time personal attacks are resorted to it’s unfortunate. I’ve actually found the New Democrats to be very reasonable partners. We’ve had a lot of tough discussions. Just like any negotiation you don’t get everything that you want,” he said. “That’s the nature of two different parties with different views trying to come together and find the same ground.”
Other pieces of legislation the New Democrats are expecting the Liberals to table in the months ahead include a “Homebuyer’s Bill of Rights” to make the process of buying a home more transparent, a “Safe Long-Term Care Act” to improve protections and legislation exploring improving electoral accessibility.