The NDP Has a Chance to Radically Reshape the Coming Canadian Election

With an election formally called, all signs point to another dismal exercise in fake Conservative culture war pandering and equally fake Liberal gestures toward social democracy. The social-democratic NDP now has a chance to shake up the race with its ambitious populist plans to tax billionaires and excess corporate profits.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh speaks in Gatineau, Quebec, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick / AFP)

Having visited the governor general to dissolve Parliament and call an early election on Sunday, Justin Trudeau issued a mostly paint-by-the-numbers pitch to the Canadian electorate. Offering his usual buttery delivery and a string of treacly platitudes, the prime minister made a predictable appeal to experience and the need for steady hands in a moment of crisis — adding a plea that the vaccinated encourage the unvaccinated to get their jabs.

With the launch of its platform this week, the Conservative Party similarly appears to be hitting many familiar notes: emphasizing tax incentives and subsidies to business while triangulating on some of the more overtly right-wing proposals touted during last year’s leadership convention.

Leader Erin O’Toole, meanwhile, came out against mandatory vaccinations for civil servants and people traveling by air and rail. This week being the first of the campaign, it’s too early to say what the contours of the election will ultimately look like. Nonetheless, its early days have already managed to evoke the bland, bipartisan symbiosis that has historically defined Canadian federal elections — this time with pandemic politics thrown into the mix.

As is so often the case, an incumbent Liberal government can be expected to at least hint of big, vaguely specified things to come in the event it recovers the majority it lost in 2019. The Conservatives, on the other hand, will attempt to placate their base with weak-tea culture war rhetoric while painting the Liberals as bureaucratically minded statists hell-bent on squeezing hardworking denizens of the middle class. Assuming O’Toole maintains his position on mandatory vaccinations, the campaign thus looks set to commence along familiar axes: center and center-right pitching their messages to the imagined median voter while protecting their respective flanks.

Though this dynamic more often redounds to the Liberals’ benefit, it’s an arrangement that ultimately suits both parties reasonably well — eliding, as it does, the many key areas in which they fundamentally agree. Whatever their differences, Tories and Liberals alike have long been resigned to the idea that the basic parameters of Canadian capitalism, and the manifestly unequal social outcomes it produces, must remain unchallenged and unchanged.

Since the turn of the millennium, Canada has experienced nine years of Tory government and twelve years of Liberal government. During roughly that same period, the ranks of the country’s billionaire class have exploded: from only twenty-three in 1999 to a hundred by 2018, the collective wealth of billionaires respectively growing from $72 billion to a whopping $339 billion (more than that held by the poorest 12 percent of Canadians combined) according to recent data. The pandemic has predictably exacerbated things, with Canada’s plutocrats increasing their wealth by $78 billion as millions of workers lost their jobs and experienced financial hardship.

Whatever gestures Trudeau and O’Toole make toward a just pandemic recovery, nothing either of them proposes will even put a dent in the deep material hierarchies which today define Canadian society. Here, the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) wields a real and perhaps historic opportunity to puncture the staid Lib-Con duopoly by putting its tax agenda at the center of the federal campaign. Arguably more ambitious than any seen for decades, the NDP’s 2021 platform proposes the imposition of a 15 percent excess profits tax on corporate pandemic windfalls.

Improving on its 2019 position, the party is campaigning on a wealth tax of 1 percent on all households with a net worth of more than $10 million and a 2 percent increase in the top rate of income tax — also pledging new taxes on luxury goods and capital gains. Taken together, it’s a suite of proposals the Trudeau Liberals will have a hard time even pretending to co-opt, and the kind of platform certain to rile Canada’s economic and political elite if the NDP begins to rise in the polls.

With popular support for a wealth tax hovering near 90 percent, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh should spend the next five weeks championing it (and the party’s other tax proposals) as loudly as he can — and welcoming the backlash from the country’s establishment that is almost certain to come when he does. COVID-19 has been a boom time for the rich. There’s probably never been a better moment to make the case for redistributing their unearned wealth.