Friday, May 13, 2011

NDP campaign platform analysis

Global News
Monday, April 11, 2011

TORONTO - NDP Leader Jack Layton said he would deliver on several key social policy priorities for low and middle-income families during the first 100 days of taking office.

Speaking to NDP supporters in Toronto on Sunday, Layton unveiled his party's campaign platform, promising to balance the federal books by 2014-15.

The party also pledged to pull Canadian troops out of the Afghanistan training mission and compensate Quebec for harmonizing its sales tax.

NDP platform highlights:

- Hire more doctors and nurses

- Reduce the cost of prescription drugs

- Cap home heating costs

- Slash small business taxes

- Offer tax credits to small and medium-sized businesses for new hires

- Restore the corporate tax rate to 19.5 per cent

- Strengthen public pensions

- Cap credit-card rates at prime plus five per cent

- Limit the power of the prime minister to prorogue Parliament

The analysis:

Akaash Maharaj is a Public Policy Specialist at the University of Toronto's Massey College. His areas of expertise include Canadian and party politics, international diplomacy and peacekeeping. Maharaj is the former National Policy Chair for the Liberal Party of Canada.

Greg Albo teaches political economy at York University’s Department of Political Science. He is currently co-editor of the Socialist Register. Albo’s areas of expertise include employment, labour relations, public policy, the Canadian economy, the role of the Left in Canadian politics and the NDP’s election campaign.

Who is the NDP targeting with this platform?

Akaash Maharaj: The NDP, like every other national federal party, is unambiguously targeting urban, middle-class Canadians, for the simple reason that this group makes up the bulk of the population and of voters. Despite its serious ambitions to win seats in rural and farming communities, what little the NDP platform says to these areas is astonishingly vague. They appear to have made a tactical decision to break with their past practices -- in which their platforms often read like a handbook to government bureaucrats -- and instead created a tightly focused, sound-bite friendly document that is attempting to catch the ear of the largest pool of voters who may hear no more than five to ten second clips on the nightly news.

Greg Albo: The NDP platform is about stabilizing its base vote among public sector workers and the more highly educated working (class) in the education and cultural sectors. But they are also appealing to small business and other groups by constraints on business tax increases.

It's been said that the Liberals have led a very 'NDP-friendly' campaign laden with social policies, apparently a ploy to woo NDP voters to the Liberal party. What sets the NDP platform apart from the Liberals?

Akaash Maharaj: The Liberal platform focused heavily on promises of social investment and development, rather than on the party's record of successfully transforming Conservative deficits into Liberal surpluses. This was a significant choice; it may have been because the Liberals feel that the public is now less concerned about deficits, because they feel that their social policies create a more vivid contrast with the Conservatives, or because they are trying to cut into NDP support.

Interestingly, the NDP has made the opposite choice, by asserting that they will balance the budget in four years. This may be an effort to forcefully address the key concern Canadians harbour about their policies -- that they are fundamentally unaffordable -- or this may be an effort to fill a political space that has been abandoned by the Liberals' platform and the Conservatives' record.

Greg Albo: The key difference in the NPD platform and voter targeting is 'green voters,' largely middle class voters seeking action on climate change and willing to support a modest range of tax and consumption measures. In the Liberal platform it is like the Dion leadership period and the platform of the 'green shift’ did not occur. The NDP also take up some issues in relation to public transit, city funding and defence strategy that have been left vague or absent in the Liberal Party position.

At the end of the day, however, it can hardly be said that there are sharp policy differences between the two on social policies. None of them will address the growing social inequalities in Canada, and their reliance on tax credit schemes to fund new initiatives will make things marginally worse.

As the platforms do not address the 40 per cent or so of Canadians suffering from declining living standards, it is inescapable that voter participation in this election will reach a new low.

If elected, can Layton realistically deliver on all of his five key areas during the first 100 days of an NDP government?

Akaash Maharaj: Not unless the laws of time, space, and mathematics change during that period. Despite his periodic claims that he is running in the hopes of becoming Prime Minister, Layton's true intention is to win enough seats to become a decisive force in a minority Parliament.

Realistically, his platform is less a series of promises that anyone expects him to fulfill, and instead a guide to the demands he will make of whomever forms government, if he wins enough seats to be able to make such demands from a position of strength.

Greg Albo: The four immediate action policy proposals—more doctors and nurses, improve pension protections, credit card fee caps, small business tax cuts—are incredibly modest and lack major political ambition. There is nothing really to block their implementation, although the Conservative and Liberals have long been major defenders of the banks and have been backing the expansion of the banks as key to Canadian growth. They will not be keen for any caps on credit card charges.

The fifth proposal is on 'fixing' Ottawa and political scandals. This is an empty platitude, mainly poking at the corruption that oozed through the Liberal government of Chretien and has increasingly characterized the intertwining of lobbyists and the Harper government.

Layton has pledged to balance the federal books by 2014-15. The NDP say they'll put their pledges into practice without adding to the deficit. What do you think about the cost of what's in this platform and how the NDP are promising to pay for it?

Akaash Maharaj: At first blush, the cost of his promises seems reasonable. His plans to pay for them are not. For example, more than ten percent of his spending plans are meant to be paid for by finding a billion dollars in tax revenue that corporations have avoided by the use of off-shore havens. There is, however, no substantiation of this figure and no plan for how funds that are now hidden would be revealed by an NDP government. Similarly, a further 20 percent of his spending is meant to be paid for by cutting support for the fossil fuel industry, but there is no calculation of what offsetting effect this might have on government revenues from that sector.

Greg Albo: In fact, the idealistic rhetoric on balancing the budget has come from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. It is clear from the recent history that tax cuts carry an enormous cost that leads to systemic cuts in government programmes. This causes increasing social inequalities and mounting infrastructure deficits. It is hardly surprising that among the advanced capitalist countries Canada scores among the worse on both, and that we are sliding down the list of nations in the UN index on quality of life and also in productive capacities.

The Conservative platform promises more nonsense that corporate tax cuts will only be met by cuts in government inefficiencies. In contrast, the NDP platform avoids such illusions by rejecting some of the tax cuts. It is a modest difference, but one that is feasible and will probably close the deficit more quickly. However, the social deficits and the structural forces of economic decline in Canada will remain. And all the political parties are avoiding those issues.

There is nothing exceedingly ambitious in the policies proposed. The policies, from healthcare upgrades to pension improvements and targeted infrastructure spending, are largely modest extensions of existing policies. However, there are reasons for caution. Tax credit and benefits prove increasingly costly through time and skew support away from those who need it the most.

The NDP says it wants to limit the power of the prime minister to prorogue Parliament. What are some of the pros and cons to implementing this limitation?

Akaash Maharaj: Limiting such powers would take away the ability of a Prime Minister to evade motions of no-confidence and to escape his or her constitutional obligation to remain accountable to the elected Parliament. There are few, if any, downsides to limiting this power. That this limitation has not been imposed in the past is a reflection of the fact that no previous government in Canadian history had ever used prorogation so high-handedly for partisan purposes.

Greg Albo: Symbolically, this appears as a major alteration to the Westminster model that the Canadian Parliament follows. This model concentrates enormous power in the hands of the executive of the state, with the Prime Minister being the effective head of the executive. It is never been completely wrong to say that Canada operates as something like an "elected dictatorship" in how much the control and exercise of power is concentrated. Harper has pushed the envelope even further with respect to prorogation and Parliamentary procedures. This is where the symbol of the change also requires a substantive change in elite political culture in Ottawa and especially in the Prime Minister’s Office.

But practically, it is a modest measure that makes prorogation of Parliament dependent upon holding the will of the House. In all but exceptional cases, the two are congruent. All the other major problems and limits of the operation of Canadian democracy would still exist, including the hyper-concentration of power in the PMO. The popular alienation that Canadians increasingly feel about Parliament and politics would not even remotely be addressed.

Was anything in this platform uncharacteristically NDP?

Akaash Maharaj: Its brevity is uncharacteristic of the NDP, as is the absence of "big ticket" signature programs. The NDP platform appears to be an effort to offer comparatively modest promises that Canadians might find credible, rather than more attractive grand promises that Canadians would disbelieve.

Greg Albo: The NDP is a centrist political party. Like centrist political parties around the world, they have increasingly abandoned addressing social inequalities and some of the democratic pitfall of capitalism for an embrace of markets and small business. In political jargon, they have become parties of 'social liberalism.' This is a platform quite consistent with that political shift. It is how the NDP governs at the provincial level as parties in power not much different than the rest.

That said, it is still a shock to read of a commitment to keep corporate tax rates below U.S. levels as a mechanism to sustain Canadian competitiveness. This maintains all the failings of these policies to maintain jobs and productive capacities. Canada has been cutting taxes at a faster rate than most jurisdictions for two decades, and relative productivity performance to other countries has been falling just as fast.

Is anything missing in this platform that could potentially help the NDP win voters away from the Greens and Liberals?

Akaash Maharaj: The NDP's relatively muted position on farming and agricultural policies may represent a significant missed opportunity in close races with the Liberals.

Greg Albo: The NDP platform is so utterly conventional in terms of existing policy debates in Canada it can hardly raise much in the way of political concerns, even from Canadian political and business elites. It is an amendment to existing policy frameworks in Canada, not a reworking. But it will probably do little to encourage those disaffected from party politics to get out and vote. And in this sense, the political deterioration of Canadian democracy will likely be a casualty yet again from the 2011 federal election.

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