The Liberals and NDP Come Together on the Broad Strokes of a Progressive Agenda

The devil and the fate of an enduring minority parliament are now in the details of a confidence and supply agreement the Liberals have made with the NDP. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in his press conference this morning, was quick to enlighten us regarding two prevailing notions – or misconceptions – that flooded Twitter last night.

1. This was not an agreement for a coalition government

As it stands, there will be no NDP members of parliament in cabinet positions. Committees in both chambers will operate as they always do in minority parliaments, and amendments to legislation, as well as regulatory considerations will have to be debated and voted upon as the legislative agenda will move forward.

2. This is not perceived as a “legacy” decision by the Prime Minister.

In other words, though this agreement effectively ensures the passage of budget and confidence votes in the House of Commons until 2025, the Prime Minister is not laying the foundations for his own transition out of government – or Chrystia Freeland’s succession. “As I’ve said many times,” the Prime Minister stated, he plans on serving in government through the course of this mandate “and beyond.”

Some of the other points of conjecture about this agreement, however, have firmer foundations.

The first, as noted by several NDP sources including Jack Layton’s former Director of Communications Karl Bélanger, is that this conversation about an accord has been going on for some time. Bélanger dates it to the period just after the last election.

The second, crucial point is regarding the increase in defence spending the Liberals have been quite openly talking up. They’ve rightly presumed that a massive spend, done to address the obligations inherent in our multilateral engagement in support of Ukraine, could potentially derail the progress of the passage of the next budget bill. Best to secure support as soon as possible, and the NDP have now confirmed their co-operation.

Clear conditions

As the key areas of accord, outlined below will affirm however, they are by and large platform commitments of two past Liberal campaigns, with some added emphasis for affordable housing and the clean energy transition. If anything, this agreement takes prevarication or delay off the table for the more left-of-center components of the last Liberal platform specifically – in particular the tax increase and dividend banks and insurance companies will need to pay.

Most notably, it signals the Liberals will not water down some of the strongest recommendations for national pharmacare that came out of Eric Hoskins’ report, and they’ll also move forward on national dental care – justifiably a win for the NDP, given their strong championing of this in the last campaign.

However, there is the strong echo of one old rift between the NDP and the Liberals in the reintroduction of electoral reform as a commitment. Though this is the section of the agreement that seems still sketched out in the broadest of strokes. If it is in both parties’ best interest to show they’re not losing any of their partisan vigor in the House of Commons or the hustings, it is likely that this part of the agreement will provide that opportunity.

Trudeau’s Liberals have been characterized as less than reverent about the importance of House proceedings to governing – perhaps most glaringly in their prorogation of Parliament in 2020 and then, almost disastrously, in their call for an early election last year.

Given the Opposition’s vitriolic response to this agreement – that it’s an “anti-democratic,” “secret” agreement, advancing an “unelected,” “left wing agenda,” the irony of the confidence and supply agreement is that it could possibly put the focus on legislative procedure and the mechanics of governing like never before.

That might be good for democracy and civic literacy. It might also be bad news for the political capital of the Liberals. Those devilish details have yet to be decided upon.

Delivering for Canadians Now

The announced agreement delivers a framework for parliamentary cooperation and seven priority pillars for policy collaboration: healthcare, affordability, environment and climate change, support for workers, reconciliation, tax system updates, and democratic reforms.   

Parliamentary cooperation

The arrangement lasts until parliament rises in June 2025. To ensure coordination, both parties commit to a guiding principle of “no surprises.”

The NDP has agreed to support the government on confidence and budgetary matters and has committed to not supporting motions or votes of non-confidence in the government. Parliamentary cooperation extends to committees, and both have agreed to communicate on any issues that could impede the government’s ability to function or cause unnecessary obstructions.

To mitigate the risk of “surprises,” the parties will hold regular meetings. Trudeau and Singh will meet once per quarter, the NDP and Liberal Whips will meet regularly, and MPs and staffers across both parties will meet monthly. The dynamics of these meetings could be a telltale for how the agreement is functioning – or not – overall.

Bettering Canada’s healthcare system

Dental care is now a federal health priority, with legislation scheduled to be introduced by the end of this year. Details are scant, but given the federal government has no ability to directly fund health services, it’s likely this will require another series of bilateral agreements with provinces and territories.

Pharmacare has a timeline: legislation by 2023. A major outstanding question remains whether the promised pharmacare legislation will feature government as first or second payer – a point of major debate and contention in recent years. Many would argue we cannot afford an approach where the federal government is first payer, and that budget constraints might force coverage only of a very limited list of essential medicines. A gap-filling approach may be more palatable, both to provinces who already have pharmacare in place and to Canadian taxpayers’ wallets.

The agreement also fast-tracks work for a national formulary. Currently, the federal government is awaiting non-binding recommendations from their Advisory Panel, which are expected this spring. However, the national formulary would consolidate many federal bodies provinces rely on. In British Columbia, Premier Horgan has voiced specific opposition to a national formulary, which would compromise BC’s generous coverage for its residents.

The NDP has long-voiced strong support of PMPRB regulatory changes, which have been placed on hold until July 2022. The NDP’s criticism of “big pharma” may influence drug policies and the overall government sentiment towards the sector.

Each of these federal priorities require negotiations with provinces and territories. But if the federal Liberals were using a scalpel before, they’ve now picked up a hammer. With limited buy-in amongst provinces and territories for pharmacare, a national formulary, and long-term care standards, the NDP’s influence will either make these federal initiatives a reality, or hand over the future of Justin Trudeau’s legacy to Conservative premiers. Looking ahead, it’s likely the NDP will try to mobilize and amplify patient groups to encourage action on federal drug policies and programs – but putting pressure on the federal government may burn their relationships with provincial allies.

Confronting the housing affordability challenge

The NDP has pushed for incremental changes to the Liberal platform’s housing promises by proposing a change to the definition of affordable housing for the Rental Construction Financing Initiative. The already promised creation of a Housing Accelerator Fund will be a significant policy moving forward as the proposed funding tied to projects that “increase densification; speed-up approval times; tackle NIMBYism and establish inclusionary zoning bylaws; and encourage public transit-oriented development.” Both parties will use cash as a cudgel, driving a hard bargain with municipal governments that have tight zoning by-laws to get units built. A replenishment of the Canada Housing Benefit will be a direct subsidy to Canadians but since the main purpose of the top-up is to keep in line with inflation, there is unlikely to be much political gain.

Finally, there must be a stick for every carrot and the Housing Bill of Rights (with an emphasis on the creation of a public, beneficial ownership registry) will target those who have driven the popular narrative among progressive housing advocates on the “financialization of housing,” a broad term incorporating everything from Canadians with a second property for rentals to large multi-national property management corporations expanding into Canada. Here, there remains significant policy development to address these issues in a way that does not disincentivize new builds.

Tackling the climate crisis and creating good paying jobs

The NDP and Liberals have agreed to prioritize moving forward on commitments at the intersection of climate change and jobs, with the hopes of ensuring that Canadians can transition through the labour market smoothly as we move towards a net-zero future.

Both parties have agreed to move forward on ensuring our economy is net-zero by 2050, supporting workers via ‘Just Transition’ legislation, and establishing a Clean Jobs Training Centre. To support the move to net-zero, the NDP and Liberals will work to phase out public financing of the fossil fuel sector and will deploy funds to support enhancing home energy efficiency.

 A better deal for workers

The NDP and Liberals will collaborate to support workers by ensuring that ten days of paid sick leave are in place for workers in all federally regulated industries as soon as possible in 2022, and that legislation is introduced to prohibit the use of replacement workers when a union employer in a federally regulated industry has locked out employees or is in a strike.

Advancing reconciliation

Reconciliation remains one of the government’s most important legislative priorities. The deal recommits to the Federal Pathway to Address Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ People with Indigenous partners, including setting up a multi-jurisdictional table to coordinate this work. It also recommits to provide the necessary supports for First Nations communities who wish to continue searching for residential school burial sites.

Of note is the commitment the governing agreement includes for “significant” funding in 2022 for Indigenous housing that is expected to be further outlined in the federal budget. Looking to the 2021 Liberal platform, we could see upwards of a $2 billion commitment in this space.

Working toward a fairer tax system

A commitment to raise corporate income taxes for highly profitable financial institutions was a surprising Liberal platform promise that many believed would be punted down the road with consultations and watered-down implementation. Here, the NDP forces the government’s hand and increases pressure for it to follow through on the commitment as written in the platform, presenting serious repercussions for banks, insurance companies and Canadians who are invested in them.

Democratic participation + voting

While this could prove to be a realm of contention down the road should the NDP choose to push harder on electoral reform, for the moment, the two parties have agreed to collaborate on making some initial changes to the electoral process, including: extending Election Day to three days; allowing for flexibility in where people vote, within their electoral district; improving mail-in balloting, and; ensuring Quebec’s number of seats in the House of Commons remains constant.

Authored by members of H+K’s Public Affairs + Advocacy and Ottawa-based team including Michelle McLean, Will Stewart, Andy Singh, John Delacourt, Melissa Pasi, Kimberley Hanson, Daniel Komesch, Eric Dillane, Laura Grosman, Aisling MacKnight, Amelie Gadient, Ana Krstanovic, Ikram Farah and Jason Evans.