Is the Ontario NDP coming out of a slump?

In recent years, the Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP) has frequently been accused of lacking a clear direction. This has been particularly true since the beginning of the provincial election campaign in 2014. Many long-time New Democrats were concerned when leader Andrea Horwath triggered that election by defeating a Liberal budget that was widely seen as uncharacteristically progressive, and many of those same New Democrats were openly distressed as the campaign unfolded and the NDP appeared to abandon traditional principles in an effort to appeal to more moderate voters by moving into the political centre. There were moments during that campaign, in fact, when the NDP seemed to be running to the right of the Liberals—a move that was not only tantamount to heresy for traditional New Democrats, but which also had little or no positive impact on the NDP’s electoral fortunes. The Wynne Liberals won a sizable majority, and while the NDP increased their seat count by four, they still finished third and lost whatever influence they had enjoyed when they held the balance of power under the previous minority government.

Since that time, the Ontario NDP has been criticized by many for failing to take strong positions and allowing the province’s political discourse to be dominated by the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives.

But a new policy document released at the ONDP convention in April is an indication that the party is ready to tackle issues with clear, strong positions that may well resonate with progressive voters. The NDP’s position on pharmacare is significantly bolder than the plan announced by the Liberal government, and the policy document articulates positions on the economy, health care, public transit, social services, the environment, and equity issues, all of which clearly distinguish the NDP from the other parties.

The document also outlines a much more comprehensive education platform than we’ve seen in recent years. It includes, among other things, a promise of more support for special needs and students with autism, a pledge that students will be able to graduate college and university debt-free, and a commitment to “broaden the definition of successful learning and rely more on the individual assessment of each student by qualified teachers.” This means moving away from standardized testing to a random sampling testing model, and reviewing the mandate of the Education Quality and Accountability Office in an effort to “find ways to place more emphasis on teachers’ professional judgement to measure student success.”

Current polls indicate that, if an election were held today, Patrick Brown and the Progressive Conservatives would win a majority of seats. But Brown’s recent efforts to appeal to moderate voters while still appeasing his party’s socially conservative base has led many observers to wonder what he and his party actually stand for. As the 2018 election approaches and Patrick Brown comes under more scrutiny, many voters may begin to wonder the same thing and question whether Brown is really a viable alternative to the extremely unpopular Wynne Liberals. This combination of factors could create a very real opportunity for Andrea Horwath and the NDP to make significant gains in the 2018 election, and perhaps even form the government. But that can happen only if the Ontario NDP continues to take clear, strong positions on issues that matter to Ontarians.

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