In 1921, then prime minister W.L. McKenzie King quipped that Canada’s social democrats were just “Liberals in a hurry.” Over the years, that same pejorative has been lobbed at the New Democrats countless times; with the Liberals now signaling a tack to the left on health care as they head into the 2019 federal election, that characterization may be making a comeback in Liberal campaign strategy.
At their national policy convention in Halifax over the weekend, the Liberal Party membership adopted 15 key policy resolutions, with left-leaning health care proposals generating far and away the most support from the party’s caucus. These resolutions won’t necessarily become part of the party’s platform—those decisions are made by a platform committee closer to the election.
The top three resolutions — a national pharmacare program, medicare coverage for mental health services, and decriminalizing the possession of all drugs — suggest a pivot towards more progressive health policies. A number of the other resolutions adopted, such as the creation of a seniors’ ministry and ending the taxation of menstrual products, also have health implications.
The Liberal caucus seem to see the pragmatism of making gestures towards its left wing, made up largely of its younger members. With less-than-optimal polling numbers, the Liberals went into the weekend’s convention with the desire to build some momentum to carry them into 2019. Speaking to delegates Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed to want to harness progressive energy for the party, offering a soft embrace of the party’s left wing. “It won’t come as any surprise to people that I deeply believe that we are, and should be, a progressive party,” he said.
Existentially, the Liberals conceive of politics principally as the art of what’s possible. It’s why some of their major policy proposals, like cannabis legalization, become reality while others, most famously electoral reform, die unceremonious deaths on the Hill. So, when Trudeau says that the party is progressive, it’s not always clear exactly what that means, practically speaking.
At least one of the policy resolutions adopted by party members has the potential to put the Liberal government on the back foot: the resolution to decriminalize all drugs. Citing Portugal’s experience in decriminalization, Liberal activists’ push comes after the Trudeau government, in the midst of an escalating opioid crisis, has repeatedly ruled out such decriminalization. Dissent is already seeping into the government: Beaches-East York MP Nate Erskine-Smith broke party ranks and came out in support of the resolution last week.
Trudeau and Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor were both quick to pump the brakes on all that decriminalization talk. Last week, once it was clear that much of the party’s caucus supported decriminalization, Petitpas Taylor said, " Our prime minister has made it clear that this is not a direction that our government is intending on going down." Trudeau avoided commenting directly on decriminalization; the party caucus passed the resolution anyways.
However on Monday, Erskine-Smith told VICE News that despite Trudeau and Petitpas Taylor saying that decriminalization was, for the time being, off the table, the party is continuing to discuss it internally. “These ideas can sometimes take time, but I would also say that in the wake of the national caucus prioritizing this, it is incumbent on the government to take the evidence seriously,” he said. “Internally, it’s about making sure it’s not a hard no, and advancing the conversation.” He likened it to cannabis legalization, which started as a policy resolution in 2012, and is expected to become law by the end of this year.
Supporters of the resolution— or, actually, the leadership of the party — still don’t get the severity of the situation, says Jordan Westfall, president of the Canadian Association of People who use Drugs. Westfall helped draft an open letter last week urging the federal government to adopt decriminalization. “I think people have passed by this idea that decriminalization is political suicide,” he says. “We don’t live in that era anymore.”
The broad strokes of the major policy planks, at least when it comes to healthcare, will seem familiar: many are strikingly similar to policies from the NDP’s platform. “I’m reminded of the phrase 'imitation is the best form of flattery,'” NDP health critic Don Davies told VICE News. He chalks the new proposals up to another example of the Liberals campaigning from the left, with every intention to govern from the right. "The Liberals have this habit of signaling left and turning right, and making Canadians think that they are going to bring in a policy that the NDP would, and then they don’t," he said. “They call us Liberals in a hurry, but I think they’re just disingenuous New Democrats.”
Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu called the proposals expensive, and another example of deficit spending. “A lot of these things will pile up debt, and I think Canadians are concerned about that, and rightly so,” she said on Monday. “We need to figure out how we’re going to provide the social programs without running up the debt.” She seemed to side with Trudeau on the matter of decriminalization: “Some of the concerning things that were brought forward was the decriminalization of all drugs. I was pleased to see the prime minister say that was not on their agenda,” she said.
Erskine-Smith downplayed suggestions that the caucus’ shift to the left, and open disagreement over decriminalization, reflected discord within the party. Whether the politics of party members and the politics of party leadership are diverging or whether they are evolving, remains to be seen. For now, both possibilities are still in play; which way it breaks may have more to do with how those at the top of the party respond in the next couple of weeks.
When it comes to progressive policies, the Liberals are now, again, faced with the question of whether or not they are willing—or able—to walk the walk. National pharmacare, coverage for mental health services, and decriminalization are all major policy decisions, and comparisons are already being drawn with the since-abandoned support for electoral reform in the 2015 election. “He backtracked on that. I think Trudeau has a lot of goodwill, and a lot of political capital,” said Davies. “But as these examples pile up, I think that’s going to be their Waterloo,” referring to Napoleon’s final, losing battle.