Published October 15, 2023

NDP delegates unanimously support pharmacare redline in their deal with Liberals

By Mickey Djuric in Hamilton

Delegates at the New Democratic convention have made pharmacare the redline in their deal with the Liberals, saying they will withdraw their support if the minority government doesn't adhere to their demands. 

The confidence-and-supply agreement requires the government to table legislation on a pharmacare framework by the end of the year in exchange for the NDP's support on key votes in the House of Commons.

On Saturday, the party unanimously passed a non-binding emergency resolution that says they will cut the deal if pharamacare isn't universal and entirely a public program. 

But New Democrat health critic Don Davies said the resolution has the full backing of the NDP caucus and that they will accept nothing less than the public single-payer system.

"They have to know that we take this deadly seriously," said Davies on Saturday.

Straying from his rehearsed speech, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh promised the same at the three-day policy convention in Hamilton.

"The reality is Liberals only act when New Democrats force them. That’s how we got Medicare. And that's how we are going to win pharmacare as well," said Singh in his keynote address prior to his leadership review. 

The Liberals, in their 2019 election platform, campaigned on a promise to implement national universal pharmacare. Similar commitments have appeared in throne speeches and mandate letters to the federal health minister.

An expert panel appointed by the Liberals recommended in 2019 that a universal, single-payer public pharmacare system should be created in Canada to replace the current patchwork of prescription drug plans.

The panel, which was led by former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins, reported that such a plan would save Canadians an estimated $5 billion every year.

A first draft version of the Liberal's pharmacare bill was rejected by the New Democrats last week, as the clock ticks with less than two months left in the current parliamentary sitting. 

Playing hardball is what some delegates demanded of Singh throughout the convention where he received an 81 per cent confidence vote from delegates. Others wanted to see him leverage the agreement to advance further initiatives. 

It's the lowest confidence vote for an NDP leader since Tom Mulcair, who was rejected by more than half of delegates at the party's 2016 convention in Edmonton.

In 2021, Singh received support from 87 per cent of delegates and in 2018 he received nearly 91 per cent support.

"I got a strong mandate and New Democrats are saying get out and work harder. I'm gonna get out and work harder," said Singh, who also tested out new language around rebuilding Canada.

His comments seemed to be a counter to Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who leans on his catchphrase that "everything is broken."

"Canada isn't broken, politics is broken," said Singh's chief of staff Jennifer Howard. 

In a pre-recorded video that played prior to his keynote speech, Singh also acknowledged critics of his deal. 

"Just because I'm going to get criticism is not a barrier, when I know I'm going to help millions of Canadians," he said.

Many of the affordability measures the Liberals have brought in over the past year, including dental-care benefits for children in low-income households, one-time rental supplements for low-income tenants and a temporary doubling of the GST rebate, were NDP priorities.

Should the New Democrats pull out of the deal, it doesn't mean it will trigger an election. The party would instead vote for Liberal legislation piece by piece. 

"I mean they may find confidence from the Bloc Quebecois, they may find confidence from the Conservatives," Davies said.

However, New Democrats have said they would be prepared to run a full slate of candidates for an election that must happen before Oct. 20, 2025, and the party is on track to retire its 2021 election debt by next year.

On Saturday the party also passed an emergency resolution that addressed the Israel-Hamas war, saying New Democrats stand with "all people in Israel and Palestine who yearn for peace, freedom and security."

During Singh's speech, a group of activists crashed the convention shouting "free Palestine."

Four delegates who left the convention floor to join the activists had their credentials removed by the party, because they violated the party's harassment policy due to screaming and yelling and interrupting debate, said Howard. 

Hamilton police said there were about 25 to 30 protesters, and they are investigating a possible assault after a private security guard was on the ground.

"Not sure if he fell or pushed. Police are investigating," said Staff Sgt. Jo-Ann Savoie. 

Howard said she wasn't concerned about the protest distracting from their convention.

"I'm watching the news like you folks are and when I'm watching people fighting for their lives, a convention seems small potatoes."

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2023. 

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