With a federal election seemingly looming, the race for Ottawa Centre is taking shape, and the NDP are looking to take back the riding it held for over a decade.
Catherine McKenna, Infrastructure minister and the Liberal MP who ended the NDP’s hold in Ottawa Centre, is retiring from politics. Mark Carney, former Bank of Canada governor, put rumours of his candidacy to bed, clearing the way for Yasir Naqvi, former Ontario attorney general, to succeed McKenna as the Liberal party’s favoured nominee.
Carol Clemenhagen, a former health care industry executive, is running for a second time for the Conservatives.
Angella MacEwen, a labour economist, is the NDP’s candidate.
The riding is important to the NDP because it can “reflect national NDP performance,” MacEwen, who ran for the NDP in Ottawa West—Nepean in the last election, told iPolitics on Wednesday.
In the four general elections from 2004 to 2011, the NDP under Jack Layton steadily increased their national vote total and seat count. That culminated in the “Orange Wave” in 2011 that saw the New Democrats become Canada’s official Opposition for the first time with 103 seats.
During the NDP’s ascent, it won Ottawa Centre in every election.
Then, in 2015, the Tom Mulcair-led NDP lost 51 seats, putting them third in seats in the House of Commons. In 2019, under current leader Jagmeet Singh, they lost 14 more, relegating them to fourth place, behind the Bloc Québécois.
As the party’s national presence declined, so too did its performance in Ottawa Centre: McKenna edged out then-NDP MP Paul Dewar in 2015, and beat NDP candidate Emilie Taman by a nearly 20 per cent margin in 2019.
In McKenna’s departure, MacEwen and the NDP have spotted an opportunity to capitalize.
McKenna’s retirement means the Liberals won’t benefit from the incumbency effect that gives sitting MPs a better chance of retaining their seat in an election than a new candidate running under the same party banner, found Marie Rekkas, a professor at Simon Fraser University, in a study.
Singh’s rising popularity may also help — like how favourable attitudes toward Layton did, and how provincial NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s 2018 surge may have helped NDP MPP Joel Harden score an upset win in the riding’s provincial equivalent that year. Harden beat Naqvi, who was running for re-election, by 14 points in 2018, increasing the NDP’s vote share by nearly 26 points.
“Joel was able to really define a difference between the Liberals and the NDP” and tirelessly campaigned locally, MacEwen told iPolitics in a recent interview.
MacEwen, who lives in Ottawa Centre, is working with Jill O’Reilly, Harden’s campaign manager, to implement a “big organizing” strategy. She’s also getting advice from Taman.
“You build up the capacity of volunteers and give them as much responsibility and autonomy as they want,” MacEwen said. “It’s a strategy for growing the numbers of volunteers that you have … and taking full advantage of the creativity and passion and networks they have.”
MacEwen’s strength is similar to Harden’s in that she’s “able to articulate a clear economic vision for the NDP that is distinct from the Liberals,” she said.
“Why would you elect somebody from the NDP if you don’t think they’re going to form government?” MacEwan asked. “Well, you would do it if you think that they are going to make the government more effective by their presence and knowledge.”
During the 2011 election campaign, Layton tried hard to differentiate his party from the Liberals in a television ad, telling voters they “do have a choice” that can produce real outcomes, which Brad Lavigne, former NDP national director, recalled in a PolicyOptions article.
Differentiating herself from the eventual Liberal candidate can’t just be based on working harder, MacEwen said.
For example, she already knows her pitch will revolve around two key issues: climate change and income inequality.
“The problem isn’t that they’re not working hard enough on these questions, they’re using the wrong approach,” she said. “They’re relying on the free market; they’re using an approach where they are privatizing solutions to issues.”
On climate, “we need to move faster, and we need to move differently than how the Liberals have been doing it,” MacEwen said.
That means cutting off funding to oil and gas companies and not buying pipelines. It means rethinking the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB), which was founded by the Liberals to finance tens of billions of dollars worth of revenue-generating infrastructure projects, but has seen a slow uptake. The CIB should work more like a financial co-operative, so that there’s less dependence on private companies that receive funding to fight climate change, MacEwen said.
Financial co-operatives, or credit unions, are financial institutions similar to banks, but are instead owned by members who vote on decisions.
MacEwen’s message on income inequality is defined by what she calls “economic democracy.”
The idea to make the CIB into a co-operative is in line with that. A national financial co-operative could also be used to address skyrocketing housing prices, she said.
To her, “economic democracy” also includes a public option for telecommunications that could be used to drive down Canada’s world-leading mobile data prices, and a Via Rail-like Crown corporation for an inter-city bus service.
The other aspect “is the tax-the-rich piece,” she said.
MacEwen recently wrote a book called Share The Wealth!: How We Can Tax Canada’s Super-rich and Create a Better Country for Everyone with Jonathan Gauvin, the NDP’s director of policy and research.
In it, they argue for, among other higher tax-related measures, a one per cent tax on personal wealth above $20 million. It’s the same pitch that NDP MP Peter Julian put forward in a motion during the recent parliamentary session. And it’s not something she’s worried will scare away wealthier Ottawa Centre voters, such as those who live in Westboro or the Glebe, a pair of the capital’s most well-off neighbourhoods.
“If you have a plan to make it fair and to invest in the types of things that, generally, people agree we need to invest in, then I don’t think it’s going to be hard to convince a significant fraction of the wealthier folks in Ottawa Centre,” MacEwen said.
MacEwen’s presumed opponent, Naqvi, is no small name in the riding. While hasn’t filed his nomination papers yet, according to Politico, and could still have to win the Liberal nomination before taking on MacEwen and Clemenhagen, his Twitter feed is rife with pictures of him door-knocking and meeting with community organizations — likely many who he already has relationships with from the 11 years he spent as Ottawa Centre’s representative in Queen’s Park.
If Singh and the NDP are going to follow through and “make history” in the next election, Ottawa Centre is one of the ridings they need to start in.
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