HALIFAX – Come 2019, Liberal members think the party should implement a national pharmacare program and champion the decriminalization of both low-level drug possession and sex work.
The top five priorities voted by delegates in order are: implementing a pharmacare program; insuring mental health services are covered for all Canadians; decriminalizing drug possession; decriminalizing sex work; and protecting employee pensions.
In total, delegates voted to select the top 15 policies, down from 30 at the start of the convention. These will now be sent to the national platform committee for consideration as policy positions for the 2019 campaign.
Among the most talked about ideas throughout the convention are the decriminalization policies and pharmacare. Both are an indication that the grassroots wants to see the party, and government, move more to the left.
The most popular policy proposal is something the government is already looking into: universal access to medicine, brought forward by the National Caucus.
This week, the House Health Committee issued a report calling on the government to implement a single-payer plan to cover prescription drugs. In a recent study, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated doing so will cost billions to implement.
Delegates passed a resolution at the last convention to have the party implement a national pharmacare plan before 2019. This policy calls for the government to amend the Canada Health Act to add prescription medicines to the definition of covered services.
Liberal MP John Oliver spoke in support of the pharmacare motion, calling the current system a “patchwork.”
"This is our generations’ time to fix the inequity… This is Liberal business," Oliver said to delegates gathered for an early-morning policy session.
Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith, who championed the decriminalization of drug possession policy throughout the weekend, said it is now incumbent on the government to take the idea seriously and review the evidence.
"If they do review the evidence I think they will follow the evidence, and so I think there’s a good chance… we’re going to see our party and our government build on those ideas," Erskine-Smith said.
The policy was put forward by the National Caucus and calls for the re-classification of low-level drug possession and consumption charges so that they’re considered administrative rather than criminal violations. Recently, the Canadian Mental Health Association issued a policy paper arguing that decriminalization is key to solving the opioid crisis.
Erskine-Smith said he now plans to sit down with the health and justice ministers, as well as the prime minister, to talk about how to move this idea forward.
"Saying that now that our national caucus has spoken, now that the grassroots has spoken, let’s walk through what the plan is, and if the plan is to get through cannabis legalization this fall and move on to something else, that makes perfect sense."
The push for the decriminalization of sex work came from the Young Liberals of Canada. It calls for the repealing of Harper-era changes to sex work laws, and to consult with sex workers and stakeholders on decriminalizing consensual sex work for Canadians 18 and older.
The Young Liberals argue that the current regime puts sex workers at risk and doesn’t address underlying issues such as access to sexual health care and their relationship with police.
Incoming Vice-President of the Liberal Party of Canada, and former leader of the Young Liberals, Mira Ahmad was one of the delegates pushing for the sex work resolution.
"I think it’s a really progressive policy," she told CTVNews.ca ahead of the convention, adding that she thinks part of the job of Young Liberals "is to continue pushing the status quo of the party. It’s not always easy, but I think that’s really why the YLC exists with the party, to push policies like this that may kind of freak people out at the beginning."
Some of the other ideas that have been given priority by party members are: developing a guaranteed minimum income; creating a seniors' ministry; affordable housing; and ending the tariff on menstrual products.
Trudeau says he helms a progressive party
Asked about the ideas ahead of the final results of the prioritization, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he plans to advance issues that are in the best interest of all Canadians, but did not comment on whether he thought the push for decriminalization fits that description.
"I look forward to continuing conversations with delegates, with Liberals, particularly with the Young Liberals who have always brought forward challenging issues for the party and our country to consider,"Trudeau said.
As for pharmacare, he said this is already a priority for Liberals, citing his appointment of former Ontario Liberal MPP Eric Hoskins to study the issue, announced in the 2018 budget.
Commenting on whether he thought the party grassroots are pushing for the party to push further left, Trudeau said he "deeply believes" the Liberal party is, “and should be a progressive party.”
Caucus division on decriminalization
While there was not enough opposition to these new policy ideas to trigger a debate before they were voted on, some Liberal MPs CTVNews.ca spoke with over the weekend expressed some discomfort and doubt about seeing some of the policies—centrally the two seeking decriminalization—as part of the next campaign platform.
"I’m personally opposed to it, absolutely… sometimes you can be opposed to something that philosophically you are not comfortable with. I am definitely not comfortable with that. I think we have to intervene and we’re really doing it in this crisis. I think we’re doing it the right way, so I don’t see why we would need such a move," said Liberal Pablo Rodriguez.
Delegates had until midnight on Friday to vote for their top choices, and the 30 proposals were whittled down to 20 by the morning. Among the 10 ideas that didn’t make the cut were some regionally-specific policies, a call for an Indigenous health care ombudsman, a suggestion for a leave-to-study program, and two related to post-secondary funding.
Opposition observers note 'gap' between party, caucus
Opposition observers at the convention – a common occurrence at party conventions—were critical that there seems to be two Liberal parties right now: the members, and the caucus.
"The contrast between what Liberals are voting for at convention… and how Liberals vote in Parliament, they’re almost two different parties," said NDP MP Nathan Cullen.
"It’s a gap they’re going to have to figure out how to narrow in order to stay somewhat consistent," he said.
Cullen also noted that largely absent from the main stage and convention room halls was talk over promises broken by the Liberal government since coming to power.
"They are debating policies that seem to come from the NDP playbook. However, in the same breath, ministers from this government are shooting them down," said Conservative MP Lisa Raitt.