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Tom Mulcair: Singh deserves credit for pulling off pharmacare deal with Trudeau, now what will Poilievre do?

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was ecstatic as he did a media round last weekend, and deservedly so. He was announcing his latest deal with Trudeau’s Liberals, one that would bring in the first prescription drug coverage with a federal imprimatur.

Singh used a technique similar to the one he’d employed when bringing in the first phase of a federal dental care program: obtain something clear and tangible that people can understand. The complicated next steps could come later.

Singh didn’t get the credit he deserved for prodding the Liberals into respecting their deal that began with a national dental plan for kids. He wasn’t taking any chances of that happening again, even at the risk of overselling what had been achieved.

This was smart politics and smart policy. Let the technocrats work out the fine print. The top line is: here’s some good news. If you have diabetes, your medication will be covered from now on. Full stop.

Younger Canadians were also being told that contraceptives would be covered under the Canada Health Act. A more modest yet worthwhile attention to another demographic.

I know that the diabetes drug announcement is really welcome relief for hundreds of thousands of Canadians. It’s one that hits home personally for me. My dad suffered from diabetes in his later years. He lost both legs. The cost of his medication was exorbitant and because he was self-employed, he didn’t have private insurance. He and my mom were in a real financial bind.

Canadians often look south of the border and feel understandably satisfied that we’re not stuck with the type of Medicare patchwork, from province to province, that Americans are saddled with from state to state. But our prescription drug coverage, pharmacare, is as disparate as their Medicare. It makes no sense that life-saving medication is only covered when you’re hospitalized.

New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh speaks with reporters before Question Period, in Ottawa, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Singh and Trudeau have managed to offer up a first example of what could become a crucial new national program. Yes, of course, there’s political self-interest involved, but that doesn’t distract from the good that could come of it.

There are massive hurdles to overcome. Without seeing a word of the plan, Alberta premier Danielle Smith predictably announced that she’ll “opt out.” Quebec will likely do the same but smart negotiating could easily provide the help Canadians in every province need.

This is, after all, provincial jurisdiction. But Trudeau has pulled it off before.

When Trudeau stole another page from the NDP program, on low cost daycare, I couldn’t have been happier for Canadian women. Yes, I’d run on that as a key platform issue in the 2015 general election and Trudeau’s Liberals had dissed it. That said, imitation is the highest form of flattery and Trudeau has become very flattering indeed, towards NDP policy.

Trudeau took a very pragmatic approach that either compensated provinces for existing childcare plans or provided a massive financial incentive to sign up those that had little or none. There have been a few bumps, but overall, it’s worked.

Trudeau, of course, wasn’t obliged to follow through on this undertaking in his “supply and confidence” agreement with the NDP. He could’ve said no to the pharmacare portion and there were voices of experience telling him to do just that.

Trudeau's 'gamble'

Senior Liberals I’ve spoken to felt Trudeau had a golden opportunity to walk away and show spending restraint. There was no real threat that the next budget wouldn’t pass, the Bloc had more than enough votes and they’re in no hurry for an election.

But that would have created a serious perception problem for Trudeau, governing at the beck and call of separatists. Trudeau, by nature, will also avoid leaving others the power to decide. If there’s going to be an earlier election, it’ll be at a time of his choosing.

In the end, Trudeau played to type, spending more, buying time (with taxpayers’ money) and flipping the bird to Poilievre’s Conservatives.

Trudeau seems to be making a gamble similar to the one that Stephen Harper made when facing him in 2015. Harper’s campaign bet heavily that if they give Canadians enough time to see how inexperienced and unprepared Trudeau was, there’s no way they’d vote for him.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, attends a joint availability at the Mariinskiy Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine on Saturday, February 24, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Harper called the election early and had the longest campaign in Canadian history. Trudeau did well in the debates and ran a good campaign, using that extra time to his own advantage. Harper lost his bet and Trudeau won the election.

The same sense of “you must be joking” seems to permeate the Trudeau Liberals right now. They’re in denial. Poilievre is leagues ahead of them in every single poll but they’ve convinced themselves that it’s not really happening.

This is similar to Liberal behaviour when Harper came along. “He’s got a hidden agenda” was a rallying cry that was supposed to scare the pants off Canadians. Harper was elected three times.

Poilievre's 'Achilles' heel'

Despite his polls, there is in fact a real danger for Poilievre that his reflex to go low and attack personally will start to wear thin. The history of personal attacks in Canadian politics is not very favourable for those doing the attacking.

Poilievre often manages to score short term political points, but at what cost, longer term? (And, yes, with this newest deal, there will now be a longer term.)

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

When Trudeau announced online harm legislation, Poilievre was amusing if not statesmanlike. He decided to assail Trudeau for his black face frasques, saying that someone who’s worn racist costumes isn’t in a position to lecture anyone. He also fired off that for Trudeau, hate speech is “speech he hates.”

A great line but largely off point. Again, hundreds of thousands of Canadian parents are profoundly concerned with the horrific torrent that hits their kids’ social media feeds. Trudeau was talking to all of them. Polièvre was only talking to his base.

Trudeau hit the nail right on the head when he simply rolled his eyes and said that Poilievre was opposing something he hadn’t yet read. Touché.

When Harper was prime minister, his attorney general, Peter MacKay, acted swiftly to bring in tough legislation against unwanted sharing of intimate photos. It was in reaction to a deeply troubling case of an adolescent who’d taken her own life. That was leadership.

Poilievre’s lack of that type of moral certainty seems to be an Achilles' heel. Everything is an excuse for even more smart aleck one liners. He’s not steering by any guiding star. He’s done an incredible job of eviscerating his adversaries (and the press) but he wants to be prime minister, not a pundit. His behaviour is beginning to expose an inability to deal with serious issues seriously.

Poilievre recently forced his caucus to vote against a free trade deal with Ukraine. That war-torn nation had worked hard to get the pact with Canada and wanted it badly. Poilievre made an implausible link between that trade agreement and the carbon tax he so hates here at home. His MPs were compelled to reject it, even though that made no moral or economic sense.

The 1.5 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent are unlikely to just forgive and forget. Politics is all about adding. Poilievre seems to think his high polling numbers make him invulnerable and he can throw away votes without consequence.

It’s going to be interesting to watch Poilievre’s manoeuvring in reaction to the announcement about diabetes drug coverage. Politics is indeed all about adding. Singh and Trudeau have just added a whole bunch of Canadians who are thrilled to get that relief.

Will Poilievre show a modicum of nuance, or will he just do like usual and exclaim how awful it all is? Canadians will be watching and will now have more time to pay careful attention.

Tom Mulcair was the leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017

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