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Singh’s eye still on pharmacare


New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh doesn’t sound like someone who is ready to walk away from his deal with Justin Trudeau’s Liberals — at least not yet.

The government has just 20 days to introduce and pass pharmacare legislation by the end of the year, as it promised in its 2022 supply and confidence agreement with the NDP. It also has a fall economic statement coming out next week, which could show how much the Liberals are willing to spend to keep that deal alive.

But Singh told reporters flatly on Wednesday that next week wouldn’t be a make-or-break week for pharmacare.

“I don’t think we’re gonna get to the point where we need to get on pharmacare by next week, so that’s going to be an ongoing negotiation,” Singh said.

Trudeau and his Liberals, who don’t need any more trouble, may be relieved, for now.

On the surface, it has looked like the Liberal-NDP deal has hit some rough waters the past few weeks.

First there was the NDP convention a month ago, where delegates voted to give Singh an ultimatum to hand to Trudeau: pharmacare by the end of year or the deal’s over.

Then came the New Democrats’ decision to back the Conservatives’ bid in the House of Commons to lift the carbon price on all home heating fuel. That was a bit of a surprise, although the Liberals still managed to defeat that motion with the help of the Bloc Québécois.

“I know that progressives across the country were deeply disappointed to see the NDP vote with the Conservatives against the most successful measure to fight climate change that Canada has taken,” Trudeau said in the Commons last week.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who never tires of calling it the “Liberal-NDP government,” permitted himself a moment of smug schadenfreude. “It is almost tragic and heartbreaking to see these two squabbling in this way,” he said.

But are they really squabbling? Singh said on Wednesday that the Liberals had served up a draft proposal on pharmacare, which the NDP rejected and sent back to be rewritten.

“We’ve seen a first draft and we made it very clear that first job was insufficient for our support,” Singh said. “And so the government’s taking that back and are working on some amendments.”

But the NDP leader didn’t spell out exactly how far apart the two sides are at this late date in the year, beyond accusing the Liberals of being more interested in appeasing pharmaceutical and insurance companies than they are in citizens.

“The Liberals want to continue to appease those wealthy sectors and we want to make sure people get fairness. That’s the sticking point,” Singh said.

That sounds like more than a small sticking point. NDP health critic Don Davies has already said his party needs a universal pharmacare program — not one that merely fills in coverage for those Canadians who don’t already have an employer-paid drug program.

Technically, the Liberal-NDP deal doesn’t say what kind of pharmacare program needs to be in place, which is presumably why the Liberals don’t think they need to put a universal plan on the table.

The deal also doesn’t say that pharmacare has to be rolled out as a full-fledged program by year’s end — just that the legislation has to be in place. Privately, the NDP admits it is willing to be flexible on a start date, recognizing that the government is in the midst of an affordability and housing crisis.

But all the flexibility on the logistics won’t mean anything if the two parties remain on opposite sides with regard to the scope of pharmacare.

Still, the prospect of the deal falling apart — and the potential for an election before 2025 — is making most observers bet that Liberals and New Democrats will find a way to keep working together as long as they can. Only the Conservatives are interested in an election sooner than that.

Liberals also may be looking at the Bloc’s support from last week — on that carbon-pricing vote — as a fallback option if the co-operation deal with the NDP falls apart.

What is clear, though, is that Liberals and New Democrats are still heavily invested in making this deal work, and not just for election avoidance. Liberals know it’s still their best hope to get anything done in a minority government, and New Democrats know they still have more influence with these Liberals than they would ever have with a Conservative government.

Singh said on Wednesday the NDP always asks itself, “How do we keep on using the power we have in a minority government?”

It was a strong hint that despite the looming pharmacare deadline, Singh is still looking for a way to maintain that power he has with the governing Liberals.





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