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Liberals, NDP focus on dental, cost of living ahead of 2023 budget, but Singh disappointed over pharmacare

Liberals, NDP focus on dental, cost of living ahead of 2023 budget, but Singh disappointed over pharmacare

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 14, 2019.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Liberals and New Democrats are emphasizing dental-care expansion and cost-of-living help – while playing down expectations for national pharmacare – ahead of the 2023 budget later this month.

The March 28 budget will be a key marker for progress on the deal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh struck just one year ago. The supply and confidence agreement involves the NDP voting to keep the minority Liberal government in power until 2025 in exchange for policy concessions.

Under the deal, Mr. Singh heralded a promise from the Liberals to create a low-income dental-care program and to make prescription drugs more affordable as key policy wins that justified the NDP’s decision to prop up the Liberals. He now says the pharmacare element isn’t turning out as he’d hoped.

A senior government official says the budget will include the promised dental-care expansion, pointing to the fact that a public tender inviting companies to qualify as plan suppliers has already been issued. The official also said the budget will include affordability measures along the lines of what the NDP is requesting.

On pharmacare, the Liberals are committed to the specific steps outlined in the deal, but the budget won’t launch a full pharmacare plan as called for by the NDP. A second source said the government is currently not planning to implement a full pharmacare plan.

The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources as they were not authorized to comment publicly on internal matters.

In an interview, Mr. Singh said he and his party are prepared to keep supporting the minority Liberal government provided there is action on dental care and financial support for lower-income Canadians, while conceding he’s not getting all that he originally expected.

Despite disappointment on pharmacare, the NDP Leader said his party has made meaningful progress on dental care and secured the temporary doubling of the GST credit for lower-income Canadians, which wasn’t part of the original deal.

Mr. Singh said he expects the government will transition its interim dental plan, launched last year as a tax credit, to a permanent insurance program. The deal calls for the plan to be extended this year to cover low-income people in three categories: those up to 18 years of age; seniors; or those living with disabilities. The tax credit currently applies to children under 12.

When the NDP struck the three-year agreement last March, Mr. Singh said his party reserved the right to withdraw support if the Liberals didn’t follow through on the list of pledges, which also call for action on climate change and housing.

A year later, Mr. Singh said he thinks the Liberals will meet the letter of their agreement and put the framework for a universal, national pharmacare program in place, but won’t actually implement the program. Now, he says the only way voters will get a national plan to cover the cost of prescription drugs is if they elect an NDP government.

“If people really want to see a difference on pharmacare, they’re going to have to vote New Democrat,” Mr. Singh said. “I don’t think the Liberals are going to do that final step.”

That’s a dramatic change from Mr. Singh’s March, 2022, news conference when he outlined the conditions of the NDP’s support for the deal and said implementing a full pharmacare program would take time but people would quickly see change.

“It might start with some medication and expand, but we want to take real steps that make people’s lives better now,” he said in 2022.

The fine print of the deal Mr. Singh signed with Mr. Trudeau only required the Liberals to put the legal and regulatory framework in place for pharmacare. Mr. Singh said he was originally expecting the Liberals to go further.

”It’s surprising to me. I think the Liberals have shown clearly that they’re more interested in supporting the pharmaceutical lobby than they are supporting Canadians that can’t afford their medication,” Mr. Singh said.

Under the deal, the NDP Leader has quarterly meetings with the Prime Minister.

In addition, a liaison committee tracks progress on the pledges. The members are Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc, Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and MP Ruby Sahota on the Liberal side, while the New Democrats are represented by MPs Daniel Blaikie, Laurel Collins and Blake Desjarlais.

Ministers and critics are also in regular contact. Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and NDP health critic Don Davies speak frequently about the details of the next phase of the dental-care plan.

The Liberals have been intermittently promising to act on pharmacare for years. In the 2015 campaign, the party promised to lower drug prices. Seven years later, however, the regulatory changes that were meant to do that have been scaled back and delayed. In the 2019 election, the Liberals promised to implement national pharmacare but dropped the pledge from their 2021 platform.

Ahead of the 2019 election, a report commissioned by Mr. Trudeau pegged the cost of a universal, single-payer pharmacare plan at about $15.3-billion a year once fully in place.

Canadians pay more than other developed countries for prescription medications, something former Liberal finance minister Bill Morneau acknowledged in his recent political memoir. Still, he wrote that Mr. Singh’s demand that the government immediately implement pharmacare was “implausible.”

Lori Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University’s school of public administration, said the NDP is in a difficult spot, being the junior in the deal with the Liberals while still needing to show substantive impact. However, she believes that the New Democrats “haven’t made the most” of the deal and could have pushed for more concessions from Mr. Trudeau, in particular around democratic reform and the Liberals’ own broken promises in that field.

Mr. Singh appears to be “moving the goalposts” because the impression when the deal was introduced last year was that Canadians would see a difference in their drug prices within the three-year time span of the agreement, she said.

The NDP’s position might be explained, Prof. Turnbull said, by the fact that the party itself doesn’t want an election and is in a challenging position because it doesn’t hold enough seats in the House to push the Liberals into a corner.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau appeared to signal that an extension of the GST credit boost was on the table in the coming budget, when asked about Mr. Singh’s prebudget request. Mr. Singh said he ideally wants the doubling of the GST rebate for low-income people to become permanent. The original six-month boost came at a fiscal cost of $2.5-billion.

The New Democratic Leader said his quarterly meetings with the Prime Minister, which are usually in person, are frank and honest. He said he was able to secure the GST rebate increase through those discussions and by applying public pressure.

With Mr. Trudeau now on the defensive for resisting a public inquiry into recent allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian politics, Mr. Singh is also facing calls to pull his party’s support for the Liberals.

When asked about that pressure, Mr. Singh said most people he meets with are happy with the NDP’s approach.

“There are people that have maybe not liked Trudeau already and feel even more strongly about that,” he said. “But the general sentiment that I’m getting from people is that you’re trying to make Parliament work for us, and you’re trying to hold the government to account at the same time, and so they’ve been appreciative.”