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Reflecting on the Orange Crush

A profile of Laurin Liu, McGill student-cum-NDP Member of Parliament

Laurin Liu is the youngest female Member of Parliament (MP) in Canadian history. When she was elected as the MP for the electoral riding of Rivière-des-Mille-Îles in 2011 she was still a U2 History and Cultural Studies student at McGill, in addition to being a journalist at The Daily and CKUT radio. In total, five McGill students were elected to Parliament as New Democratic Party (NDP) candidates, alongside other students at University de Sherbrooke and Laval. They were part of the “Orange Crush,” a surge in the popularity of the NDP late in the campaign period that saw the NDP gain 67 seats, making it the official opposition with 103 seats in total.

In 2000, the NDP seemed to be vanishing off the Canadian political radar with a meagre 13 seats in Parliament. But three years later the party elected Jack Layton, a mustachioed veteran of Toronto municipal politics with a fresh vision for electoral success, as leader. Despite starting with a leader who wasn’t even an MP, the party managed to make steady electoral progress. Going into the 2011 election, the NDP had 36 seats in the house and the party was openly optimistic. Despite the optimism, it would have been difficult to foresee the political coup that followed. Jack Layton, often referred to as the “happy warrior” for his unwavering optimism, became leader of the opposition. But just shortly afterwards, he announced a leave of absence after being diagnosed with cancer and died in August 2011.

Welcome to the NDP

Liu grew up in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, attending Royal West Academy and College Jean-de-Brébeuf, among Canada’s most prestigious high schools and CEGEPs, respectively. Her father, a biologist, and mother, who teaches Cantonese, emigrated from Hong Kong before she was born. In high school, she began investigating which political parties best represented her values as an environmentalist and feminist. She decided on the NDP and obtained a membership card. Before long she became involved with campaigns and was one of the presidents of the Youth Wing of the Quebec NDP.

It had long been NDP policy to leave no seat uncontested, and Liu was among the candidates who were entered in 2011. Many were in their early twenties, and many had no expectation of reaching Ottawa. During the election, she did not campaign in her riding, Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, and instead helped Thomas Mulcair with his campaign in Outremont, using her fluent Cantonese to appeal to Chinese-Canadian voters. She only found out that she had taken the lead when her friends texted her that she was ahead in the polls. Thomas Mulcair would go on to succeed the late Layton as party leader.

Liu on the work she does

I spoke with Liu by phone while Parliament was out of session this January. When not occupied by Parliament, she returns to her riding, where her office becomes a consultancy for individuals, community organizations, and businesses, to gain advice on using federal services. “What we do is more proactive, and not just reacting to problems they face; we will send them information about federal grants that they could qualify for,” she said.

I asked her what the major issues in her riding are at the moment. “The cuts to Canada Post and door-to-door delivery,” she said. “I have a lot of seniors in my [constituency] – older folks who have mobility issues and who live at home. They are concerned about having to walk to a community mailbox to get their mail.”

NDP success

When Liu was elected in 2011, the local press was skeptical. One local newspaper ran the headline “Deux nouvelles députées du NPD qui en savent bien peu” (“Two new MPs from the NDP who don’t know much”). And in The Daily’s 2011 article about Liu and the “Orange Crush,” one commenter seemed unhappy about her riding’s new MP.

“Nobody really knew anything about her […] actually, we didn’t even know we had a NDP candidate around until we saw her name on our voting sheet,” the commenter said.

While this seems like an obvious criticism to make about the unexpected new crop of young, inexperienced NDP MPs, it is not one that seems to have been borne out by the evidence.

“I’m not the first member of parliament to win an election based on the popularity of my leader,” said Liu. Layton’s popularity was the major reason for the NDP’s success in the election. With U.S. politics increasingly coming under fire for being unrepresentative and unfair, Canadian politics stand in stark contrast. How did the NDP manage to jump from being being the fourth largest party represented in parliament to one of the largest oppositions in Canadian history?

Brad Lavigne, the director of the 2011 NDP election campaign, has recently published his book Building the Orange Wave. He would argue that the NDP’s success was rooted in the direction Layton took the party when he became leader in 2003. In particular, he cited Layton’s ambition to make the party a genuine contender for government, as well as the importance placed on courting the Quebec vote.

The NDP’s approach to Quebec – their own version of ‘flexible federalism’ – is clearly exemplified by their document on Quebecois separatism, the Sherbrooke Declaration. Unlike the Liberals’ Clarity Act, the NDP policy would give Quebec the right to self-determination and a referendum to be passed with more than 50 per cent. On the issue of the Bloc Québecois, Liu is forthright about the sentiment of her riding. “They are not interested in going back into those constitutional debates, and going back to the question of a referendum. They found an option that is […] progressive.”

These views of the election seem to be broadly supported in a recent paper “Riding the Orange Wave: Leadership, Values, Issues, and the 2011 Canadian Election,” authored by five political scientists, including three from McGill. “Neither fluke polls, leaders’ debates, nor a decline in support for Quebec sovereignty were the driving forces behind the orange wave,” the paper concludes. Instead they find that the NDP’s success was due to “a combination of Jack Layton’s leadership and the discovery by many voters of the NDP’s proximity on some values and issues.”

Samuel Harris, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP External, was an NDP society member in 2011, and knew many of the McGill MPs. He recalled being optimistic about how his friends would fare in Parliament. “These were people who were not necessarily from wealthy families and had worked part-time jobs, who were very active with the party, the club, were in relationships, were very good academically and wanted to do either law or graduate school afterwards […] I think if you wanted students to be elected to Parliament, these are exactly the kinds of hardworking people with a lot of experiences that you want.”

“I have a really great record as a Member of Parliament working for my constituents for the past two years,” said Liu. “When I go door to door in my riding what I hear is that the issues that people care about are the issues we are defending in the House of Commons.”

A parliamentary critic

When Parliament is in session, Liu has a very different set of concerns. During question period, Liu is Deputy Critic for Science and Technology, and for six hours a week she sits on the Committee on International Trade.

“Traditionally, [committees are] the place in which all parties are able to work together, and we’ve seen that, in the case with the environment committee in the Mulroney year […], we were actually able to work together to produce a really successful report on acid rain across party lines that was actually widely read among the public,” she said. “[The Conservatives] have been rejecting 100 per cent of the propositions that the opposition parties have been proposing to change our amendments […] which is […] unprecedented in majority governments. This is not [what] was done under the majority government of Paul Martin.”

Despite the Conservatives’ apparent unwillingness to collaborate, Liu seems proud of her achievements in Ottawa. “One of [the] first things [I did] as a Member of Parliament was tabling a private members bill to have senior citizens who qualify for the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) to automatically receive it,” she said. Formerly, seniors who qualified for the GIS – a monthly supplement for seniors under the poverty line – had to sign up to receive it.

“The main problem that we’re trying to address here is that many people don’t make the initial […] application to receive the guaranteed income supplement,” Liu told CBC news when the NDP tabled the bill in March 2012.

Layton always made a point to emphasize that his constituents were his priority and that he considered them deeply when making political decisions in Ottawa. In his case, it is not simply a trite sentiment, and even got Layton into trouble on occasion. During the 2004 election campaign, a reporter asked him if he held the then-Prime Minister Paul Martin responsible for the deaths of the homeless due to his cuts on affordable housing. ”I’ve always said I hold him responsible for that,” said Layton, provoking a small media uproar and some backlash.

Liu seems to share the priorities of her party’s former leader. In her case, the cause is the GIS, and the ‘ordinary people’ who she is taking into consideration are the seniors living in her district who Liu feels may not be subscribing to a program that could be helping them.

As a Deputy Critic for Science and Technology, Liu finds herself representing a very different constituency. The policies of the Harper administration have been widely criticized by scientists and commentators as ideologically motivated attacks, slashing funding and effectively muzzling scientists. In particular, the cuts to governmental environmental institutions laid out in omnibus budget Bill C-38 were dubbed “Harper’s war on science” by critics.

Science and medicine journal Nature published an editorial criticizing the restrictions placed on Canadian scientists when talking to the public, and argued that investigations had revealed “a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.”

When I asked Liu if she is optimistic about the situation improving for Canadian scientists, she interjected before I could finish the question; “Absolutely not!” She spoke about the latest consultation being conducted by the Conservatives. According to Liu, the questionnaire being used is nothing more than a transparent attempt to re-evaluate science based on its commercial impact.

“The Conservatives think science should be fully at the service of industry, whereas I think – and my party thinks – [that] science should benefit us economically, but also benefit the health and environment of Canadians,” she said.

What lies ahead

It seems that the real test for the legacy of this NDP opposition is whether or not they can win the next election and really start implementing their own political platform. For their part, it seems that the new MPs have managed to overcome the initial skepticism surrounding their election to Parliament. Charmaine Borg, one of the ‘McGill MPs,’ has been given the position of Digital Issues critic, becoming the youngest full critic in Canada’s history. During her term, she helped to force the Conservatives to abandon the controversial C-30 bill, known colloquially as the ‘Internet surveillance bill.’

Toward the end of my conversation with Liu, I asked her if entering Parliament provided her with some privileged insights into Canadian politics. “Using the Member of Parliaments’ gym can be very strange. I’ll often see my colleagues in their workout shorts and t-shirts,” she said, laughing.

And if it came down to an athletic competition to win the next election, who would win? “I would say the NDP.” She is totally serious. ”After the 2011 elections the average age of parliamentarians in the House of Commons went down by ten years: about a dozen folks were elected [who are] under the age of 30.”

With many young people disillusioned with their democratic systems, it is encouraging to know that in Canada at least one generation, albeit all from a singular political party, has been given a chance to shape their future.