Foreign affairs should be NDP focal point, says Paul Dewar

Federal party should build grassroots, remain true to itself

NDP leadership hopeful Paul Dewar. Supplied

In an NDP leadership race growing more contentious by the day, Paul Dewar hopes to sail through the middle with a traditional and grassroots strategy.

Dewar, the 49-year-old MP for the riding of Ottawa Centre, has served as an aide worker in Nicaragua, an Ottawa public school teacher and the vice-president of the Ottawa Carleton Elementary Teachers’ Federation.

Since elected in 2006, Dewar has been a significant contributor to the NDP caucus and shadow cabinet, demonstrating a particular passion as the foreign affairs critic, where he argued that Canada should cease involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

A recent Internal poll conducted by Dewar’s campaign shows that he is the second choice of the majority of NDP members. In a tight race where support is spread across seven diverse candidates and ballots are preferential, this could make Dewar the unlikely victor of the March 23-24 leadership convention.

The Uniter will be continuing our series of interviews with the federal NDP leadership candidates in the lead-up to the convention. Below is an unabridged transcript of our conversation with Paul Dewar.

The Uniter: In a campaign with seven candidates, I imagine that it must be difficult to distinguish yourself from the others. What sets you apart from the other candidates?

My background. I’ve been in Parliament since 2006, and before being in Parliament I was an aide worker in Nicaragua for a time. I was then a teacher and a vice-president of my local union in Ottawa so I’ve had experience on the doorstep by being elected. I have experience on the national stage and on the international stage, as well. I’m the only candidate with those credentials on the national and the international stage, with foreign affairs being particularly important for the next leader.
But I’ve also been involved with grassroots politics, my focus in politics has been working on the ground with local issues but also on international issues to make change happen. That’s what I bring to the table and my vision for our party.

Nathan (Cullen) and I differ on how we get there - I don’t want to wait for three years to come up with an arrangement where we frankly don’t have a dancing partner. I want to get going yesterday on building up our grassroots and that’s what I bring to the table.

My plan for winning the next 70 seats is to build up our grassroots by having organizers on the ground, having issue-based campaigning, so that we work up to the next election. We came in second in 121 ridings across this country. I’ve said to people in those ridings that they are the official opposition here just as we’re the official opposition in Parliament. It’s our job to put resources on the ground to help you now so that we can win those next 70 seats and our goal is to become government. I’m the only one with that solid a plan. Nathan has a theory about how we can do it, but I have a plan for how we get there.

And when you talk about foreign affairs, how do you distinguish yourself from the other candidates on that file, as well as the other parties?

I’ve had the experience, when Jack (Layton) named me the foreign affairs critic in 2007, it was based on my experience, my interest and my acumen in foreign affairs. I’ve been leading election observation delegations abroad in places like Lebanon and Jordan. I’ve been on the ground in the Congo, in North Africa. I’ve dealt with the issues in the Middle East. This is not just a theoretical thing, but I’ve actually had to deal with these issues. Arguably, the most sensitive area you’re going to be dealing with as a critic in a caucus is foreign affairs, having to balance different points of view and come up with something that is going to be clear and decisive and move things ahead. I’ve done that, I’ve been the chair of the all party group for the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity, working with other members of parliament and other parties, like general (Romeo) Dallaire, who started that group and looking at how we as a country can do a better job as being leaders.

The present government has ceded ground on so many different issues - on climate change, on peacekeeping, on diplomacy. We’ve lost the seat on the UN Security Council, (that has) never happened before and should never have happened. But I think we can be leaders again by investing in diplomacy, by (making) Ottawa the centre for conflict resolution and peace studies, by focusing on innovations in peacekeeping, by changing CIDA to a full-fledged department of international development and not just an agency.
All these things put together distinguish me from my colleagues and certainly show a difference in terms of what the present government is doing, or isn’t doing, on foreign affairs.

And how does it distinguish you from the Liberals?

Because the Liberals haven’t been clear. The war in Afghanistan is an example. We have been saying for years that we needed to change direction, that this was not a war that we should continue to engage in, that we should focus on development and diplomacy. And we were ridiculed at the beginning, but now we have the Americans negotiating with - guess who - the Taliban, and trying to find a peace agreement there. The Liberals weren’t really clear on where they stood on that. When it comes to international development, they haven’t put forward a clear and sanguine plan on how they would change international development so that it could be solid and progressive. They haven’t done the same work that I’ve done on innovating peacekeeping and looking at how we can have Ottawa as a capital be a place where the world can come to look at how we can solve conflict, so I guess our vision is more solid.

Another issue that is huge is corporate-social responsibility. They’ve had members that have put forward private members bills but not all of their members support that issue. I’ve put forward legislation on how we can have better oversight on Canadian corporations abroad. I’ve put forward legislation on conflict minerals, we’re talking about particularly the Congo, where this activity of mining coltan and other minerals is contributing to unrest in the Congo. We’ve been much more active and much more clear, which I think distinguishes us from the Liberals.

A great deal has been made about one of your Internal polls that puts Mr. (Thomas) Mulcair at the top of the leadership race and that you are the most prevalent second choice among the membership. Do you stand by that poll? How important is the preferential voting system for your candidacy in general?

I stand by the poll, it was one that we were very open about and we showed exactly how we got the numbers, everything was there for everyone to see. And it confirmed what we were hearing on the ground, that as a second ballot choice we had jumped ahead and had gained some momentum.

It is preferential, you have to win 50 per cent plus one, so most people have observed, this most likely won’t be a first ballot win for anyone so it’s critical.

As a candidate, you’re wanting to appeal to everyone to be their first choice, but if you’re not you can be certain people’s second choice. And that’s important when you’re running this kind of race. We’re a unique party that way, since it’s one member one vote, so you have to get your message out to as many people as possible. You’re appealing to individuals, because it’s not delegated, so there isn’t the kind of horse-trading that would normally go on in a delegated convention.

Membership numbers came out recently, showing that the NDP have only acquired 10,000 more members in Quebec since the campaign began, which falls far short of the 20,000 mark that Mr. (Thomas) Mulcair was hoping for. Does this suggest to you that the NDP needs to focus its efforts more fervently in Western Canada?

Just as an aside, it needs to be stated about Quebec: look at where we came from and literally there has been a gain of 600 per cent in terms of support and we haven’t maxed out where we can go with that. So we’re going to continue to sell memberships in Quebec and that’s very important, just to get the party entrenched there. But clearly, Ontario and B.C., and for that matter Manitoba, are extremely important and that’s going to be a focus in the last few weeks and it’s a priority certainly for all campaigns, and certainly for me.

And how do you respond to the criticism about your bilingualism?

I’ve acknowledged it from the beginning, it’s something I’ve been working on and it gets better everyday. The way you prove that is just by showing you’re improving. I had 90 minutes of debate in Quebec, I had everyone throwing questions at me, and I had the first response from the moderator on two of the questions, just as luck of the draw. I take it on as a challenge and I’m happy to take that on. I’m also happy to have two high profile caucus members from Quebec endorse me. But I’ve said from the beginning that this is something I need to work on. I’ve acknowledged it and I’ve always been up front about it.

Where do you stand on this debate, which has been going on for the last two weeks, about moderating the NDP’s policies to appeal to wider base of voters?

I’m getting a lot of support from the Manitoba NDP, as you probably noticed, close to a third of the caucus and good portion of cabinet have supported me. I firmly believe in being smart about how you articulate your policies and that you show that you’re ready to govern and when it comes to small business, you show that we’re the party of small business. We believe that we shouldn’t be handing over these large corporate tax cuts without strings attached, but we should be supporting the job creators and the innovators. I like small business.

I also note that when it comes to progressive politics here in Manitoba, we have a lot to learn in terms of a model that I’m wanting to put into play federally. How did they do that? They worked on the ground, they’ve built up credibility, people have confidence in their ability to govern and to administer, and that’s why I’m delighted to have so many of them on my team. And I think it shows that we’re ready to govern, that we have our values in place, and we don’t have to change who we are, we have to articulate who we are in a way that people can trust and get behind.

There are some myths around here that the Conservatives can somehow manage the store when you have guys like Tony Clement showering $50 million around his backyard. This government contemplating buying planes when they don’t know how much they’re going to cost or whether they fly north of 60 and handing over these corporate tax cuts without strings attached. That’s clearly not how to manage the store, but what we’ll do is invest strategically in people. I’ve had a very comprehensive energy policy put out so that we can take advantage of the hydro power that we have here in Manitoba, building that east-west grid that Gary Doer was pushing when he was premier.

Would you express the same level of admiration for Gary Doer that Mr. (Nathan) Cullen has?

Well, put it this way: his wife has endorsed me.

How would you distinguish your approach to federalism from the approach of the other candidates but also from the other two federal parties?

First of all, what I think we need to understand is what happened in Quebec. My mother was born in Montreal, she grew up in Quebec, and we knew for many years that one day they would come to us because we have similar values; social democratic values - if you look at the environment, if you look at the economy, if you look at foreign affairs. So what you have to do is to continue to show that we’re in line with their values. Don’t pretend, don’t pander, be clear, be concise and be honest.

My view is to say that of course we want to have Quebec strongly in Canada and when it comes to federalism, asymmetrical federalism makes sense to me. Not only does it make sense for our country, I’ve said this before, I’ve been to Iraq and I’ve presented to people in Iraq on federalism and I’ve shown them our model. We have our debates, we have our challenges, think of Meech and Charlottetown and all the rest of it, but we end up staying together because we show that there are accommodations made that show that this great experiment called Canada can work.

I think we should understand federalism in this country and how it has evolved but I think we should take that model to other country’s and show how it can work for them. Not laying it on them, but when you are invited, as I was to Iraq, and explain how it has worked. It doesn’t mean watering it down to the point where you can’t recognize it. So when I asked the question to Peggy (Nash) during the debate on health care, I believe that you have to have standards and you have enforce them.

I was going to ask you about Ms. (Peggy) Nash’s statement. What other issues, outside of health care, shouldn’t be subject to that kind of asymmetrical approach?

It is important to have it in health care and it’s important, when you’re talking about national programs, that you have standards. In the case of other program areas, and the idea of asymmetrical federalism, is that you at least have a representation of that program realized and an option there for Quebec to implement. But when it comes to health care, we have the Canada Health Act, and it’s something sacred for our party but also for our country to ensure that there is that kind of equality and opportunity of access for all. So when it comes to user fees, that’s something where Canadians should be treated fairly.

How do you square the federal NDP’s support for proportional representation with moving toward the provincial NDP model, considering that provincial New Democrats have largely not pursued an electoral reform agenda?

I’m a big fan of proportional representation. Before I was foreign affairs critic, I was the democratic reform critic in 2006. I shepherded through our party’s policy on democratic reform, which is mixed member proportional. I believe strongly in it and I want to campaign on it.

There were 40 per cent of Canadians who didn’t vote in the last election and many of them simply didn’t feel their vote counted so this isn’t about ideology per se, or about partisan politics, this is about the fundamental structure of our democracy. It is so critical in our federal system where we see people opting out to the degree that we have.

What for you is the defining issue for this campaign or for you and the federal government going forward?

For many Canadians, this is unprecedented for us to be in the Official opposition. This is about looking at the leadership candidates and whether they will ensure that you have a future that you can believe in. Most of the policies the candidates agree on, but who is going to take the party to that next level in terms of growing in Quebec and outside. The only way we can do that is to have a leader who is going to be able to connect with people on the ground, build the grassroots, and get going right now so that we can win government in the next federal election. We need someone who has the experience and who can connect on the doorstep and has a plan to do that, which is obviously what I’ve been focused on.

In terms of the federal government, right now in our history we have some big issues to deal with, everything from climate change to the economy, to diplomatic affairs, and we have a government that is out of step with what I would call Canadian values. We have to push back on some of the things they want to bring in, like legislation that is going to have the federal government snooping on what people are doing on the internet as well as making changes to Old Age Security and then pivot and say what the alternatives. We need to get away from this toxicity and this vitriol and move towards propositions. For me, politics is about propositions, it’s about making a difference.

Published in Volume 66, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 1, 2012)

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