After raucous debate performances in Winnipeg and Montreal that precipitated a general warning from the federal NDP chief electoral officer, the Canadian Press speculated that 38-year-old underdog leadership candidate Martin Singh was acting as the covert attack dog for candidate Thomas Mulcair, member of Parliament for the Quebec riding of Outremont and the perceived NDP leadership front runner.
Singh adamantly denied that allegation in an interview with The Uniter, saying that he is “running to win” and wants to build voter confidence in the NDP’s economic policies.
Singh possesses degrees in chemistry, chemical engineering and pharmacy from Dalhousie University as well as an MBA from St. Mary’s University and is involved in several Nova Scotia and Ontario businesses. In addition to being the director of Precision Health Group, a company that runs five pharmacies and six care facilities, Singh also founded an ethical investment firm primarily designed for Sikh clients, in 2009. He has been an NDP member for 15 years and lives with his wife and three children in Nova Scotia.
The Uniter has been interviewing each of the seven federal NDP leadership candidates in the lead-up to the March 23-24 leadership convention, to be held in Toronto. Below is our conversation with Martin Singh.
The Uniter:You have repeatedly stated throughout the campaign that you are focused on business and job creation, so what fundamentally distinguishes you from the other candidates on that issue?
One thing that fundamentally distinguishes me from the other candidates is that I actually have experience being a businessman. My brother and I run a number of companies in both Nova Scotia and Ontario with about 150 employees total count and it’s that kind of experience, for many, many years, that allows me to know what the issues are and what needs to be done for the business community in Canada.
And what are the fundamental issues for the business community in Canada and what can the NDP do to address those issues?
What we need do, we need to make sure we have more comprehensive policy than what is currently being articulated by the Conservative government. The Conservatives are uniquely focused on lower corporate taxes. Now, certainly corporate taxes are an issue we want to talk about in relation to the business community, but to talk about that alone is insufficient as a business policy.
You can very clearly point to examples where the corporate tax cuts don’t work. One of those examples, when people are trying to start a new business, they might not have any profit for several years. Your corporate tax rate could be zero and it doesn’t do you benefit. So what we’re looking at doing is a more flexible policy. It talks about training, not just employee training but also employer training. Also, we’re looking at different methods of business financing and tying mentorship programs to corporate taxes so we can get young people into the economy to break the cycle of ‘can’t get a job because you don’t have experience, can’t get experience because you don’t have a job.’
Outside of your criticisms on charitable giving, where do you stand then on Brian Topp’s tax proposals and what are your main problems with them?
The concern that I have is that it’s difficult to make commentary on corporate tax levels one way or the other without first knowing what’s in the books and you can’t do that unless you’re in government. And so it’s premature to say that we’re going to have a tax level set at ‘x’, ‘y’, ‘z’ when in four years the financial situation of the nation could be very different.
You have recruited several thousand new NDP members during this campaign, particularly from the Sikh community. Do you agree with Mr. (Thomas) Mulcair that the NDP needs to reach out beyond its traditional base of support to young people and new Canadians? If so, how do you do that?
There’s two parts of my answer. First of all, I agree with Tom’s view that we should be reaching out to people. I would say that my sign ups and the diversity of people that I’ve been signing up to the party reflect the diversity of Canada entire. I think it’s a bit of a misnomer to say that we’re signing up people exclusive to the Sikh community. My support comes from all different groups and they’re drawn to my platform, which is based around my three mainstays, which are the environment, national pharmacare and the jobs and entrepreneurship plan.
On the national pharmacare issue, as a pharmacist yourself, how would your proposal work and how does it differ from that of the other candidates?
Well, the proposal that I’m putting forward is very, very different from what we’ve seen previously. What we have is a very, very detailed proposal that looks at each and every aspect under consideration within the pharmacy industry…So the plan really is comprehensive in its approach and that itself makes it different from the plan of any of the other candidates.
Many of the candidates, as well as the party as a whole, are strongly affiliated with public and private sector unions. As someone who is coming to the NDP from a pro-business perspective, do you feel that the party needs to decrease some of its ties with labour or is that a valuable part of the party?
It’s a very valuable part of the party and I don’t expect that the relationship with labour would change under the leadership of any of the candidates. The fact that I’m in business still doesn’t mean that I’m not in contact with labour movements. Three of my work sites are unionized and I have a very good relationship with all of the reps there. We’ve never had a lock-out and we’ve never had a strike, so I have no issue working with the labour movement. I think they’re a very good contributor to the New Democratic Party.
What then do you think of the Conservatives’ use of preemptive back-to-work legislation in the Air Canada dispute? How does it differ from back-to-work legislation passed by Liberal governments in previous decades?
The concern that I have is that they’re not letting the various aspects of the business community function, really, and this is typical of the Conservative party. They paint themselves as a political party that knows what to do when it comes to the business community but they very clearly don’t and so what we need to do is make sure that whatever we bring (as government) speaks to…letting businesses talk with their unions and having the proper negotiation take place. Their approach to the business community is not at all comprehensive. It’s uniquely focused on corporate taxes and because of that they get themselves into difficulty such as this.
Based on what you’re saying, do you view the Conservatives as a big business kind of party then?
I view them as a party that don’t know what to do when it comes to the business community. I would argue that they are focused on an ideological base and that has resulted in them not having the capacity to act in a practical manner when it comes to interacting with the private sector.
Moving on to why you entered the race to begin with, you’ve been described as a bit of an outsider in terms of the party and you are not a sitting MP, so what prompted you to run for the leadership?
I’ve been a member of the party for 15 years so, in terms of being an outsider, I don’t know how many years I’d have to put in to be considered an insider. I’ve worked at the riding level for many, many elections. I’m the president of my riding association. I’m the president of a group within the party called the Faith and Social Justice commission at the federal level and I know the New Democratic party very well. What people wanted to do with my leadership candidacy is that they wanted to work against what is a false image of the New Democratic party on the federal level, which is not being able to engage the private sector and not being good stewards of the economy, and I think we’ve been successful in that regard.
The Canadian Press recently speculated that you have been acting as Thomas Mulcair’s attack dog at the debates and working in concert with him. Is that true and do you plan to throw your support behind him if it becomes clear that you will not win the leadership?
There is no relationship that exists between the two camps. I made this abundantly clear in the debate that was aired yesterday (Sunday, March 11). My debate strategies are entirely my own. I am running to win.
On that issue of your debate strategies, do you feel that the warning that the NDP electoral officer gave about unparliamentary language was directed at you and what is your response to that warning?
I think that issue was pretty much cleared up yesterday. I stand by my statements and I believe that they are factually correct and a matter of public record and we have not, as yet, received any penalty.
Moving on to bigger issues, how do you propose to build the NDP in Western Canada and retain support in Quebec? Does it relate to your position on branching out from the NDP’s traditional base?
I think we need three pillars that we must stand on and that are true no matter what region of the country we’re speaking of. So one of those pillars is reducing inequality; we do that very well and people recognize that. The second issue is building strong social programs; people understand that, they think we do a good job of it. The third pillar is making sure that people believe and have faith in us to be good stewards of the economy and so what I think is that, once we establish our credentials in that particular area, irrespective of which region of the country we speak of, we will be successful.
Do you feel that the party has established those credentials in Quebec already?
I think that it’s a work in progress and I think we’ve done very good work as part of this leadership campaign in making that possible.
Still on the issue of Quebec, how does your approach to federalism and intergovernmental relations differ from the prime minister’s approach, the Liberal approach, or the approach of the other six leadership candidates?
I think that the approach of the candidates generally reflects general party policy, meaning that we have a healthy respect for provincial jurisdiction and we don’t look to interfere with it. And that is understanding Quebec’s special place, but also provincial jurisdiction generally, across Canada.
You have made appealing to students a priority in this campaign, so can you outline what you propose to do for students in terms of reducing tuition fees or student debt? Also, should the federal government be encouraging high school graduates to go into the trades or to colleges rather than traditional universities?
We have to recognize the fact that education is provincial jurisdiction. While we want to certainly work with the provinces to keep tuition rates as low as possible, it’s something that really falls under their purview. What I’m looking to do with my plan is making sure that once people exit the education system, whichever part of the education system they choose to be involved in and follow, that there are opportunities available for them.
Mr. Ignatieff and that Liberals made mention of this in the 2011 campaign, but would you be in favour of a dedicated federal transfer payment for education?
It’s something that I would be open to looking at but I can’t make a firm commitment at this point.
You’re in favour of a cap and trade system for dealing with climate change. Where do you stand on the tar sands and developing our fossil fuel resources for export to American and Asian markets?
I can speak from some personal experience on this. I worked for Syncrude on an eight month contract as a chemical engineer in their mining department in Fort McMurray so I have first hand knowledge of what goes on in the tar sands. I was doing environmental work there so I know the revenue and job creation possibilities that exist and I also know the environmental challenges that exist there, as well. What I’d like to see happen is sustainable development within the tar sands. In addition, I’d like to, as much as possible, have all the raw products made to finished products in Canadian territory so that we get the benefit of the jobs and not just the pollution that comes along with it.
Published in Volume 66, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 14, 2012)