NDP leadership candidate Brian Topp takes on Conservative crime bill, approach to indigenous peoples

Outlines broad vision for governance

The Uniter will be interviewing all eight federal NDP leadership candidates in the lead-up to the March 23 leadership convention, to be held in Toronto.

This week, news assignment editor Ethan Cabel spoke with Brian Topp.

The Uniter: During the campaign there was a great deal of controversy surrounding 50 per cent plus one being an acceptable majority for a referendum on Quebec’s separation. Do you stand by that position and would that position require a change to the Clarity Act?

Brian Topp: I support our party’s position on this matter. We are a collectivist party, we establish our policies through our policy making process and it falls to the members to support the party policy. To the issue, the government of Saskatchewan filed a briefing during the reference case and in that brief we said a number of things that I think contributed to the debate, and one of them is the necessity for accommodation to keep a complex federation together.

What our brief said was that this country is built on a thousand threads of accommodation and I think the Supreme Court ruling was a very important one, as were the responses of prime minister Chretien and premier (Lucien) Bouchard, and what the Supreme Court said in that ruling was that if the government of Quebec wanted to continue holding referendums on sovereignty, they owed the people of Quebec a clear question and owed the population of Quebec the certainty that it would not act precipitously and without a mandate. Therefore, they would need a majority in order to proceed and then put a co-equal obligation on the government of Canada, given such a mandate, to negotiate. So both prime minister Chretien and premier Bouchard welcomed the ruling, accepted it and it hasn’t been challenged since then and in my opinion it provides you the playbook for this increasingly distant, unlikely contingency. So the issue of what are the percentages, and what are the obligations, it was left to the interpretation of political actors and to future litigation and the amount of an acceptable vote is left to political actors to sort out in that court ruling.

You’re offering me a view, the Sherbrooke Declaration that you’re alluding to from the NDP offers another and my comment as a trade unionist is I don’t think any union will want to proceed with a strike vote that is 50 per cent plus one. There are very few countries that have been created in the world on the basis of referendums where the population is that split and I think that sovereigntists have generally come to that view, that a negotiation that is mandated by the Supreme Court on a 50 per cent plus one vote wouldn’t necessarily be a particularly good one, from the perspective of sovereigntists. It’s a very weak mandate. What the court, in our party’s view, has said is that it (50 per cent plus one) would trigger a requirement to negotiate.

If I was prime minister of Canada, and a sovereigntist government in Quebec had gained a 50 per cent plus one mandate, the message to me would be—the country’s in a crisis, an awful lot of people have voted to break it up, and we have our political work to do in Quebec big time, in that scenario. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the country. An awful lot of time got spent discussing all of this, and we still got 20 years of Bloc Quebecois MPs in Parliament. In other words, this discussion about clarity and the rules of the game and so forth, didn’t break the sovereigntists in Quebec. We broke them. And we broke them by taking them on on a different set of issues, by arguing that it is time to move on to get things done for average people. To talk about the economy, the environment, health care, poverty and social equality. That’s what caused the number of separatists elected from Quebec to Parliament to go from 50 to four and it’s what caused the number of federalists in our caucus to go from one to 59.

Another issue that came up in the federal election, and something that Mr. Layton brought up several times, was the need to bring Quebec back into the constitutional family. What would that look like? Would it look like Charlottetown or Meech Lake? Is a constitutional amendment in any way on the table?

The unresolved issue is that the Quebec National Assembly hasn’t ratified the 1982 amendments and so that’s not good and it is a lacuna in the Canadian constitution that is going to need to be addressed at some point and I think it’s important, as part of the reconciliation to bring francophone Quebecers back into an active role in federal governance, to understand and respect their views on this issue. But many francophone Quebecers feel that it is not normal to have such an important amendment to the constitution not be ratified by the National Assembly or the province of Quebec. That said, we know what we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t do Meech Lake and we shouldn’t do Charlottetown because those efforts didn’t work. My view is that the matter will need to be addressed at some point, and it will need to be addressed when we know that we will succeed because we must not be sorcerers apprentices on this file and inadvertently provoke another constitutional crisis. The last one was plenty fine enough, thank you.

So I don’t have a recipe book for success, but I do have a bottom line, which is that the time to revisit this is when we can make absolutely sure that a future proposal will be ratified. But until then we must not open this box because we will greatly damage the country.

What would be the conditions? If you can speculate on a successful attempt to bring Quebec into the constitutional family…

Well, one of the lessons that you learn in politics is to never answer a question with the word “if” in it.

What have you heard from Quebecers about the constitutional issue and what they feel about it on the ground in the province?

I think francophone Quebecers do not feel that it is normal that the 1982 amendments were not ratified by the National Assembly and they are looking to federal politicians to understand and respect that and to acknowledge that the matter needs to be addressed. I don’t think francophone Quebecers feel that the matter needs to be dealt with urgently or to allow this issue to pre-empt progress in other files. Jack Layton proved that by saying, you know, there are many issues involving your daily life that the federal government should address and working together we can get them done. And he got a very large mandate as a result. The issue is not going to disappear but I think Quebecers support an approach that’s going to work.

The federal government recently appointed a uni-lingual Auditor General, to which there has been a visceral response from the Liberals and NDP. Similarly, the Harper government opposed mandatory bilingualism on the Supreme Court. Do you feel the prime minister is in any sense eroding Official bilingualism? What is the NDP’s position on this?

I think all Canadians agree that key federal institutions should function in both official languages. Our Supreme Court should and our Parliament should. So it’s reasonable to expect officers of the court and Parliament to be capable of doing their work in both official languages and that’s the debate we’re having in Parliament today. And I think the New Democrats have taken a responsible position in urging that officers of the House and officers of the Court be bilingual.

Changing track a little bit, to the coalition issue in 2008, would you consider a coalition again and what is your game plan in terms of a response to the Harper government’s messaging surrounding the coalition?

Well, you begin by being clear on your agenda. New Democrats are about action on climate change, we’re about action on a better, greener economy, we’re about action on equality; economic equality, social equality, equality between men and women. We’re about restoring our name in the world. Our duty to the Canadian people is to put those views before them and ask for a mandate. If they give us a majority mandate, we’ll implement our commitments. If they elect a minority Parliament, what Canadians expect from their politicians is that they will work together in such a Parliament to get things done. And our commitment would be to work together with other party’s to get things done. In such an event, there are many tools in the toolbox.

Most social democratic parties govern, all around the world, in coalitions with other parties. And if a majority of the legislators in the legislature chose to support a coalition arrangement, then it is perfectly legitimate for them to do so and the Harper Conservatives were absolutely wrong in their argument that these arrangements are somehow illegitimate. So all these tools are available in a minority Parliament and I don’t think we should close the door to any of them. What I’m not interested in is merging with the Liberal party.

That was my next question, as well. What fundamental differences are irreconcilable between the NDP and the Liberals in terms of a potential merger?

It isn’t so much a question of irreconcilable as it is that we are different parties, with different traditions, different priorities. We are social democrats and they are Liberals and, that being said, I think it is wrong to deprive social democrat voters, or people who are inclined to elect a social democratic government, to deny them of their choice by not having a social democratic candidate before them in an election. I also know that, if you speak with them, the Liberals are not interested in such an arrangement and they could not have been more clear about that. The Liberals are not interested in this idea so for us to add this to our agenda would be for us to debate ourselves on it and we have many more important things to do. We’ve been hired by the people of Canada to be the Official Opposition and to offer the next government. That’s what we should focus on. And if a minority Parliament is elected, we will look in the toolbag and we will see what tools are needed to get our agenda done.

The media seems to jump on this, whether it’s self-created or not. Winnipeg Centre NDP MP Pat Martin, for instance, has been quite vocal in his support for a merger. So how would you discipline caucus to make sure that this doesn’t overshadow more important issues?

Well, I respect Pat Martin and I think he’s a great MP. I don’t agree with him on this. He’s a member of our party, we’re called the New Democratic Party for a reason. We have democratic debates. Pat Martin and others have participated in party debates and have advocated a strategy of merging with the Liberal Party. I don’t agree with them. And I don’t think most New Democrats do. But I don’t have a problem with members of my party raising ideas. One of my colleagues in the leadership race, Nathan Cullen, has raised a roughly similar idea at the riding level. I respect his right to raise it. Nathan Cullen is a very interesting candidate for the leadership. I don’t agree with him on this issue. I think these merger ideas distract us from our work.

Moving on, how would you distinguish your approach to federalism and intergovernmental relations from the “open federalism” of prime minister Harper and from Bob Rae and the Liberal Party of Canada?

I don’t detect a particular philosophy of federalism coming from Mr. Rae and the Liberals and I’m not going to comment on what they say, or have nothing to say, on the topic. My basic issue with Mr. Harper’s approach is that he is essentially dedicated to non-activity. He is dedicated to do-nothing federalism. I’m gravely concerned about that approach, in particular with regard to universal public health care in which the federal government is an important partner and in which I’m not sure that we have, in our current prime minister, a committed supporter of public medicare. So I favour a respectful federalism that understands the complexity of the country and is committed to making it work but is also committed to the public good and the public interest and uses the tools of the federal government, in the appropriately sensitive way that you need to do in a complex federation to make lives better for people, to build a more equal society.

So would you characterize yourself as in favour of some asymmetries? Or at least more asymmetries than the traditional liberal approach to federalism?

When we are talking about areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction, then I think an asymmetrical approach is far more likely to succeed than a rigidly centralized one and I think we need no better evidence than to look at the track record of the Pearson Liberals, who well understood this, who took a very creative approach to making social progress in Canada with the help and support of Tommy Douglas and the great team of officials who had worked for Tommy Douglas in provincial government and who had gone on to work for Mr. Pearson. And so I support that approach. As a general approach, I think that can be very successful indeed.

One of the main issues that has come up in recent months in terms of intergovernmental relations is the Omnibus crime bill and the decision to dispose of the records kept for the gun registry. What opportunities does that grant you, or the NDP, to offer an alternative in terms of dealing with the provinces?

We don’t have to raise the structure of the country on every issue. The Tories are just plain wrong on their justice bills and are adopting a model that even the most vociferous proponents of lock-em-up, fixed sentence justice in the United States have now recanted. But it is perfectly evident, from the evidence, that this approach to corrections and justice does not work and that the Conservatives are pursuing this blindly and without looking at the evidence. So a Conservative approach to justice is one of the grounds on which we will defeat them.

Similarly, with regard to the gun registry, I think they are abolishing the registry and the database in defiance of the overwhelming opinion of the people of Canada and I think that, at the end of the day, they will pay a price for it, mindful that there are many issues with the gun registry, but the approach the Conservatives are taking I think will cost them dearly.

The provinces are not only challenging the offload that’s implicit in these justice bills but also their failure to take account of the clear evidence on the issue. The Supreme Court rebuked this government quite devastatingly in the Insite decision recently on its tendency to govern and legislate without reference to the evidence and this is another example of it.

Moving on, what do you feel is the key thing or issue in terms of eliminating, or significantly reducing, the inequality between indigenous people and non-aboriginal Canadians?

Well, we need to finish the job of Aboriginal self government so that these communities have the tools that they need to heal and to reconcile with the society around them and to move forward in a better way. We need to finish the land claims process, which is essentially stalled all across the country. We need to do a better job, as a federal government, on our core mandates. For example, the federal government delivers health care services on reserves all across the country and does an abyssal job at it. And the federal government needs to work in partnership with provinces on the many intractable issues facing these communities, many of which are in provincial jurisdiction. These are issues of inner city poverty, addictions and access to eduction and access to employment. These are important challenges here in Manitoba and across the country and we need to be doing a much, much better job at it.

And I think experience shows that top-down approaches, based on programs developed by senior officials in government departments in national capitals far away are rarely successful at changing people’s lives in inner city Winnipeg or other communities. Before acting, it is important to listen and to hear. Much of the best wisdom on how to move forward in these communities is in these communities. So you need engage them closely and listen to them carefully and ensure that, when it comes time to invest to make things better, you are making the right investments.

Would this require a national strategy or…

There are national issues, for sure, with Aboriginal self government, with the land claims process, that are national in scope and would benefit from a national framework and some are very local indeed. Neither the federal government or the provincial governments necessarily have all the answers, or even any of the answers. The best work in terms of healing these communities and reconciling them and allowing them to move forward comes from them. The federal and provincial governments need to think of themselves as enablers much more than leaders in this matter.

There’s been some speculation over whether the NDP has abandoned proportional representation now that they can win, or get close to winning, in the current first past the post system. So has the NDP abandoned or shelved proportional representation?

There’s a number of things that I very much want to do and even if I didn’t want to do them I would have to because otherwise (former NDP leader) Ed Broadbent would kill me because he also is very passionate about these issues.

So there are three things on my mind here. First, we do well to remember that, when we are elected for the first time, we will introduce a budget and legislative plan that will then go to a second chamber that has no New Democrats in it; that is a appointed Senate composed of Conservatives and Liberals with the same powers as the House of Commons. Unless they conduct themselves with considerable care, we may find ourselves re-running the 1911 House of Lords crisis, with an unelected second chamber interfering in the country’s democracy. And that being so, the issue of the Senate will no longer be a theoretical one, it will be an immediate political crisis that would have to be resolved once and for all. I advocate for the Senate’s abolition as a way to resolve it all. Provincial legislatures didn’t suffer from the loss of their second chambers and we still assert that we have democratic provinces and we can have a democratic Parliament that does not have a Senate.

I think Western Canadians in particular should be extremely concerned about the prime minister’s current proposal, which is to elect the Senate in its current composition. The West, and in particular Alberta and British Columbia, are grossly underrepresented in the Senate, so an elected Senate, in its current form, is grossly undemocratic. So that’s number one.

Number two, I favour adding a tier of MPs, perhaps conveniently 100 or so since we will have 100 Senate offices opening up that will be available for other legislators, to the current House. This additional tier of Mps would be elected proportionally. So, in other words, I favour a mixed proportional House, somewhat on the style of the German House and its goal is that when 700,000 people vote for the Green Party in some future election that the result isn’t no MPs and that when the NDP gets 30 per cent of the vote in Saskatchewan that the result is not no MPs and that we have a House that better reflects the vote than it does now. I think if you look at recent history, and attempts to do electoral reform across the country, the public has universally rejected such proposals because they are viewed as impossible to understand and too much change all at once.

The mixed House that I favour I think is a more incremental approach that gets us in a better place but still leaves us with a House of Commons that looks substantially like the current one, which I think is exactly what is required here. I think we need to be more incremental in our attempts to reform the House.

But that would still require a constitutional amendment to abolish the Senate. What are your prospects in terms of making that happen?

Well, there is little prospect of that happening now. But if there was a first class constitutional crisis, like the Senate flouting a budget or a legislative program approved by an NDP government, then perhaps that will change. Like I said, unless the Senate behaves with great care, we may find ourselves with an immediate crisis and that may create an opportunity for a constitutional amendment to abolish them. There is some political history to that effect in Canada. Many of the second chambers in provincial legislatures were abolished after defying the elected House. So if the Senate chooses to create this crisis, then they will have created the conditions for their own abolition.

Would the NDP run candidates in Senate elections if the prime minister is successful at reforming the Senate?

Well, we’ll deal with it at the time if that occurs.

Published in Volume 66, Number 18 of The Uniter (February 1, 2012)

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