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 Niki Ashton.
Ashton, 29, speaks several languages and possesses a Master’s degree in international affairs from Carleton University.
She has served as the NDP member of Parliament for the riding of Churchill since 2008 and is now campaigning for the leadership of the Official Opposition on a platform of “new politics,” meant to attract young people toward involvement in the parliamentary process.
The Uniter: What are your thoughts on the Old Age Security issue? Considering the aging population, are the Conservatives in any way justified in their commitment to reform the Canadian pension system?
I would say first off, and I’ll connect it with our campaign, our campaign has been about new politics and it stands in contrast with the old politics of Stephen Harper and I think what we’ve seen with his take on OAS, and the way he announced it, is really the epitome of old politics. He chose to go to a meeting with the world’s elite in Switzerland to talk about his plans for our pension system and that’s wrong and these measures are wrong for Canadians, but also the way he did it is a real disrespect for us as Canadians. Our party has actually put forward an Opposition Day motion to ask for a reversal of this plan and we’re asking for support of OAS and not changing the eligibility age and so on.
But what I would also say is that this issue is very important for young people in our country because, while it will affect people who are near retirement, it will have an even greater adverse effect on our generation because by the time he’s done reforming our pension system, there won’t be any decent pensions, or maybe any real pensions, left for young people when we get older.
There’s been some controversy recently on moving time allocation or closure on various House of Commons bills. As a parliamentarian yourself, how does time allocation or closure work and how does it affect debate on potential legislation in the House of Commons?
Harper’s using it a record amount of times on so many of the bills that are important to his agenda. I was very involved in fighting for the Canadian Wheat Board, and they used it there, as well.
What it means is that they’re muzzling opposition, they’re silencing people who disagree with their agenda, they’re not giving Canadians a chance to be heard through their members of Parliament or through the parliamentary process and I would say that it shows a real contempt for Parliament and the role of Parliament. We’re all elected to represent Canadians, not just Conservative MPs. We’re all there to represent Canadians, and we should have real debate and be able to really bring forward the views of Canadians on every single issue.
And I would also say that it just speaks to Harper’s approach to governing, where you can see examples of how undemocratic he is. Just to go back to the Wheat Board, he also broke the law, which states that a vote needs to be held among producers and yet he is not interested in doing anything that would interfere with his agenda; he’d rather ram it through.
On the Canadian Wheat Board, what are the tangible effects of ending its monopoly for Canadians and Manitobans, in particular?
The Wheat Board has had a real connection to the port of Churchill and the creation of jobs there. Of course, in downtown Winnipeg it’s been a key player in terms of the downtown economy and, most importantly, its been an institution that has shaped the rural economy of our province, and of the Prairies, over the last 75 years. It will lead to direct job loss, there is no question, but it will also lead to a real loss and great instability for farmers in Manitoba and across the Prairies. I would say if we look at what happened in Australia, the dismantling of the Australia Wheat Board was disastrous for farmers there. And while, in the first couple years, the impact wasn’t seen right away, over time it was quite clear that it was multinational corporations that had the upper hand and farmer’s standard of living, their livelihoods, were adversely affected. We’ll see the same thing here; Canadian farmers and rural communities will lose out.
Moving back to the time allocation issue, in relation to the CWB, how do you respond to the Conservatives’ defence on this issue that, in their platform they promised to do certain things within a certain period of time and the time allocation is simply a means to live up to their promises?
Well, they’re severing the debate on critical issues, on critical questions that have to do with our future. Canadians didn’t vote for a reckless approach to governing, and that’s exactly what we’re getting. Also, some of the things that we’re seeing, it’s not what he promised. Certainly, the changes to OAS, even the changes to the Canadian Wheat Board, there were indications that they would obey the law and allow for Western producers to vote. But they even broke the law, as we know from the federal court, and insisted on applying time allocation. If we look at Bill C-10, we haven’t heard from witnesses or had a chance to look at the facts properly and there again they are adamant on bringing their agenda through no matter what and without listening to the proper information.
I think this is the kind of governing that turns Canadians off and I would say that Stephen Harper’s government likes it when young people, when ordinary Canadians, are turned off by this ugly side of politics because it allows them to just carry on with their agenda. What I’m saying is that it’s time for us to take back our government, to be able to put forward an agenda that actually looks out for the best interests of Canadians and we’re certainly not getting that right now.
The last time you and I spoke, you mentioned that you wanted to bring the provincial Manitoba NDP model to the federal party. Does that mean you would like to moderate the federal NDP in terms of its policies or how it presents its policies to Canadians, considering that there are some major differences between the Manitoba New Democrats and the federal party?
I don’t just mean the government today, but there is a history of NDP governments here in Manitoba that have a real understanding that we need to diversify the economy, support the economy, but we also need to have strong social programs, we need to support our Crown corporations, we need to support our public services; and all of that is part of supporting our communities, and growing Manitoba.
I would also say that it involves understanding diversity, supporting immigration, supporting multiculturalism, and I believe that the Manitoba model is possible. It’s a combination of good government, responsible government on the economic front and a strong social agenda. And that’s, I think, something that obviously many Manitobans have supported and I’d like to share that with many Canadians so that we can actually build a government that sees the value of a balanced approach to governing.
Provincial New Democratic parties have largely not pursued an agenda that includes electoral reform. Considering that you want to bring that Manitoba model to the federal party, would that mean that proportional representation is off the table? If not, what would a PR system, with you as leader, look like?
Electoral reform is a very important part of what the NDP has been talking about at the national level and I do believe that we need to have an examination of the kinds of models that are available in terms of electoral reform and an understanding of the fact that many people across Canada don’t feel that they’re currently represented by the way our electoral system works. I also feel it is very important to engage people in our movement and engage people in this leadership process, as well. It’s a very dynamic process and an empowering process. It’s the first time in history that people will have the chance to vote for the leader of the Official Opposition and it’s incredibly accessible in terms of giving people the chance to vote for progressive ideas that can be brought forward at the federal level.
A big part of our campaign has been to reach out to young people because I think that so much of what we’re seeing from the Harper government, and generally right now in our country, will have an adverse impact on our generation and I believe we can’t afford to wait 15-25 years to get involved in politics. We need to do that now. It is being said that our generation, for the first time in history, will be less well-off than our parents and that, to me, is a real signal that we need to get involved and that we’re not losing the kinds of rights that people in our country have fought for, that we’re not losing access to proper jobs that shape our communities and our economy and that we’re moving forward on climate change.
Brian Topp in the debate on Sunday, Jan. 29 made an observation about federalism, saying that the Liberals pretended that the provinces didn’t exist and, currently, the Conservatives are pretending that Ottawa doesn’t exist. What is your approach to federalism and how do you distinguish it from the prime minister’s “open federalism” or the approach of other candidates in the leadership race?
I’m proud of our federalist system, the fact that we’re a confederation. Among other things that are very important to the NDP is understanding that there is a place for asymmetrical federalism and respecting that in the context of Quebec. I mean, we supported that Sherbrooke Declaration that recognizes asymmetrical federalism, but we also understand that there needs to be leadership at the national level. It is ultimately important to create a national child care program, a national housing strategy, I’ve put forward the idea of creating a post-secondary education act, and all of these respect the Sherbrooke Declaration vise a vise Quebec but, at the end of the day, we can’t let our federal government off the hook.
It’s there to ensure that no matter where we live in this country we have the access to a quality of life that is Canadian and I believe that is something that happens when you have a strong federal government that cooperates with provinces. Under Stephen Harper, we’re seeing a real disrespect; downloading on to the provinces, the Health Care model that they put forward without consultation or collaboration with the provinces and, I believe, as Canadians, we want to see our various levels of government work together. Ultimately, we want to see what is important to us acted on by all levels of government.
On the Quebec question, some recent polls show that the NDP is down significantly in Quebec. How would you build the party in Quebec and was it potentially a mistake to keep the eight leadership candidates on the backbench, and out of the parliamentary spotlight, during the leadership race considering those polls?
For our campaign, the need to hold on to our support in Quebec is essential. We launched our campaign in Montreal. I’m proud to be fully bilingual and I’ve also encountered a lot of enthusiasm in Quebec for Jack Layton’s message and the work that we did. We’re definitely in a period of transition in terms of the leadership and in a few weeks that will change as well, but what I think is clear is that we do need a federal leader that is fully bilingual, that we need a commitment to the people of Quebec who, in such a big way, elected members of the NDP. I also think we need an understanding that the people of Quebec want to work with the rest of Canada.
That has been a recurring message that I’ve heard. They threw out the separatist option in a big way because, what I’ve heard from many people, is that they recognize that there are common challenges with the rest of the country; the economy, the environment, our social programs and they want to work to find solutions with the rest of the country. I believe we need to take these calls seriously and do the work we need to do in Quebec, but also work toward breakthroughs in the rest of country, like here in Western Canada, where we have the greatest imbalance of political representation, largely from one party (Conservatives). And like we saw with the Canadian Wheat Board, instead of actually representing us, they’re taking us for granted.
What do you think then of Ms. Lise St-Denis’s defection to the Liberal Party and her comments about the dream of the NDP in Quebec dying with Mr. Layton? How do you feel about that and how, as leader of the party, would you make sure that that doesn’t happen?
I think Ms. St-Denis’s defection is obviously very disappointing and I think that defections are unacceptable. We’ve asked for her to resign and have a byelection in that area because ultimately that’s not what her constituents voted on. I was actually in one of her communities in Shawinigan a few days before she defected and I talked to people that were very happy to have voted for the NDP, and were inspired by Jack Layton’s message, so to me there’s a disconnect between what she did and what I heard on the ground. I believe it’s a basic tenant of democracy that we respect what Canadians, what constituents, say on election day and which party they chose to represent them. There’s no doubt that many people were inspired by Jack Layton, I’m one of those people, but for me it wasn’t just his personality, it was the ideas he espoused.
The spirit of working together, the idea that we need to fight for a better Canada, and that’s a legacy that we need to keep building on and it’s one of the reasons I decided to run. I’m part of the Jack Layton generation; a generation of young people that were inspired because he made us feel that we weren’t sort of there to be in the political picture but as young people we needed to be at the forefront of making decisions about our country and I believe that’s absolutely critical.
Considering what you said earlier about the defection issue, is it your feeling that Ms. St. Denis would lose a byelection if one were actually held?
That’s hypothetical. I wouldn’t guess on that front but I believe the right thing to do would be to allow the people in her constituency to decide who and which party by whom they would want to be represented.
Published in Volume 66, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 8, 2012)