Peggy Nash: An old school social democrat

NDP doesn’t need to moderate policies in order to build support, says candidate

NDP leadership candidate Peggy Nash. Supplied

For the last month, the candidates in the federal NDP leadership race have grappled with how to build the party and whether moderating its policies is the answer to success.

Peggy Nash, the 60-year-old member of Parliament for the Toronto riding of Parkdale-High Park, believes that the NDP needs only to stay true to itself, as a social democratic party, to form government in 2015.

Nash has served as a Toronto MP since 2006, acting as both Finance and Industry critic in the NDP shadow cabinet. She has extensive experience as an organizer for the Canadian Airline Employees Association and as a senior negotiator for the Canadian Auto Workers union, as well as being an advocate for environmental and other social and political causes.

Nash believes that the NDP should focus on jobs and the economy, health care innovation and electoral reform as it prepares for the 2015 federal election.

The Uniter has been interviewing each of the seven NDP leadership candidates in the lead-up to the March 23-24 leadership convention, to be held in Toronto. Below is the unabridged transcript of our conversation with Peggy Nash.

What fundamentally distinguishes you from the other six candidates in terms of the direction you would like to take the party and the country, if elected prime minister?

What my campaign stands for is really the social democratic values and the principles that have got us to our greatest success in 50 years. I’m the person who has the strongest background in social democratic movements. I’m the person with the most experience in movement politics and it’s that progressive approach that I bring to the leadership of the NDP. I also have extensive experience in financial and economic issues as well as party concerns, having been president of the party, I know how to build our party. Other candidates have some of these qualities, but I am the candidate who brings all of these qualities together and who is ready, from the very first day after the convention, to be in the House, to take on Stephen Harper, to build our party and to engage in social movements and those who today are not voting NDP.

Based on the events of the last debate in Winnipeg, I got the impression that Brian Topp wants to keep the NDP ideologically socialist while Thomas Mulcair wants to moderate the party. My impression is that you stand in the middle of that debate. Is that a fair characterization?

I’m someone who has the longest record of defending our social democratic principles, whether it’s in the women’s movement, the anti-poverty movement, the labour movement. I’m an environmental activist. So I’m someone who really knows how to connect with the grassroots of our movement and I am a strong advocate of proportional representation and I’ve come out with a very clear plan about how we can get there as government, so that’s what I’m going to be campaigning on.

So where do you stand on the debate, which has been repeated by a number of the other candidates, that the NDP needs to moderate it’s policies to appeal to a larger base of the electorate?

My view is that, under Jack Layton’s leadership, we’ve gone from 13 to 103 seats by standing in support of our basic principles. It’s our principles and values that have won us a record amount of support—the support of four and a half million Canadians. I want to stay true to our principles. While, yes, we need to keep modernizing our party, we don’t need to change our principles.

Moving into the direction of some issues, in your interview with Evan Solomon on CBC Radio’s The House, you mentioned that you are in favour of raising corporates taxes, but only in certain very profitable sectors. Outside of the oil and gas sector, where else should corporate taxes be raised?

Well, he asked me a very specific question which was what would I do in 2015 as prime minister but my position today is that corporate taxes are too low and that (finance) minister (Jim) Flaherty should be raising corporate taxes. I think what we have to do as government in the future is really take a look—are there some sectors that are super profitable, such as the oil and gas sector and the financial sector, that deserve even greater increases, need to make an even bigger contribution, that’s what I’d like to look at. But my belief is that corporate taxes are too low today and should be increased.

Also in the Winnipeg Debate, you mentioned that you are in favour of abolishing the Indian Act. Ultimately, what needs to replace it?

I think that the Indian Act is a relic of colonialism and a colonial approach. What we need to do is establish a relationship of respect with First Nations, Metis and Inuit and that needs to be based on a nation-to-nation relationship so really it’s just a completely different approach to engaging with First Nations.

Would that look similar to the Kelowna Accord?

Yes, it could. Obviously, we need to make sure we’re investing the money necessary to make sure that First Nations, Metis and Inuit children are getting the same level of eduction support as provincial governments are providing. We need to make sure that we’re investing in housing and infrastructure, like water and sewage. It really means engaging on a basic level of respect, where I’m sure First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities know what their goals are and how we can work together to make those goals a reality.

Another central element of your campaign is a national midwifery program. How would it be structured and would provinces have the ability to opt out and provide comparable services with the same money?

What we’d like to do is include the classification of midwifery with Health Canada as doctors, nurses, dentists are. Right now, midwives aren’t included so we want to include that category and then work with the provinces to make sure that the skills of midwives are applicable and transferrable in provinces and territories throughout the country. And we certainly want to work with First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities to make sure that midwifery services are available in remote and rural communities across the country and that they’re providing culturally sensitive services to these communities.

What would be the ultimate benefits of this proposal, either on the level of improving maternal health or saving health care costs by not having to transport individuals from rural communities to city centres or vice versa?

Well, you’re absolutely right, it’s both. What we see with the provision of midwives is better maternal and child outcomes because midwives have the ability to spend more time with pregnant women and with newborns, to follow up with the family. So it’s also better outcomes and allowing women to stay in their communities and have the support of family, friends and neighbours when they welcome a newborn into their family. But it’s certainly much more cost effective for medicare. Midwives are more cost effective than other health professionals plus it is more effective to have women stay in their communities rather than flying them out and sometimes spending weeks in communities far from their home. So it’s better outcomes, much more cost effective.

And what do you think of the provincial government here in Manitoba creating an urban, rather than rural or remote, birthing centre with a similar use of midwifery services?

I think what Manitoba is doing is exactly the right direction; to create birthing centres that are away from the acute care hospital setting because most pregnancies and deliveries don’t need the kind of acute care that hospital emergency services provide. Now, there are birthing centres obviously in hospitals, but I think that women do better and they appreciate not having to go through the emergency ward system that we see in most hospitals so I think that birthing centres are absolutely the way to go for the vast majority of non-high risk births.

On the topic of health, could you clarify where you stand on user fees and the context of your statement regarding user fees during the Quebec City leadership debate?

I’m against user fees, I will enforce the Canada Health Act and I understand that it’s important to work with the provinces to make sure that they have adequate funding so that user fees are not necessary.

And how would your funding model for health care to the provinces differ from Mr. Flaherty’s?

Well, I wouldn’t be cutting back on funding, which will ultimately be the impact of Mr. Flaherty’s model. There ways that we can be more effective and efficient in the delivery of our health care services and midwifery is one avenue we can pursue, there are others like community health clinic models, which I think are very cost effective and effective in terms of service. But the way to have successful health care is not to strangle the system with ever-decreasing funding levels. That’s not the way to go. So making sure we have adequate funding so that provinces can’t make the case that they need to bring in user fees to maintain a level of services.

And how do you respond to Mr. Flaherty’s notion that the provinces are responsible for creating innovations and cost cutting in order to adjust to the decrease in funding?

Well, you know, I think that we need to have leadership at the federal level. That’s why I propose midwifery policy. There are other forms of leadership, for example pharmaceuticals are the fastest growing cost in our health care system and if Mr. Flaherty genuinely wanted to make our health care system more effective he would take more pharmaceuticals out of the private sector and gradually introduce a national pharmacare program. That would be a leadership opportunity for the federal government to help provinces meet their health care challenges.

Moving onto another macro issue, how does your approach to federalism differ from that of the other candidates, from prime minister Harper and from the Liberal party approach?

Well, I’m a strong supporter of Sherbrooke Declaration that was adopted by our party in 2006, and that approach is an asymmetrical federalism that recognizes the historical role of Quebec as one of our founding nations but also recognizes its different approach to federalism and recognizes that we have unanimously named Quebec as a nation within Canada. So my view is of federalism with a strong Quebec but within a social democratic Canada, that’s what my leadership stands for and that’s what I’ll create as prime minister.

I know that many candidates have expressed admiration for different provincial premiers, like Roy Romanow and Gary Doer. Do you also want to emulate those provincial models federally?

Well, yes, I do. The approach that I’ve taken is that we need to put the whole issue of jobs and the economy of our next federal campaign and we need to promote the record that we have in NDP governments as having the strongest economic records of any party throughout the country. We need to build that trust federally with Canadians so that they understand that we have this record and they have confidence in our ability to manage the economy.

How do you balance that confidence in managing the economy and the fiscal record of provincial governments with making sure that Canadians retain confidence in the federal NDP on electoral reform, considering that provincial New Democratic parties have not pursued a reform agenda?

Well, because I made it central to my leadership campaign and, as leader of the party, it will be central to our work over the next three years. We’ll promote it, we’ll campaign on it, and when we win we’ll make it a reality. When you check on my campaign website, I have a whole policy on this. I’ve pledged to call a royal commission after winning government and have that commission report back within six months, not on whether or not we should pursue proportional representation but which form. I’m personally leaning toward mixed-member proportional but I’d like to see what a royal commission reports back and then we will have three years to have Elections Canada put the machinery in place so that we can run the election after 2015 with a PR system.

Do you feel that the other candidates have a similar commitment to PR? I know that Mr. Mulcair says that he is a realist about this and hasn’t released a full proposal on it…

Well, I’m the one who has released a full proposal on this and I’m the only one that has really made it a central plank of my leadership campaign.

And upon forming government, would you also pursue the abolition of the Senate in short order or is that something that would take more time, in your judgment?

I think it would probably take more time because it’s a constitutional issue but certainly I would want to caution the Senate not to become a hindrance to the democratic will of an elected Parliament.

Those are all my questions. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Well, you didn’t ask about tuition fees, but you probably know that I released a plan on education on Feb. 1 when I joined students on the Day of Action. I was in Vancouver that day, at the Vancouver community college, and that I have in my campaign a really wonderful young activist team. Probably three quarters of my team is under the age of 30 and they’re pretty dynamic and it bodes well for the future of democracy and the future of the country.

I guess I will jump in on that point. I know that there have been many protests across the country, in Montreal in particular, so is your goal to transfer those people on the streets toward getting active in a political party?

I think we have to connect the passion people feel for issues like accessible post secondary education, we have to connect that passion with concrete government action and therefore electoral change.

And what leadership role can the federal government play considering that education is a provincial responsibility?

What the federal government can do is make sure that we’re funding the provinces adequately and we can transfer funds to the provinces specifically for a reduction in tuition fees.

Published in Volume 66, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 7, 2012)

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