In the federal NDP timeline, we find ourselves at the beginning of a new year in 2018, rounding up the first quarter since the federal NDP leadership race four months ago that was ultimately won by Jagmeet Singh on the first ballot.
Since then, Singh’s former leadership opponent Guy Caron has been appointed as Parliamentary NDP Leader, and has basically been leading the orange team’s charge in the House of Commons against the Liberal government. Singh, as he does not yet have a seat in parliament, continues to promote the party brand by cross-touring the country.
With a policy convention happening in Ottawa next month to kick off the next chapter in the party’s history, it seemed like a good time to check in with Caron to hear his thoughts on the current landscape, and what he sees, going forward, with his finger on the pulse of the NDP on many fronts -- from his relationship with Jagmeet Singh, to Ruth Ellen Brosseau’s promotion to House Leader recently, provincial governments and Basic Income, the attempt to revive a provincial NDP in Quebec and their new leader, and much more.
Here is how our conversation went:
Ammario Reza (AR) talks with Parliamentary NDP Leader Guy Caron (GC) January 26, 2018:
A.R: So, basically… you’ve gone through your first quarter as the de facto leader of the NDP in Parliament. And, it has been said, during the summer, that should Jagmeet Singh win the party leadership, this could present the NDP with difficulties (in Quebec specifically, where just under a third of the party’s caucus comes from - and is incidentally where your seat is located).
Bearing that, and based on recent and ongoing debate on religious neutrality and the general perception that Quebec voters are the least receptive to politicians who they feel are overtly religious ... where do you see that going?
G.C: Well, I'm not sure that I would agree with the fact that Quebecers, by in large, are... that it's a problem for them to actually see a leader that wears religious symbols. Of course, there will be some, but I know that with Jagmeet -- and I've experienced this by going to Alma (Quebec) with him for the by-election in Lac-Saint-Jean -- that people actually want to hear what he has to say.
When we walked through a shopping centre (and this was not planned - it was just to get back through to an event we had) people recognized him. People wanted to talk to him. There are issues that people wanted to talk to him about, from veteran issues to their pensions. The recognition-factor was there. So, I think people want to, over and above the ‘religious symbols’, as you are saying… people want to hear what he has to say. One big opportunity we will have, eventually is.. I’m pretty sure he will be appearing on Tout le monde en parle, which is basically the biggest show you have to be on to get known in Quebec, and that will be his first chance to make a real first impression on Quebecers.
A.R: In the past, the NDP often picked their leaders and strategies that treated a concentration on Quebec or western and anglo-Canada as kind of an irreconcilable dichotomy. Do you feel like your appointment to the role of Parliamentary Leader, and with yesterday’s news of Ruth-Ellen Brosseau as House Leader; do you think that was mostly about a strategic move to signal to voters - especially Quebec voters - that the party’s focus would not be shifting away from Quebec, despite the devastating losses of the 2015 election?
G.C: Well, I’m not sure that it is, so much, a political calculation. Of course, the Quebec caucus is - well, it’s the largest regional caucus in the NDP. We have 16 MPs - that’s basically a third of our MPs in the caucus. It’s obvious there will be some room for more Quebec MPs, and I don’t think - with the NDP, generally speaking, especially since Jack (Layton) ...well, this is something we are seeing with Jagmeet right now, that there is a sensitivity and an ensuring that there is a good balance all over the country on key roles. So, Ruth Ellen, I can speak to no end about Ruth Ellen’s value to the caucus, and her value as a politician, and as a person. I have tremendous respect for everything she’s achieved. She’s one of those MPs who not only is a wonderful riding MP - she’s loved in her riding - but she’s done amazing work on the Hill.
I do think it’s perfectly deserved for her to actually graduate in this way. She’s evolved from the agricultural file. Just to give you an example: once she was elected, she was named as the Deputy Critic for Agriculture, and she didn’t have that much knowledge on agriculture, and basically after a year she came to my riding - which is largely agricultural - and she basically spoke the language of farmers and agricultural workers. So, she learns very fast. She is tremendously respected in caucus and outside caucus. I do think this is why we are in the condition of where she is now, and it’s a promotion she fully deserves. And Peter [Julian] has done amazing work on this, as he has done before, during the leadership race, a wonderful job as House Leader. Peter’s role is so crucial, in one sense, especially to me, as an economist. He will be handling the very critical Finance portfolio. Especially when we’re talking about income-inequality and where policies on tax-havens will be crucial. And, somebody with Peter’s skills will be amazing to have in front of the camera and otherwise.
A.R: Ok, well, I guess I would ask: have you seen much reception in terms of policy ideas from the Singh camp, so far? Other than appointing you as Parliamentary Leader? Like, the optics are one thing, but have you seen actual reception in terms of policy?”
G.C: Most of what we went through in October, November and December was really a transition. I mean, we had lots of people to replace, and that’s also the case in the research department of the Parliamentary offices, with a few key staffers during the race going to British Columbia, because there were new job openings there with the new government. So, there’s been much emphasis on the transition, and I believe that this winter we’ll start putting forth those ideas - especially in the context of the upcoming policy convention we’ll have in Ottawa in February.
I think that convention will play a big role in establishing or coordinating with Jagmeet and his team’s ideas in terms of the policies put forth. So, I expect that the policy convention will play a big role, and that we’re at a situation now where it will be much easier.
A.R: Do you really think so? Because, policy conventions... at the end of the day, aren’t things just decided in the small circle of the leadership? Or is that going to change?
G.C: Well, you don’t do an election, or platform for an election, the same way that you do a policy convention. But, policy conventions are important to give a sense of direction that the party will be heading towards, too. In a convention, it’s also that you have a sense of what the leader wants to implement - via his ideas. When looking at various directions, I hope he recognizes by also looking at the various guest speakers that we’ll have. The keynote speakers will usually be selected because they will be able to help shape the policy direction that we’ll be following. So, a policy convention is not only about resolutions. It is about resolutions, but not only [resolutions]. It’s also a place where we can start putting some meat on the ideas that might very well sound attractive.
A.R: So you think there will be an actual general direction to the party after the convention?
G.C: Oh yeah, this is something that is being built. It’s going to be built before, and the policy convention will be some sort of a landmark in the process. And, obviously, after the policy convention we’ll be basically in the countdown to the following election. That way, by March, we’ll have basically a year and a half before the road to the next election. So, we need to actually start doing that now, and I know that Jagmeet and his team are very aware of that.
A.R: Right. So, the Liberal government. Is it somewhat harder to criticize a government that self-identifies as ‘progressive’ than it would have been, say, a conservative government?
G.C: It’s kind of strange, because when the Conservatives were the government, we were the Official Opposition and basically the Liberals were copying us. Everything we were doing, they were doing, basically to set themselves up as ‘progressives’.
Now they form government, and in terms of the two major opposition groups - you can’t get them confused: the Conservatives want to try to get the Liberals to go more to the right, and us, we’re on the progressive side of the Liberals. And, I think in that situation right now, we can actually decide by looking at the Liberals and what they are doing, and especially what they are not doing on very important files, like .. electoral reform was one of them. But, look at Phoenix. Look at the inaction on tax-havens. There are so many files where the Liberals are actually disappointing that it gives us the opportunity for focusing on what we are, and especially proposing ideas and directions that the Liberals refuse to take right now. So, when we were both [Liberals and the NDP] as opposition it was easier to confuse the Liberals with us. But now, with the Liberals as government, and basically not doing what they should be doing as a so-called progressive party it’s up to us to demonstrate that we are the progressive option.
A.R: So, you’d mentioned tax-havens. Can you talk a little bit about corporate greed, tax-havens, and specifically things like how the U.S kind of went after the KPMG files, for example, while Canada really didn’t. Why are the Liberals so seemingly reluctant to take any action on that?”
G.C: Because they are the Bay Street party. It’s plain and simple. They are the party that has prioritized that and will always be the party that panders to wealthy Canadians. In that sense, the Conservatives are doing it because of the ideology, and the Liberals do it because - using basically, their love of power. Or, closeness to power. KPMG in Canada, the situation was very similar to what we had in the U.S, but the government not only refused to do anything, but this perplexed the established order - and that makes no sense. Especially at the point where we are seeing all the leaks. We have, basically, the Paradise Papers. We have the Panama Papers. We have the Swiss leaks. We have an idea now what we need to be doing, and the government is trying to create just some smoke and mirrors. We are following what’s happening and what’s being done internationally in trying to bring more transparency. Yet, we’re following a very very weak direction or very weak policies that are being established. We need to be more forceful. And, you will not be able to solve the issue of tax-havens on your own, true, but you can actually demonstrate leadership on the international scene, the international front. And, ensuring that we coordinate our actions with our partners in the OECD. I’m sure that we’ll be more forceful, rather than blind to the interests of the wealthy and the one percent.
A.R: Speaking of which: income-inequality. You are well-known for your Basic Income proposal. With a provincial election coming up in Ontario, I just want to ask you: Does a Basic Income lose its progressiveness if it’s provincial, or if it is provincially administered? Does that open it up just to attacks from certain parts of the political spectrum, or does it actually become right-wing?”
G.C: Well, it’s not the jurisdiction that traces its political orientation, if you want. It’s really the way that it is conceived. You’re talking about Ontario now. Quebec is now talking about a Guaranteed Income, which basically is just a re-jiggling and an increase of social-assistance for those who are unable to work. That’s not Basic Income. That’s not UBI (Universal Basic Income). It’s not. But, the government is trying to basically brand some initiatives that they are coming up with, and calling it this creates confusion. There is no sense that - there is no...what Quebec is proposing - and it hasn’t been implemented yet, is not a Basic Income. No one would call it this way. And what’s happening in Ontario is a pilot program, which basically replaces some elements of social-assistance and disability payments and puts the programs into one program which they call Minimum Income.
A.R: Would you be opposed to that?
G.C: Well, I don’t like the direction that they are taking, because basically they are replacing a program right now. And, they are not even giving - with the introduction of their Basic Income - the amount that they need to basically reach the low-income cut-off. So, that - to me - is problematic. If you are implementing Basic Income, you have to implement it in a way that it will leave no one under poverty. What I think the Ontario experiment, once it’s finished in 3 years, will be useful [for] is bringing us some data. And we’ll have a better idea of the impact that it will have. But, let’s not forget this is only a pilot program, like we are seeing all around the world. And, strangely enough, it’s being implemented one year before an election. **Laughs**
So, I do believe that we have to have a significant discussion on Basic Income, and not as a replacement for a couple of programs. Really, on the place it will have for people in this country to fight poverty and also to address the very concerning issues of E.I and increased automation of our economy.
A.R: Right. Two very quick last things: Abortion funding. Yesterday, the Liberals did - um, the Canada Summer Jobs program and the caveat that they inserted that groups be pro-reproductive rights. Knowing that this is a decision that probably the majority of NDP members would actually agree with, the NDP came out yesterday and actually blasted this decision. Is this a trap that the Liberals set up for the Tories that the NDP has now just managed to walk into?
G.C: Well, I will correct you here. What you are referring to is the headline that we’ve seen in the media about Nathan [Cullen]. He actually apologized for the way it came. And, there’s no way that the NDP will be supporting anti-choice provisions or money being distributed to anti-choice causes. That goes as far as the summer employment [program] or any other program at the federal level.
A.R: Ok, well that clears it up… *Laughs*
G.C: Yup, that’s basically it.
A.R: Ok, final thing being: You’re from Quebec. You live in Quebec. And there is - the NDPQ and Raphael Fortin. I mean - on the one hand, I get it. There’s a … I think he said ‘it’s time to give the’ ...I think he called them the ‘political orphans of Quebec a home’. But, sovereignty is not really an issue right now in Quebec. So, is this….like, why? Why do this now? Will you be voting for NDPQ? And why not work with Quebec Solidaire instead?
G.C: Well, there are some that are... but...we wish them good luck. But, we are not… As a caucus, as a party, especially with what happened in Quebec for so very long, we have no affiliation in Quebec. We can have likeness in terms of policies, but those parties are different. The NDPQ and the [federal] NDP are not affiliated the way it is across the country. So, I do wish them good luck, but we’ll see if there is demand and if there is an operational market for such a party. But there will not be any such direction coming from our party that we need to support one party or another in Quebec. I know that, in some parts of Quebec, there is a very common base between Quebec Solidaire and the NDP in terms of their base of activists and people helping. In some other places, it might be the NDPQ, so at this point, we’ll just wish them good luck. But, I do conduct all my challenges federally and that’s where we’ll be focusing.
A.R: So, you don’t think people are going to think they’re synonymous?
G.C: I’m sorry..?
A.R: You don’t think people are going to look at the NDPQ and the federal NDP and think they’re synonymous, and that would kind of...
G.C: It’s possible, because some people were…. the new leader, for example, was a candidate for us federally and was in the leadership race with a former MP. So, while there is some handling that will be basically similar... so, there will be some that will think there is affiliation, but at the end of the day, there is no formal affiliation at this point. So, as I said, we will be concentrating federally, because we have an election to prepare for in a year and a half.
G.C: My pleasure, thank you very much.
Ammario Reza is the co-founder of NDP Grassroots-Ralliement populaire NPD, with a background in Political Science. He is a writer, commentator and activist primarily based in Ottawa. He works varying contract positions for various NDP and other progressive campaigns, in addition to being a liaison for author Linda McQuaig's speaking engagements.
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