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In Rise Again: Nova Scotia's NDP on the rocks, former MLA Howard Epstein raises many questions about the New Democratic Party's past, present, and future that are worth considering, not only in the context of Nova Scotia, but in other Canadian provinces, and indeed in the context of Canada as a whole. One of them, and I have also written about this at length in Election Nova Scotia: Orange crush to red tide in the context of Nova Scotia, and in The NDP: Minting a new political currency, in a Canadian context, is the party's fidelity to core social democratic principles.
In a political world that has been dominated for the last half century by neo-liberalism, notions of "small" government, privatization of public resources, cutting government services to the core, and the demonization of taxation as a means by which governments raise revenues to be able to take constructive action on behalf of their citizens, and other austerity ideas have come to be a dominant narrative in many established political circles. Ideologically, if a social-democratic party such as the NDP is to serve a useful role it needs to present a program that is distinctly different from that of neoliberalism.
And this is true even on a tactical level, and is true for "third" political parties of whatever ideological stripe. Politics, as it was practiced in many jurisdictions over much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, frequently saw the formation of two vaguely centrist political blocks contending for power (the United States with its Democratic and Republican parties is perhaps the most extreme example). These parties were fundamentally of a kind and alternated holding power in an almost predictable fashion. One would be elected, govern for a time, and then become increasingly jaded, inept, corrupt, and bereft of novel ideas to the point that the electorate booted them out in favour of the other bunch. The first bunch would go off into the political wilderness for a while and "renew" themselves while the cycle repeated.
As Howard Epstein has pointed out, if this is your conception of politics, then there is nothing to be gained by having a third centrist option to toggle between. Consequently, for the NDP to drift to a tepid political centre in pursuit of power is a no-win scenario. Faced with such a choice, voters either stay with the devils they know, or if they elect a third party, they elect one that has extinguished the activist fire in its belly and produced variations on the same political theme.
Politician, publisher, and preacher Gary Burrill does not buy into this game. (Full disclosure: I've been a friend of Burrill's for decades.) At first blush appearing calm, considered, and understated, Burrill is a full-steam, full-bore social democrat, wholly committed to social, economic, and environmental justice. He brings to the gathering a lifetime of work as a social activist. He is a writer, editor, and publisher of keenly analytical works that probe the social, spiritual, and material bases of our society; a pastor to rural communities in the province; and a legislator and MLA in the previous Nova Scotia NDP government. Burrill is one of three candidates for the provincial leadership of the NDP slated to take place on February 27, 2016. (Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River MLA Lenore Zann and Sackville-Cobequid MLA Dave Wilson are the other two.) On a cold winter's day in Halifax, I asked Burrill about his vision for a just, sustainable, and prosperous Nova Scotia.
Politics and Religion
Christopher G. Majka: You are a man of the cloth, a calling that runs in your family; your father was a United Church minister. And you appear to have a talent for crossing theological divides, having served a joint Presbyterian and United Church congregation in Upper Musquodoboit for 19 years, then establishing a joint Baptist and United ministry in Sydney. Indeed, your success in bridging religious denominations should make settling disputes in the political sphere child's play. [laughter]
And as a social democrat you have some illustrious predecessors who mounted both pulpit and soapbox, for example, Tommy Douglas, an ordained Baptist minister who, influenced by the Social Gospel movement, went on to become involved in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the predecessor of the New Democratic Party (NDP).
So, how do the joint disciplines of politics and theology mix in for Gary Burrill? Are you able to bridge that divide? And how does being a minister inform you practice of politics, and vice versa?
Gary C. Burrill: People often ask me about this. The ministry in our culture in the Maritimes is something that has regard and respect, whereas politics is something that does not. So people often find this dissonant. People often ask me, "Why would you do this? What about these two worlds that is even on the same page?"
There's a wonderful radical German theologian, Dorothee Sölle, who when asked a similar question about the connection between Marxism and Christianity, said, look at the birth narrative of Jesus, where the fascist ruler Herod is seeking a mass killing of male babies, and so Mary, Joseph and the baby flee to Egypt. "At this point," Sölle asks, "Are the Holy Family political or religious refugees?" The only sensible answer is that they are both, and this is the core sense that is evoked by the biblical world. The separation of politics and religion is something that has been invented by the bourgeois world. It is foreign to the biblical world and it is not helpful to us. [Note: Dorothee Sölle (1929-2003) was a leading German theologian, political activist, and feminist and one of the most important voices in liberation theology which reinterpreted Christian theology in the context of socialism and pacifism.]
In my political and theological world, political considerations and spiritual or religious considerations, are two dimensions of one unified world. I think that in this sense my outlook is much of a piece with the understanding of the world that is actually presented in the Bible. When people sometimes ask, "Why would any minister get involved in politics?" I tell them, "Get a Bible and we'll open it to any page. If you can't find both questions of God and questions of social order on it I'll be very surprised. I've never seen such a page." So the two matters are entirely connected.
It's also true that in the United Church in Nova Scotia I am part of a long and honorable tradition, which has its roots in the CCF, of ministers who have a foot in the pulpit and a foot in social-democratic organizing. One of the great CCF–United Church figures, and one of the main protestant figures in the Antigonish cooperative movement was J.D.N. (John Donald Nelson) MacDonald, who was one of my predecessors in the United Church-Presbyterian ministry in Upper Musquodoboit, where there is a rich credit union and co-op tradition. I come out of that tradition.
The other thing about this unified political and religious centre is it reflects a theology that is focused on the idea of the realm of God. There is this key idea in the New Testament that all of creation is in the process of moving to a stage where, as the old Gospel hymn says, "Time shall be no more." Where alienation and time and suffering shall be overcome in a new order of reality.
Anyone who is familiar with the fundamentals of Marxism will understand that this is a parallel idea to the central notion in the Marist theory of history that humanity moves through various modes of production to a place that Marx called "the end of pre-history" when human exploitation will be overcome. In the socialist-Christian worldview the sense is that not only oppression and exploitation are overcome, but also death and time. I think that this view is so revolutionary that even at its deepest core, Marxism has not envisioned it.
So in this sense, the fundamental philosophy that underlies anti-capitalism, its theory of history, is one that is deeply of a piece with the theory of history and time that comes out of the biblical world. For me, understood in this way, socialism and Christianity are part of the same unified project.
CGM: It's interesting because one sees both the inclination, as you have so eloquently expressed it, to interpret and apply religious ideas in the realm of the secular -- as we have seen with the Social Gospel or with liberation theology -- and also the opposite. The idea that these are two distinct realms, that religion and politics don't mix, and that the Church needs to be kept separate from the State.
GCB: It's pretty clear that the separation of politics and religion serves those who would wish to have a politics that serves the few and not the many, and a religion that does the same.
CGM: We first met -- more years ago now than I care to remember -- when you were at the helm of a progressive magazine called New Maritimes in the 1980's, which I did a bit of writing for, and which I would wait impatiently for, devouring every issue when it arrived in the mail. Tell me a little about the New Maritimes project and where that took you in terms of the development of your political thinking?
GCB: The late 1970s and early 1980's saw a disappearance of independent media in the Maritime Provinces. There had been a number of independent progressive publications …
GCB: Yes, all over the Maritimes. But one by one these publications disappeared. So there was no voice for radical ideas around the region.
I came back to Halifax in 1978. I had lived here from the time I was five until I was thirteen, then I was gone for a long time, and came back when I was twenty-two, taking a job with the Halifax Coalition for Full Employment, a coalition of progressive individuals, women's organizations, peace movement groups, social justice organization, churches, the labour movement … it was a kind of coalescing of radical energies focusing on the fact that in 1977–1978 unemployment in Canada had, for the first time, climbed to over a million.
The anti-capitalist critique was very focused on unemployment at that time. The Canadian Labour Congress had decided to put some energy and resources into building popular coalitions against unemployment. Out of that experience, it became clear to me, and others, that part of advancing that kind of radical energy would be a publication where people around the region would be able to see the thinking and organizing of people of an egalitarian sensibility elsewhere.
It happened that there was a woman, Mary Power, who was a leader in the Sisters of Charity and a chaplain at Mount St. Vincent University. She had been the editor of a progressive Roman Catholic publication in Toronto, Catholic New Times. And she told me, "If you ever really want to learn the template for a sixteen page progressive tabloid on a low budget, it's the Catholic New Times." So she arranged for me to go to Toronto and apprentice myself to them to learn how to do it, which I did.
There were two radical points of sensibility in New Maritimes. One was a sense of regionalism; that there are particular ways in which the Maritimes functions as an internal colony of the rest of Canada. That there is a deep structural unfairness about Canadian federalism. We are a captive market for the products of other places. We supply our workers to other places to expand their businesses. We wished to give a radical voice to this sensibility. And also to interpret regional, public events, from a popular and progressive point of view.
New Maritimes was published from 1982 to 1996. I edited it from 1982 to 1988 and then the late Scott Milsom edited it from 1988, when I went to study for the ministry, until it's closing in 1996.
Education and Social Justice
CGM: In the policy you've developed as part of your leadership bid there is a lengthy section on social justice. One part focuses on education, all the way from early childhood to post secondary education. There is much research and analysis that indicates that investing in young people in the first couple of decades of their lives is probably the most cost-effective way of improving the social and economic circumstances of a society.
Yet we still don't have a national daycare program, and university students, across Canada and particularly in Nova Scotia, are drowning in debt, which often saddles them with years of loan repayments. Tell me more about what you, as a political leader, would like to do to change this?
GCB: Let's first consider post-secondary education. People of all policy persuasions agree on one thing with respect to our provincial situation, and that is that a crucial challenge for us is to stem the tide of youth out-migration, particularly those who are highly skilled. Significant numbers of young people from Nova Scotia pursuing post-secondary education go to other jurisdictions where it is much more affordable. And significant numbers of them don't return. What do we then do to address this? That's the first point.
The second point is, if you identify what are called "push factors," those things that lead people to make a move, everybody who has studied this -- and I have studied it quite a bit; I wrote a book in 1992 comparing patterns of intergenerational experience of people leaving the Maritimes [Note: See Away: Maritimers in Massachusetts, Ontario and Alberta: an oral history of leaving home.] -- one primary push factor is debt, and for young people, it is university-related debt. In Nova Scotia the average student debt is $37,000. So this means following a path up north, out west, to Japan, Korea, or elsewhere to try and pay it off. And a significant number don't return. So the way we are proceeding in Nova Scotia is not particularly effective for a society that has identified stemming out-migration as a priority.
Furthermore, we understand that some kind of post-secondary education is now a pre-requisite for effective participation in the economy. Nonetheless, we persist with tuition that is so high that, for significant numbers of people in the working class, a future that includes post-secondary education becomes un-envisionable. Bernie Sanders has been talking about this in the United States. He calls this, "one of the tragedies of the present moment." Those who, in their mid-teens, do not formulate a picture of themselves that includes post-secondary education. That this thought can't stich itself together by reason of cost.
I have a great deal of experience of this. For nineteen years I was the minister of the only churches in the upper end of the Musqudoboit Valley. I have seen this tragedy of the present moment at work up close in many, many families. For young people of whom there is no question of their intellectual capacity for post-secondary education, but where that opportunity doesn't work out, and the primary reason is that a cost of $8,000 a year is un-envisionable in the income world that they live in.
It seems to me that our party, the NDP, did exactly the right thing at our policy convention in 2014 when we said, that we propose a historic extension of public funding to include tuition for a first degree, certificate, ticket, or diploma. And this is an initiative that we are seeing being articulated from many different places. Not long ago David Wheeler, the president of Cape Breton University, together with the faculty union and student union, said that this is the only way forward.
We know this is the road that has been pursued in many other jurisdictions, from Germany to Scotland. I think this is major area of importance because it is the road to the widening of opportunity.
What’s been happening during this 35-year night we've been going through -- the neoliberal era -- is that opportunity has continually narrowed. You and I, having been through university in the 1970's, encountered many people who were the first in their families to have ever entered university. This is not a shared experience for people of the generation of my children, for whom this road has been increasingly blocked. So, this is an important economic program, and important demographic program, but most importantly it is an important social program wherein the doors of opportunity, having been narrowed, can once again begin to open. For me, this is a very important piece of a social democratic platform.
Now, with respect to early-childhood education, in the pursuit of a more egalitarian, fairer, more open, and interesting Nova Scotia we need an extension of public funding for education at both ends of the system. There is a wealth of literature on how there is nothing greater we can do to advance the capacity of our people, both from the point of view of child development and of family support. But the arguments that have really spoken to me are those of people in this field who explain how an early childhood education program has the capacity to intervene in a range of developmental difficulties.
We know that it is often the case that by the time children are eight or nine years old various kinds of cognitive problems leave them behind the eight ball for a long time. All the evidence is that the earlier these interventions take place the more effective they are, and the greater is the impact in leveling the playing field in life opportunities. So this is also an initiative of major importance.
Inequality and Economic Justice
CGM: You and I have talked at length about economic inequality and the insights on this that have emerged from Thomas Piketty's study of economic history, Capital in the Twenty-first Century. In particular, how he has demonstrated that in periods such as the world currently finds itself in, when return on capital exceeds the economic and demographic growth rates, that greater economic inequality will inevitably ensue. And that this isn't simply an accident of circumstances, but intrinsic to how capitalism works. Unchecked, these trends are increasingly incompatible with democracy, equality, and meritocracy. [Note: For further information see Thomas Piketty: Economics transfigured.]
More recently political economist Robert Reich in his excellent study Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, has emphasized the importance of not only economic redistribution to address this, but also of what he calls economic pre-distribution, that is to say all the ways in which the rules of the marketplace have become stacked to favour the rich, who, in growing more wealthy, thereby acquire more political power, which allows them to further increase their wealth and, as the refrain goes, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer."
This neoliberalism is a global phenomenon of the last half-century and Nova Scotia is a tiny pecuniary cog in a very large economic machine, but are there ways that we can address this on a local level? As a politician how would you like to move Nova Scotia to become a more economically egalitarian society?
GCB: Early in our term of government there was a conference in Truro, Taking Action on Poverty (October 26–28, 2010), at which the principle speakers were Ed Broadbent and Senator Art Eggleton, chair of the Senate report, Poverty, Housing and Homelessness: Issues and Options. Broadbent's main point was to speak to the book The Spirit Level. [Note: see The Spirit Level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett with a foreword by Robert Reich.] And Broadbent said -- and I paraphrase here -- that this was the first "unified-field theory" book on inequality.
The Spirit Level is a mega-compendium of all the research done by progressives on inequality. It contains empirical research demonstrating that societies that move towards greater income equality have a lower incidence of depression, higher educational attainment, spectacularly better health outcomes, and so on. In it, as in Piketty's book, it is clear that inequality is not an unfortunate consequence of aberrations that happen in some market economies. It is germane to the functioning of capitalism and unless it is mitigated in some dramatic way, it exacerbates (inequality) beyond reason. This is the world in which the social democratic project wishes to make an improvement.
So, in this project, where are we in Nova Scotia? Let me give you an illustration.
The entire spending in the Department of Community Services on all income assistance for some thirty thousand people, all disability services, all housing services, and all support for children, youth and families is $870 million annually. Compare this to the single-year level of increase in the wealth of Nova Scotia's four richest families last year, which was $929 million.
Anyone who looks at this and doesn't think that something's very wrong here has a deeply inadequate set of social instincts. As studies by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives here in Nova Scotia have made clear, the one per cent here have an average income of $260,000. But ninety per cent of the people in Nova Scotia file income tax on an average income of $26,700. So, this is the world that we live in. (Note: For further information see Atlantic Canada's story on inequality.) Some people respond, "Well, that's the way of the world. You can't do anything about it." In fact, it is within provincial jurisdiction to do a great many things about this. So I'll mention a few.
We established a policy in 2014 in the NDP that we support the principle of grocery security. This means that a government must set social assistance at such a level that in non-emergency circumstances a reasonably prudent person could obtain their groceries in a grocery store rather than a food bank. This number is determinable through the food-costing program developed at Mount St. Vincent University. We know exactly what it would cost to implement this for the entire social-assistance caseload in Nova Scotia: $37 million a year. In order to accomplish this for every household with a dependent child on the social-assistance caseload it would cost $16 million.
Now, if you were to raise the income tax rate by one per cent on everybody who makes more than $100,000 this would yield approximately $20 million. In other words, getting every child in Nova Scotia out of the food bank world is within the power of the Nova Scotia government to accomplish.
It's also within provincial jurisdiction to follow the lead of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour and implement a $15 per hour minimum wage. It's within provincial jurisdiction for Nova Scotia to be, not as it has been, a province that is dragging its heels with respect to the reform of the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), but one of the provinces pushing for pension reform. The pension reform that the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) is advocating, which replaces fifty per cent of income is the direction that we ought to be going in. [Note: For further information see How labour is trying to save your pension.]
In my judgment, it's very plain where we need to go -- and this is something that a broad range of economists and policy makers have agreed upon in recent years -- namely, to some kind of a guaranteed basic income program. We already have this if you are over 65; it's called the Supplement. When you become eligible for an old age pension, Canada determines a floor income below which it is difficult to live without too much of your life being taken up with the struggle for necessity, and we bring you up to that level by means of the Supplement. It seems to me that there is an emerging policy consensus that a guaranteed basic income program is the next major advance that Canadian society has before it, and I think that in Nova Scotia the NDP should take this as our mission to accomplish.
CGM: You may know that Finland is seriously considering a guaranteed basic income in 2017, several Dutch cities are going to introduce it in 2016, and there is an upcoming referendum on the subject in Switzerland. So it may be an idea that is coming of age in a number of jurisdictions. [Note: For further in formation see Finland is considering giving every citizen a basic income.]
GCB. Yes. All through the last 35 dark years of neoliberalism this has been an idea that has been off the political radar. But it is a sign of how we are moving into a new era, how the neoliberal consensus is breaking up and the values of social equality are moving back in to the mainstream, that this idea is re-emerging. It seems to me that one key contribution that social democracy has to bring to the discourse on political life is this core idea of a guaranteed basic income and the eradication of poverty by its means.
CGM: Thomas Piketty argues for a more progressive system of taxation on income, and also for a global tax on wealth since taxing income will be insufficient by itself to bring down the enormous levels of inequality that we now see between the 1 per cent and the rest of humanity.
Robert Reich argues for significant changes to the rules of the marketplace that would help reign in these same trends, and he draws attention to the fact that there was a time before the onset of austerity politics that corporations were not exclusively focused on maximizing shareholder profits (and laterally on maximizing CEO remuneration). That in the 1950's and 1960s many CEOs acknowledged that there were multiple stakeholders of a corporation: employees, who often dedicated a lifetime of work to a company; communities that invested in roads and other infrastructure to support businesses and sometimes were built around an enterprise; citizens, whose resources corporations exploited and as taxpayers had a stake in the distribution of wealth in their society -- and also shareholders.
In all these ways one can argue that corporate capitalism can be improved and reformed, but I'm also interested in different modes of economic activity, and here in Nova Scotia we have a particular history and experience with them -- cooperatives. The Antigonish Movement, spearheaded by a number of priests and educators including Father Moses Coady, seems to me to be an illustration of ideas of the Social Gospel percolating into a wider society. Credit unions, building and housing cooperatives, farm cooperatives, and many others.
You have an interest and involvement in cooperatives and I see that in your proposals for economic justice in Nova Scotia, you discuss them in terms of where you feel the government should target business investment and research and development. Can you tell me more about how you think the cooperative approach -- an alternative economic model to corporations -- can play a role in the development of our economy in Nova Scotia?
GCB: I've been involved in co-ops throughout my life. I wasn't a minister very long before I became aware of some of the injustices which are built into the commercial funeral business. I was conducting funeral services for people whose families had paid more for the casket in which they were buried than the price of any car they had ever owned. So I began to investigate the model of funeral co-ops, which had been developed largely through the Catholic Church in Québec and had been spearheaded in the Maritimes by the Catholic Church on Prince Edward Island.
Although Nova Scotia funeral regulations were not at all amenable to the development of co-ops, which is one of the reasons we were one of the few provinces that didn't have any funeral co-ops, we were able to devise a means by which we were able to set up the first one in the province. It is organized through rural churches that host visitations and funeral services on their premises and is called the Arimathea Funeral Co-op, named after Joseph of Arimathea who was the person who tended to the body of Jesus.
I was taken aback by how immediately successful it was. I expected that there would be a five-year period at the beginning during which we would have to endure losses. In fact, the opposite happened. It immediately changed funeral practices in the Musquodobit and Stewiacke valleys. We started out with five or six rural churches and we ended up with dozens. And in the 22 years since we established it, we have saved an enormous amount of money for hundreds and hundreds of people. It has been an illustration of how quite small communities are capable of doing quite big things.
So, when we think about using the collective resources of the people to steer the economy, it's a matter of choosing priorities. My view is that projects that have a community and a democratic component to their organization and capitalization have a great capacity for this. There are many such social enterprises. As we think about economic development and the use of our economic resources, these are approaches that ought not to be overlooked.
CGM: One of the critiques of the Darrell Dexter government was that it became too top heavy and too top down. That the Premier's Office called the shots on too many decisions without sufficient input from cabinet, caucus, or the grassroots of the party. And that it thereby lost its vital connection with core social-democratic values.
For four years you sat at the caucus table. What democratic, and social democratic, lessons do you take from your experience there? What do you think that government got right -- and wrong? And, as a prospective leader of the party, what would you do differently so as not to repeat past mistakes?
GCB: I think there is no question but that we need to attend to the rebuilding of our party's internal democratic life. This has many dimensions. The first is improving its tone. I've talked to many people in the NDP over the last couple of years who speak about how they used to be very involved. Now they are just members; they help out a little during elections, but actually they've kind of moved on -- they are not that interested any more. And then they tell me about something that happened to them. They'll speak about an email that went to the Premier's Office that didn't get answered; or a phone call that went to a Minister's Office about an area of concern that no one responded to; or a letter that got written and sent but that never was acknowledged.
The pattern of these stories is that the person was excited about the NDP at one time, is kind of "meh" about it now, and in between something happened by which they experienced themselves not as the subject of the social democratic project but as its object; as someone who was incompletely regarded. So I think one contribution that we ought to look to a leader to make is to set a tone for the party's life, that values and elevates openness, participation, regard, respect, and a democratic receiving of all voices.
I think we also need improvement at the level of how we see the life of a caucus.
I made a couple of mistakes as an MLA. In the very first session of government there was a piece of legislation that called for the permitting of a seal cull on a protected piece of land, Hay Island. This was very controversial. It seemed to me that the arguments that were produced by interveners in the Law Amendments Committee process were convincing, that it was a flawed piece of legislation. The instruction from the government, however, was that this was going to be a whipped vote. I was, shall we say, ill-inclined to support it. I thought, "Well I don't care if it is whipped or not. If I don't think it's a good idea, I'm not going to support it." [Note: For further information see Animal-rights groups ready their cameras for Canadian seal hunt.]
But I was very new. And I was given assurances within our caucus that, "If you vote for this, we will think through further a proper hearing for dissident voices on particular pieces of legislation." And I thought, "That's pretty fair." So, I voted for it. But the discussion that was promised never occurred.
A second mistake I made in the second year we were in office had to do with interprovincial trade agreements. Theses are agreements that limit what is possible for us to protect in certain sectors of our economy. In particular I was concerned about agriculture. For example, that certain proportions of our procurement would come from locally produced products. It seemed to me that the parts of our agriculture that are not supply-managed and are not in a huge export sector need the kind of protection that these agreements push aside. So again I was ill-inclined to support this piece of legislation.
So the proposition presented to me was, "Gary, why don't you just absent yourself from the House for the vote rather than vote against it?" And I thought to myself, "Well that's a pretty ineffective way to giving voice to my disagreement." I was again given an assurance that if I absented myself that an opportunity would be provided for further consideration about how we would deal openly with minority views that come up in caucus. And I thought to myself, "Well, that's fair enough." And so I didn't speak against the legislation and absented myself for the vote. And then that discussion, on minority views, also never took place.
And so later in our mandate there were a couple of issues on which I felt that I didn't want to make the same mistake. One was the Convention Centre. [Note: For further information see Convention Center in Nova Scotia: Economic Wellspring or Bottomless Pit?] The other was the expropriation of a private Christmas-tree lot in the Musquodoboit Valley at the behest of an Australian company's open-pit gold-mining project. [Note: For further information see Family fighting expropriation near Moose River gold mine.] Neither of them involved legislation, but in both of these cases I made clear in our caucus that I thought these were major errors from which I felt compelled to disassociate myself. Which I did, by telling the media that they were major errors.
Within our caucus there were a considerable number of people who thought that this was an irresponsible thing for me to have done. In my view, this is democratically juvenile. A social democratic government of something called the New Democratic Party ought to conduct its affairs in an elected caucus in a way that honours diversity of opinion.
I perfectly well understand that there are many matters on which you need to subject yourself to a kind of collective discipline and swallow your personal opinions. However, I also think that there are many matters where it is important, particularly from the point of view of representing your own constituency, where it is necessary for MLAs speak individually. And I think that in our caucus that this should be something that is normal and not considered an aberration. So, that's the second level at which our democratic life needs improvement.
I also think our democratic life needs improvement at the level of the relationship between the centre of the party and all the other components of it. A healthy conversation is not one where one person speaks and everyone else takes notes. A healthy conversation is one that goes back and forth. I think there is a general agreement that in our party we haven't exhibited this kind of health in recent years.
One modest suggestion that I have for doing this is that we should expect that the leaders should visit every Electoral District Association (EDA) every couple of years. And I also think that we ought to adopt an understanding that the main show in a party for social change is the local EDA. The heart and lungs of a party are the people that gather in somebody's front room or their kitchen. Everything else is secondary to that.
Environment and Climate Change
CGM: One of the most serious problems we face as a civilization is the looming threat of climate change, which, unchecked, literally threatens the future of our civilization. There are those who like to set up an opposition of either the economy or the environment, but I think this dialectic is in error.
Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything, has argued persuasively that adequately addressing climate change does indeed change everything because it forces us to confront economic and political notions like unending growth, unceasing consumption, the carbon economy, structural inequality, and the political and economic power of the fossil fuel industry.
These entail changes to major and central paradigms of the way our society works, and turning this behemoth around will be a non-trivial task. But she also points out the incredible opportunity that this affords. That we can hitch to the wagon of addressing climate change many of the social, political, economic, and environmental reforms that progressives have been working and organizing around for at least the past century and a half.
Nova Scotia is a small jurisdiction in the global community, but in addressing this urgent issue everyone has a role to play. What do you think Nova Scotia can do to play its part in this global initiative?
GCB: I think the point that you've made about Naomi Klein's reasoning is put in a parallel way in the recent encyclical by Pope Francis on the care of our common home and environment, Laudato Si'. The encyclical includes a formulation that I am quoting inexactly: Everyone must understand that there are not two separate crises before our species, the crisis of capitalism and inequality, and the crisis of the environment and climate change; but that there is one major crisis before us with two dimensions.
[Sidebar: In Laudato Si' Pope Francis references many sources in making this point. For example, referring to Pope John Paul II who warned that human beings frequently, "See no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption," and that efforts to protect the world entail profound changes in "lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies." Pope Benedict XVI proposed, "eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment." Pope Francis himself develops the ethical dimensions of this matter drawing particular attention and appreciation, "to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest," continuing to say, "The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we have still not solved the problem of poverty."]
Thinking about this question of what can we do in Nova Scotia about climate change -- and I'm thinking in particular about the question of a price on carbon -- I think that I might be like many people for whom this was a matter of internal struggle. Because one primary thing on my mind is the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, 90 per cent of Nova Scotians file income tax on an income of $26,700. We are an economy where price is inescapable, where necessity is determinative, and where our world is shaped by financial scarcity. So if this is the context, how can we disincentivize carbon-generating activities? What is required is some policy mechanism that does this and is simultaneously redistributive of income.
So I was knocked out of my chair in December at the presentation of the 2016 Alternative Provincial Budget by the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, by one of the most singularly striking policy ideas that I've heard in a long time. And that is, that the way to implement carbon pricing is to do it through the mechanism of the Affordable Living Tax Credit (ALTC).
In 2010 when the provincial portion of the HST was increased by the NDP government, the Affordable Living Tax Credit was created to offset the increased cost of this measure to people of medium-low and low incomes. The brilliance of it is that more is redistributed to these citizens than they are out of pocket through its application -- indeed a considerable amount more, on the order of $20 million net. So this is the model: you take something that you have to do, you impose it on everyone in the province, but you establish it with a rebate so that those of medium-low and low incomes end up better off than they were before.
CGM: What's interesting in the CCPA Alterative Provincial Budget (APB), in which I played a modest role as one of the team who put it together, is that it directs itself at three objectives. First, to impose a price, and a steadily increasing one, on carbon to disincentivize the burning of fossil fuels and incentivize the use of non-polluting energy sources. [Note: the APB proposes an initial carbon price of $10 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, increasing by $5/tonne/year to reach $30/tonne by the 2020/21 fiscal year.]
Second, to provide relief to those of modest means who would be adversely impacted by a consumption tax, by directing half of the revenues back to them through the ALTC. And third, to direct the other half of the revenues into investments in renewable energy so that the province primes the pump for moving towards an environmentally sustainable society and economy. Thus, win–win–win.
GCB: Yes, and all that reflects where we want to go relative to the financial realties of the majority of Nova Scotians.
CGM: Thank you very much for your time.
In considering where the Nova Scotia NDP might go in the future, and how it might get there, it's helpful to look back to see how it got to where it is now.
In the June 2006 election the Progressive Conservatives (39.6 per cent support; 23 seats) under Rodney MacDonald edged out the NDP (34.6 per cent support; 20 seats) under Darrell Dexter to take a very thin minority government. Immediately thereafter the support of the PCs fell (and continued falling) and that of the NDP rose so that by the time of the June, 2009 election the NDP won a decisive majority with 31 seats and 45.3 per cent of the popular vote.
A honeymoon followed and in September support for the NDP peaked at 60 per cent, and then began falling until March 2011 when the NDP and Liberals were in a statistical tie. The NDP briefly rallied to at the expense of the Liberals (45 versus 22 per cent) in December 2011. However, the next three years saw an inexorable rise in the popularity of the Liberals and a corresponding fall in that of the NDP. Over the first nine months of 2015 the trend reversed itself, but in December 2015 all the NDP gains were lost and Liberal losses reversed leaving the Liberals with a commanding lead of 64 per cent to the NDP and PCs who are tied at 17 per cent.
Despite the intransigent, bone-headed, neo-liberal policies of Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil on virtually every issue on the political spectrum, the party is thriving. McNeil has destroyed the province's once flourishing film industry [Note: for further information see Stake through the heart: Liberals kill the Nova Scotia film industry]; savagely attacked nurses, teachers, doctors, paramedics, social workers, civil servants, and highway workers, stripping away collective rights in an assault on labour the like of which the province has seldom seen; fired his Environment Minister Andrew Younger, and after throwing him out of caucus, endured a bitter internecine feud that resulted in the resignation of McNeil's chief of staff -- and yet none of this has exacted any lasting political price.
In the last two years the NDP fell from having a majority government to third place in the legislature, its caucus was decimated (from 31 down to the current 6 MLAs), their once-robust staff is almost non-existent, membership declined precipitously, and finances became precarious. The NDP are in a very deep hole looking up at the Liberals at the height of their popularity. Whatever the reasons for this if the NDP is to rise again as a credible political force in the province, it is clear that the road ahead is going to be a long one of patient rebuilding.
And all of this is good.
Because, as Burrill has said, "I think there is no question but that we need to attend to the rebuilding of our party's internal democratic life." In my view, in seeking to attain and then retain power, the NDP veered sharply away not only from a substantial body of social democratic policy, but also from healthy democratic practice. As Burrill continues, "I think there is a general agreement that in our party we haven't exhibited this kind of health in recent years."
If the NDP cares more about winning than considering why they are engaged in the effort, transformative politics devolves into sport. It's Team Orange versus Team Red, or Team Blue, or Team Green in a zero-sum contest to see who can out-maneuver whom on the political playing field. It's all tactics, logistics, finances, game plans, wedge issues, slogans, spin, PR campaigns … all the political tools of the back room and the war room. There's no doubt that this is politics, but is this the object of the transformative social democratic project? Can it devolve to this, and nothing more than this, and still survive?
Burrill is unquestionably a patient builder. He's been doing it all his life. Building community, raising awareness, fostering personal and spiritual growth, developing understanding, laying bare the social and economic foundations of society, exposing unfairness and finding ways to remediate it. Burrill's approach is thoughtful, patient, attentive, analytical, and underpinned by respect and consideration -- even for those with whom he has profound disagreements. It's not flashy, sensational, or hyperbolic -- it's calm, reflective, considered and radiates integrity.
Burrill's belief that, "The heart and lungs of a party are the people that gather in somebody's front room or their kitchen," requires a party prepared to organize itself in such a away as to actualize this sentiment. There are also bones, muscles, and other organs that participate in the body politic, and all of these are important and necessary in order to attain power and then direct political change. However, the breath of social and economic justice and environmental sustainability must animate this entity. If the NDP wants to find a leader who can direct such a movement, they would be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Gary Burrill.
This is Part II of a series on the progressive NDP politics in Nova Scotia and the candidates contenting for the party's leadership. Part I was Actor and MLA Lenore Zann vies for Nova Scotia NDP leadership.
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