After a strong performance in the Ontario leaders' debate last week, provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath has kept up momentum by traveling around the province, letting voters know that her party represents change for Ontarians. She told rabble.ca in an interview on Sunday about what shape some of those changes will take.
Meg Borthwick: Ontario NDP support went up in the polls immediately following the debate. It must be very gratifying to know that you stand on your own, that this has not a whole lot to do with increasing support at the federal level.
Andrea Horwath: I think it all makes a difference, the excitement, the momentum that came out of the federal election was putting wind under our wings from very early on. We took that and we ran with it.
MB: You're the first woman to lead the Ontario NDP. As an activist, you've worked with a lot of different people. What's it like working at this level in what is still largely male territory?
AH: It's been an opportunity that I've taken advantage of, it's made me a stronger individual. I've been able to grow quite a bit, my confidence levels are high and I think that's because there's lots of challenges.
MB: About 15 years ago you were an organizer of Days of Action in Hamilton, protesting Harris budget cuts of the mid-90s. You're proposing a rollback of corporate tax cuts under an NDP government -- any rollback of social service cuts dating back to those Harris years?
AH: We have a plan that focused on affordability of everyday life, getting more jobs for Ontarians, making sure that our healthcare system is fixed. In terms of the Harris agenda, let's face it, they offloaded a lot of services to the municipalities, and we're going to bring those back, we're going to have the province pay its own bills.
We're going to do more than that. We're actually going to fund 50 per cent of municipal transit costs and ask municipalities in exchange to improve their transit systems and freeze transit fares. We're going to invest $125 million over each of the next two years to stabilize our childcare system and freeze childcare fees for parents. We're going to increase the minimum wage to $11 and tie it into inflation, we're going to tie social assistance rates to inflation, we're going to get rid of the claw back. So, in a nutshell, we're working on it. We're going to do everything we can to make life more affordable and make life better for Ontarians.
MB: Is there anything earmarked for northern Ontario, any anti-poverty initiatives, especially in First Nations communities?
AH: Very specifically for First Nations, we are committed to putting in place a permanent -- not just for one year or two -- a Minister of Aboriginal Affairs. We think that that's an important area of concern that has not been addressed.
We see far too many First Nations communities living in dire poverty, children living in poverty, lack of decent housing, lack of access to higher education. It's unacceptable. So we're going to make some real commitments and get somebody who will be responsible for moving the yardstick on First Nations and Metis issues. A big part of it is we see a lot of opportunities in the north. The McGuinty Liberals decided that they were going to ignore First Nations voices and plough ahead with legislation that First Nations didn't support, and I think that's the wrong thing to do.
First Nations need to be at the table on issues like mining and development that affect their traditional territories. We think it's horrendous that the McGuinty Liberals shut out their voices and went ahead with issues that they didn't agree with. In fact all of northern Ontario, First Nations, in a leadership position and supported by chambers of commerce and business, municipal leaders and municipalities, all were not in support of what the government wanted to do in the far north. We didn't vote in favour of that legislation. The McGuinty Liberals talked the talk about having a respectful relationship with First Nations but, in fact, did the opposite. We are committed not only to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister but also making sure that First Nations communities are getting the benefit of opportunities in northern Ontario as well.
MB: You mentioned mining, and I wanted to bring up the mega quarry that's been proposed for Dufferin County. It'll put a hole the size of 2,000 football fields in and even with a hard-fought for Environmental Assessment going forward (conveniently just before the Liberals go into an election), activists have little confidence that the EA is anything more than window dressing. How will the NDP introduce more corporate responsibility for environmental stewardship?
AH: This is a prime example of why the McGuinty Liberals have been accused of talking a good game on the environment but not really coming through. How can you have Green Belt legislation and not include quarries? How can you have a Clean Water Act and not include the kind of water used in the quarry process. It's extremely disappointing that the McGuinty Liberals haven't been at all committed to making sure our environment is protected and that our green spaces and our land are respected the way it should be.
We'll be much more determined and in fact we voted against the Clean Water Act because we were concerned that it wasn't good enough. We voted against their pesticide legislation because some municipalities already had more progressive and stricture measures in place. They lowered the bar and that's the wrong way to go.
MB: Some people in smaller communities have been living under boil water orders for years and they want to know when their water will be safe to drink.
AH: Last year we had the McGuinty Liberals bragging about how we were going to be the clean water technology experts and exporters to the world. How about first pay attention that we do have scores of municipalities under boil water alerts, and First Nations communities that have been under boil water alerts, some for years on end. It shows the wrong priorities.
MB: The McGuinty Liberals seem to have bragging rights on healthcare increases in funding and services, yet these improvements don't seem to be reflected in many people's experiences with the Ontario healthcare system. What's missing -- money, staff, administration, or all of the above?
AH: It is in some ways all of the above, but again it's about wrong priorities. I agree with you 100 per cent. McGuinty has rhymed off all those statistics about new doctors and numbers of patients who have access to physicians, nurses hired, etc., but what he doesn't say is that most of the nurses he's talking about were hired to temporary positions, there are still nurses being laid off, there are emergency wards being closed, people are waiting for up to two years for a chronic care placement.
We have CEOs of hospitals who are earning increases, increases in salary alone that are more than some people make in an entire year. We want to cap CEO salaries and make sure the savings go to front line services. We're going to provide a million additional homecare hours, a new service to help seniors be safer in their homes and to provide them the security that will allow them to remain in their homes longer. That's what the priority should be. It shouldn't be the well-connected consultants and insiders who the Liberals have been feathering their nests for a long time now. It shouldn't be the kind of waste that's connected to the E-Health scandal. What it should be is keeping emergency wards open, reducing emergency wait times by half. That's the kind of focus we need to have in healthcare.
In homecare alone, 40 per cent of the costs are for administration, and that's because the McGuinty Liberals following along with what the Conservatives did, maintain a system in homecare that switched from being delivered largely by not-for-profit and public agencies to a privatized system, and that was the wrong way to go. So the quality of service is reduced, the transparency isn't there, the accountability isn't there, but the costs continue to climb.
MB: Tuition fees are skyrocketing, funding for ESL and adult literacy is failing to meet the needs of new Canadians and people looking to improve their lives and employability. Ontario needs an increasingly well-educated workforce to keep abreast of changing technology and industry. Can we expect some increase in funding there?
AH: We're starting with a freeze in tuition. Mr. McGuinty's plan is to rebate full-time students and still allows fees to increase, and we think that's the wrong way to go. We have the highest undergraduate tuition fees in Canada and the second highest graduate fees in Canada. That's not affordable education at the post-secondary level. We also need to make sure we provide the kind of language supports to new Canadians so that they can make their way.
It reminds me of the problem of foreign trained professionals not able to practice their profession. I bumped into in a physician in Toronto who isn't practicing because he trained in his home country. There are some 7,000 people in his position, and that's just physicians. That's not engineers, teachers, professors, not chemists or pharmacists. Just physicians. It's a lost opportunity for the province, and for them and their families.
MB: I have to ask it. The orange high heels, some people love it, some people loathe it, some people find it refreshing, others have issues with the anti-feminism of it. What's the image you are trying to get out?
AH: First and foremost, at least they're all talking about it! I thought it was a cheeky, humourous to take on the status quo, and to show that the status quo hasn't been working. It visually illustrated just how much change from the other two parties (the NDP) represents.
MB: Do you think the NDP has finally recovered from its fall from grace during the Rae years?
AH: It's interesting, because I hardly hear him talked about any more. It's clear, he's a Liberal and probably always has been.
People now see him as the leader of the federal Liberals. I'm going to follow in the footsteps of other NDP premiers who have done us proud, and people like Tommy Douglas and Roy Romanow. We've got a lot of leaders that we can be very proud of, and it certainly doesn't have to be the current leader of the federal Liberal party.
Meg Borthwick is one of the moderators of babble, rabble.ca's online forum.