Brian Topp answers your questions on his candidacy for NDP leader

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Brian Topp

Yesterday, rabble.ca's online discussion forum, babble, hosted longtime party strategist and NDP leadership candidate Brian Topp for an interactive interview in which Brian answered your questions on his bid for the keys to Stornoway. Here is an abridged and edited version of that interview. Read the complete interview on babble here and join the ongoing discussion. Be sure also to read babble's interview with Nathan Cullen, available here.

And stay tuned as more NDP leadership candidates join us. Next up is Paul Dewar, who will be joining us next week on Monday, February 27 at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST. Peggy Nash and Niki Ashton will also be dropping by, so be sure to check babble and rabble.ca regularly.

babblers: MPs and federal parties have suggested that the current representation formula for the House of Commons should be changed to ensure that Quebec receives representation by population. Will this unify Canada by making the nation more equal or will this further marginalize Canadians living in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta who continue to be under-represented in the House of Commons and the Senate?

Brian Topp: The issue you are raising here is whether or not Quebecers should retain a 25 per cent share of the House of Commons, or should we be strictly "represented by population" (which would take the province to about 23 per cent). The last time I tuned in to this discussion, Parliament was discussing a proposal to set the number at about 24 per cent -- what you might call a typically Canadian compromise that all Canadians could perhaps grumpily live with, given we are talking about very small variances in seats.

I think the truly pressing Parliamentary issues lie elsewhere -- in the existence of an unelected and unrepresentative but powerful Senate; in the perversities of our electoral system; and in the attack on responsible government we witnessed in 2008.

I support Senate abolition. The conditions for this might be found in a showdown between a new NDP government and the Senate should it try to frustrate the will of the House (those were the conditions that led to the abolition of all of Canada's unelected second chambers in provincial legislatures long ago).

I favour a mixed proportional House, blending the current House with a tier of MPs elected by proportional representation somewhat on the German model. A clear commitment on this issue -- that if an NDP government is elected in 2015, the people of Canada will be voting on a mixed proportional system in 2019 -- might be a compelling way to "unite the left" by persuading progressive-minded Greens and Liberals as well as New Democrats to vote NDP next election.

And I favour enacting a Parliament Act in the first sitting of Parliament after we have rid Canada of the Tory government, for the purpose of forbidding a prime minister from ever advising the Governor General to prorogue the House when a confidence vote is before it.

b: Speaking of electoral reform, the convention in Vancouver, June 17-19, 2011, overwhelmingly supported a resolution "That the federal New Democratic Party make electoral reform and proportional representation a priority issue within the coming sessions of parliament and in communities across Canada." How do you propose to do this?

BT: Like all major issues, this one is going to need to be won in advance of the election. So we need to do our work in and outside of the House on it -- to argue for it, to set out our alternative clearly, and to build a coalition... Much as this kind of reform was achieved in advance of elections and votes in other jurisdictions (like New Zealand).

b: We know you are committed to the NDP's traditional association with trade unions. Are there any initiatives that you would undertake as leader to further integrate unions or attract more to affiliate?

BT: I am the head of a union, and am running for leader having been endorsed (so far) by the United Steelworkers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) -- two of our party's most committed trade union affiliates. Our party's partnership with the trade union movement is literally a foundational one -- as is true of every other social democratic/democratic socialist party in the world contending seriously for office in the democratic world.

I support working closely with the house of labour (and the rest of our movement) to take the initiative back from the Harper conservatives and to start setting the political agenda in Canada -- on issues like repairing the damage Liberals and Tories have done to public finance, climate change, and economic and social equality. I support working equally closely together on our policy offer as we approach the next election.

And I would like us to develop an outreach program tailored to each labour affiliate with the goal of substantially building party membership, and promoting NDP voting by rank-and-file union members. In the 2000 election we earned about 25 per cent of the vote among union households. In recent elections we have more than doubled that vote -- providing us with the margin of victory in many ridings. That's work we need to continue to pursue diligently.

We have a special obligation to earn the partnership and support of the labour movement in Quebec, now that we are the principal representatives of that province in the House of Commons.

b: Given Stephen Harper and Lisa Raitt's anti-union crusade, would your government limit no-strike measures to those specified in the Code -- i.e., "immediate and serious danger to the health or safety of the public"?

BT: Yes. Some lessons learned there.

b: Roy Romanow's Saskatchewan government was committed to fighting the Kyoto accords, yet you have held that government up as an example of what an NDP government can achieve. Are you an environmentalist? As Prime Minister will you be committed to substantial, meaningful laws and programs to address Canada's shameful environmental record?

BT: I am indeed an environmentalist, and I am committed to substantial, meaningful laws and programs to address our global responsibilities to address climate change and many other environmental issues. I spelled out my commitments in this paper.

I was, incidentally, one of the drafters of our last three federal election platforms. Jack Layton cared passionately about these issues as well, and as I hope you saw in those documents, we put them at the heart of our recent federal campaigns. In my own paper, I argue that good environmental policy is the best economic policy. When we look at our results over the past three campaigns, we can also say that good environmental policy is an excellent electoral strategy.

b: Regarding your recently released proposal of environmental policies for the NDP and in light of past NDP party policy, would all revenue from cap and trade be directed solely to programs for the environment (like retrofits, public transit, etc.)?

BT: In my view, all revenues derived from our plan to reduce carbon emissions should remain within the environmental plan. These funds will be needed to do the job we need to do: transitioning to a much lower-carbon, much more energy efficient and -- not incidentally -- a much more productive, competitive and prosperous economy. Also, keeping them focused there will ensure public support for green measures. And I don't think we want the government to become a carbon addict -- dependent on revenues derived from carbon emissions which we want to radically decrease.

This last point is why I favoured rejecting the Liberal Party's "carbon shift" plan in 2008. It is also a point of debate between Tom Mulcair and I. Mr. Mulcair said during the Halifax debate and then again in a recent interview with the Toronto Star, as I understood him, that he did favour diverting revenues from our green plan into general government revenues as an alternative to undoing the damage Liberals and Conservatives have done to public revenues. I asked him about this during the debate in Quebec City and didn't make much progress in getting him to explain his reasoning -- I disagree with his approach.

b: Canada's foreign policy is now almost unrecognizable, particularly in the Middle East. The Harper government has characterized the Iranian regime as the biggest threat there is to world peace and seems poised to support an Israeli-American attack on its nuclear facilities. If you were leader, what would your position be?

BT: I don't support a military adventure in Iran over this issue. As a middle power that should be dedicated to resolving issues rather than making them worse, we should decline to participate in a new Gulf war, and we should call on other parties to do so as well. We should oppose nuclear proliferation in Iran and among all of its neighbours, mindful that Canada is not an imperial power and does not dispatch expeditionary forces to impose our will on those who disagree with us.

b: Nathan Cullen has proposed that the NDP, Liberals and Greens co-operate in the next election to ensure the defeat of Harper government -- clearly the most right-wing and anti-democratic government in Canada's history. That co-operation would also lead to a coalition which would support electoral reform -- proportional representation. You have spoken against such co-operation -- yet many Canadians support it. The leadnow.ca group polled its 10,000 members and 95 per cent supported the idea. Why do you oppose it?

BT: I like and respect Nathan Cullen but I don't agree with his proposal on "co-operation," for three reasons:

First, I believe New Democrats have the right to vote for a New Democrat.

Second, as a New Democrat who joined our party in Montreal almost 30 years ago, I reject defeatism. I don't agree that we can't win, something long and insistently said of our prospects in Quebec, until we spectacularly proved that this was not true. Now the suggestion seems to be we can't win in English Canada -- on much less evidence.

Third, I think that those who are eager to embrace a pre-election electoral partnership with the Liberal party would do well to listen to what the proposed partner is saying about this idea. Delegates at the recent Liberal convention gave Dalton McGuinty a lengthy standing ovation when he rejected these ideas. No responsible Liberal leader or officer supports them. And many Liberal strategists spelled out why during a discussion about similar ideas a year and a half ago. They argue that if there is no Liberal candidate, something like 50 per cent of the Liberal vote votes Conservative. So, unless the idea here is for New Democrats to stand down in all cases -- a convenient proposal from the Liberals, given our current relative standings -- then this proposal will elect more Conservatives, not fewer of them.

I support repeating our commitment to work with others to get things done in a future minority parliament, either through case-by-case co-operation, a budget accord, a governing accord, or a coalition. And I think we should keep our minds open to good ideas. But this isn't one of those in my view.

b: What assurance can you offer that you will not end up like Mr. Ignatieff? You're probably mostly unknown outside of the NDP.

BT: If you're talking about name recognition, none of the current candidates are currently known to the people of Canada. I've received more media coverage over the past six months than any of my opponents and so may be doing a little better than some. But most voters don't follow the details of politics on Parliament Hill and most voters therefore aren't very familiar with any political figures other than the party leaders. Whoever is elected will therefore face the same need to introduce themselves to voters. But the good news is that, up against an incompetent conservative government, it can be done. Witness the current success of B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix, who was elected to his position in similar circumstances and is doing very well indeed.

b: If you become leader, and run in a by-election for a seat in Parliament, what will you do if you lose that by-election?

BT: I won't lose. As a piece of historical trivia, the NDP leader who had the most difficulty getting into the House was Tommy Douglas, but the wait was worth it.

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