Who should lead the Ontario New Democrats?

| March 4, 2009
Who should lead the Ontario New Democrats?

Editor's note: This is the final installment of a four-part rabble.ca series featuring interviews with each of the ONDP leadership candidates. The new leader will be decided in convention this weekend, March 6-8.

Michael Prue's campaign will soar or plummet on the back of the Separate School funding issue. He has made the issue a central component of the campaign - but in a move which can be seen either as nuanced or equivocating, he refused to formally state that he personally supports amalgamating the public and separate systems and only says that the party should debate it at convention.

Critics have denounced Prue as opportunistic and divisive adding that if the NDP adopted the school funding issue as part of its platform it would end up dominating the next election campaign and wipe all other issues off the table. Prue's view is that he is returning the NDP to its roots as a democratic party willing to discuss and take a stand on tough issues.

"I stand up and I'm not afraid to discuss tough ideas," he told rabble.ca. "One of the ones that people have been angry at me [about] but I still think needs to be discussed is the whole issue of funding two school boards because we have declining enrolment, we have limited amounts of funds, we have schools that don't have vice-principals or janitors or music teachers or gym teachers or art teachers. We are bussing kids from one end of town to the other ... and I just think that we have to start looking at whether or not we can afford this any longer."

He dismisses critics within the party as being "terrified of the membership and what the membership might say. I am not terrified. I think we have nothing to fear from our members."

Prue also rejects fears that the NDP might lose seats with large Catholic populations, saying, "I'm not going to shut down anybody's school, the school system's [still] going to be there."

"When they've done polling ... 70 per cent said they'd rather go to one [school board]. There might be a little bit of push but we as New Democrats need to know what's best for the children ... we need to discuss that and I'm not afraid of the discussion."

Prue's argues that the party needs to allow members to have a greater say in policy.

"We now only spend 20 per cent of our time at convention on policy which I think is a mistake ... I would support up to 50 percent of the convention being related to policy and I think policy needs to be binding. It doesn't need to be part of the platform but the policy needs to be binding ... it should be a guide to NDP members and the leadership and the caucus."

He also appeals to the party grassroots by promising to give each riding association $10,000 to spend during election campaigns and sees that as key to replicating Barack Obama's "50 state" electoral strategy. "I know what needs to be done is to decentralize the party ... to make the local riding associations strong and to give them sufficient money so that we can run a strong campaign in all 107 ridings."

To detractors who say his plan is unaffordable, Prue replies, "We spend $4 million for advertising and what I'm saying is we get better bang for the buck advertising in the ridings. If you take one million out of the four, still spend three million on television and radio, and put one million into the riding so there's signs, there's literature, there's a campaign office - so when the other signs go up and an NDP sign goes up to too, local people will say ‘hey, the NDP's in the race this time,' they won't dismiss that we're gone before we start ... We will go from 40 or 50 ridings getting 15 per cent and getting the rebate, to 75 or 80 ridings in one election getting the rebate that will position them with money for the next time."

A former mayor of East York, Prue draws on his municipal experience as a guide for the party, arguing that he can replicate his success as a mayor in drawing support from across the political spectrum by putting forward solutions such as abolishing property tax and replacing it with other forms of revenue generation. He also sees cities as the engine for the province. "Part of my platform is to urbanize the NDP, to make it into a party where we look upon the cities to power the regions and I think that's the wave of the future."

Prue has received significant support from public school teachers and municipal politicians and activists as a result of his highlighting of urban and education issues. Whether this will offset the opposition some in the NDP have to opening the school funding question and allow him to win the leadership depends, largely, on Prue's success in drawing new people into the party who are attracted by his championing of their concerns.

Here is where Prue stands on other issues.

On why he wants to be leader

"The NDP needs to change. I think I'm the agent of that change. People like what we say, people like our positions on all of the key issues but they don't vote for us and when you ask them why the answer always comes down to 1) they don't think we can win and 2) they don't think we're any good with money."

On his economic policies

"I'm probably the NDP's poster child [for finances]. I was a mayor, I ran a government during the last recession here in Toronto and [when] I took over ... we didn't have enough funds. We had one of the worst road systems, sidewalks and sewer systems in Ontario ... we sat down at the table and had some discussion on how we could fill up factory spaces, how we could get money, and we seized upon the idea of putting fibre optics into our main industrial area because we had 40 vacant factories. As a result of making that one key decision, we were able to ... fill up every single one of those factories ... [as a result] the taxes started to flow and I took those taxes and never once had to raise taxes in East York for five years [and] paid down our entire debt, rebuilt all of the infrastructure, built two community centres and a day care centre which still exists today."

"I'm asking people to look at my record; you know what I'm going to do. I will work with business, I will work with commerce, I will work with academics, I will work with people in order to find a way to build and to spend and I will not, unless absolutely necessary such as a circumstance like this [economic crisis], run a deficit. I've never voted for one, never been part of one. You need to be able to figure out what you can do and then aggressively go ahead to solve it. When I'm talking about cities, I'm talking about them having the same authority. You get rid of the OMB, you give them proper funding, you allow them to develop what they want ... Every municipality has something different they want to do. Every one of them should have the economic clout and the wherewithal to accomplish that goal. We will boom, I am positive."

On the auto bailout

"If we were to give the [Big Three automakers] three or four billion dollars and we probably have to because one in six jobs depends on it, then I would want shares, I would want some control, I would want a seat on the board of directors, I would want the unions involved so that with a seat on the board of directors and a say at the stakeholders meetings you can have a debate, an influence on product line to make sure you're building greener vehicles, you can have a say on the number of workers that are being kept versus those that are let go, you can have a say on the pensions and making sure the pension plan stays solid."

On his main strength is as a candidate

"[It] will come if I'm leader because I honestly believe that I can obtain so many more votes than my colleagues ... they don't reach out to the middle class, they don't reach out to the people who are potential voters."

On the role of the party leader to reach out to labour

"The party leader needs to reach out and what I've tried to do during this campaign is look beyond the leadership and look to the future. I've held two news conferences, one in Windsor and one in Oshawa, and talked directly to unions that were once affiliated and are no longer and specifically to the CAW. I've reached out and said my door is always open, I've reached out and said we need to get back together again."

"We need to reach out to young people in a way that we haven't done in a long time ... When ONDY asked a few weeks ago for $5,000 to start up 20 campus clubs which is $250 a piece they were rebuffed ... and I thought ‘what a mistake'... We can't build the party based on just old members. We need to reach out to youths; we need to reach out to ethnic minorities and people who have not traditionally voted for us."

On how the NDP can win support among immigrant groups

"We need to get into the leadership, make the leadership part of the NDP, listen to what they have to offer, bring them to convention, have them put their issues on the table to have us debate and adopt those so we can be seen as relevant. We also have to, and I'm being pretty blunt here, have to be seen as a party that can win because not many new groups are going to come to a party they don't think is going to win..."

On election messaging and the "Get Orange" slogan

"The messaging has to be in your face about what people want. I go into a room full of Tories ... and talk about property taxes and get a standing ovation ... And they boo the liberals and they boo the Conservatives because I can speak to what their issue is. We can talk about cities and towns and urban infrastructure. Eight-five per cent of the people in Ontario live in towns and cities above 10,000 - we need to start speaking that language about how we're going to improve their communities ... We can phrase that in any way you want... but it's got to be better than ‘get orange'."

On the decline in party fortunes after the Rae years

"A lot of people blame Bob Rae, and he should be blamed too, but it was also the cabinet and also the times. It was a party that was new to governing finding itself all of a sudden in the midst of a horrible downturn in the economy trying to figure out what to do ... and I think some of the things they did were right and the economy was starting to turn around by 1994/95 but set in the minds of people was that we weren't managing the economy properly and those who were New Democrats and who would have gone out and fought and said ‘yeah, but look what we've done' were disillusioned. The unions were disillusioned because of the imposition of ‘Rae Days,' people were disillusioned who had voted for us for the first time because of the whole issue of automobile insurance [which was] key to our winning and then we just walked away from it. I don't ever want the NDP to go like that again. We need to stand firmly on our beliefs. We need to institute them, we need to stand by them and people will respect that."

On the achievements of a Prue led NDP government

"The most important achievement would be to have full or nearly full employment, an economy that was buzzing so the NDP could then turn around and do all the things that we dream of, the eradication of poverty, the elimination of waste and an environment that is sound and secure, the education system that is the envy of the world. All of that requires that you manage an economy. That's why I think I'm unique amongst the NDP candidates - it's all about the economy."

On the role of the party to campaign on issues between elections

"Having alternatives I think is a good thing, that's where the NDP in my view has failed - we're very good at being negative but we should always be pointing out an alternative - what we would do if we were in government and that's the kind of campaigns we should run between elections - this is what we would do if we were on that side of the House. "

On Tabuns' New Energy Economy

"Tabuns' idea is alright but it's only one small part of what needs to be done. We all need to be environmentalists ... but the whole push to environmental programs has not been economically successful ... Tabuns talks about people who used to make windshields for cars now making solar panels. Well yes, they did make solar panels in California ... Unfortunately, the California company just laid off all their workers because they are subject to the same downturn. If you look in terms of the cars that were being sold even the cars that are fuel efficient, that were being sold last year, they're laying off their workers and they're not producing them either. There's a downturn in all of the economy so we can't put all our eggs in one basket. That's why I want to free up 480 municipalities across this province and let each one of them grab a piece of the niche market so that some of them can choose the environment, some of them can choose arts and culture, some of them can choose mass transit, some can choose manufacturing, commerce, it doesn't matter, media ... I think that's the answer - to diversify."

On why people should vote for him

"[I] can best capture that middle ground that the NDP needs to win. I can capture it by speaking the language of people who traditionally have not voted for us but who are sympathetic to our goals and our ideals. I can do that by a combination of my experience and my beliefs and my ability to manage the economy but I can also do that and will also do that by restructuring the party in order to make sure we are not running a campaign based on winning only 20 seats. We have to aim for government; the only way to do that is to run in every single riding. The other parties run candidates seriously in every single riding and until we do that, we will not be seen as electable."

 

Andrew Lehrer is a Toronto based writer and researcher.

 

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