New Democratic economics

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Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner to the NDP, had no doubts about its economics. Born in Calgary in 1932, it laid out its thought for all to see a year later in the Regina Manifesto.


Unlike the Bennett Conservative government, the CCF wanted to do something about the economic collapse known as the great depression: replace capitalism with a planned economy. The ambitious CCF agenda featured public ownership, income security for all and price supports for agriculture.


The initial CCF supporters were farmers, academics, trade unionists and the "ginger group" MPs. In 1935, its first general election, the CCF got less than 10 per cent of the popular vote but elected seven MPs. The party leader was J.S. Woodsworth, the consummate Christian socialist.


The party never enjoyed electoral success, but it had an important triumph: CCF economics were adopted in Canada during the Second World War. A planned economy, full employment, access for women to the labour market and massive public borrowing by the Bank of Canada were adopted to "win the war." Seeing socialism feed the war machine did not please all party members. The CCF included pacifists who opposed all militarism, notably Woodsworth, who resigned as leader, just before his party voted its support for the war in the House of Commons.


The planned economy was quickly dismantled after the war. While Regina Manifesto style income support measures were maintained (unemployment insurance and the family allowance, plus the Old Age Pension) the Canadian economy returned to its capitalist ways.


In the postwar Cold War period, the CCF were a main target of the campaign against communism, ironically, since the CCF spent much of its energy fighting with Canadian communists, inside the party, and out.


In 1956, the CCF replaced the Regina Manifesto with the more moderate Winnipeg Declaration. It did not help party fortunes. In 1958, the Western base abandoned the party for Diefenbaker who swept the country. With the Canadian Labour Congress, the CCF decided to become the NDP in 1961.


Unlike its predecessor, the NDP planned to humanize capitalism not eradicate it. NDP economics were a blend of Swedish social democracy, Keynes and Western populism. Socialism was represented by support for publicly owned crown corporations.


Today, nearly 50 years after its founding, New Democratic economics are somewhat like Russia as seen by Churchill, a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Ever since the Broadbent era (1975-89), the party has campaigned in defence of the welfare state, highlighting the fight to preserve public healthcare. With internal polling data and focus group information saying the NDP had little credibility on the economy, the subject has been off limits at election time, which is when people pay attention to what the party says.


On fiscal policy, the party has taken over the provincial NDP policy position: balanced budgets. While party insiders presumably know that the federal government has a central bank, and a currency, while the provinces have neither, the party has been unwilling to take on the challenge of presenting a progressive alternative to monetary policy. This is a serious shortcoming. Though it is not well recognized, since the world moved to generalized floating exchange rates in the early 1970s, the Bank of Canada, not the Finance Department, has been leading on economic policy.


You would think a party co-founded with labour would have a coherent industrial strategy, worked out on a sector-by-sector basis, using the knowledge base of industrial trade unions, but it does not. An agricultural strategy should be an obvious strength for a party with farmer-labour roots, but New Democrats are no longer the voice of farmers.


Where the party does speak out with confidence is on tax policy, assailing corporate tax cuts. With Jack Layton as leader the party has talked about the importance of tying economic policy to conserving energy, though retrofitting infrastructure. Layton also understands municipal finance, and why many cities cannot access the Conservative stimulus package money which requires municipalities match the federal funds.


New Democrats have shelves piled high with convention resolutions on economic policy, but no plan or program for replacing speculative financial capitalism with an economy that serves people. Since merely mentioning such subjects, and using such language, brings whoops of laughter to the mainstream media, and joy to New Democrat opponents, this is understandable, but not good enough.


Canada needs to hear more about New Democratic economics. Releasing discussion papers on the main issues facing the country would be a modest contribution to broadening economic dialogue inside the party and out. In the midst of a colossal economic collapse, why avoid debate with the manufactured consent passed off as mainstream thought on economics?


New Democratic economics has several advantages over what we are currently being offered. For a start, it can speak to justice for all, and the main principles can be written in common language.


Working people create wealth and sustainable prosperity, and need to be able to control their own lives. Education, health, income security, transportation, recreation, cultural activities, and yes, housing, all need to be available to everyone.


Too few people have too much, the rest not enough. A society based on inequality is not healthy, it makes people sick. Freeing up profit maximization to act as the sole significant economic incentive has led to the "whatever you can get away with" ethic. Treating others as you would expect to be treated yourself works better. Public investment should be favoured since it can be carried out with more certainty of producing a positive return as improved quality of life for more people than private investment.


The current economic calamity is worldwide. New Democrats can be inspired by others. Canadians need to hear about the best economic ideas available anywhere in the world.


Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.

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