What does the NDP have to offer Canadians?

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Photo: steve/flickr

In 1991, Michael Oliver, the first New Democratic Party president, wrote an essay with McGill philosopher Charles Taylor that began: "How do you mix two nations and democratic socialism in a federal state?"

For Oliver and Taylor, the need to supplant the Liberal and Conservative approaches to Canadian politics was what gave rise to the party. Unhappily, ensuring the autonomy of Quebec and remaking the economy were questions left unanswered 30 years after its creation, along with questions about the place of Indigenous peoples and the significance of multiculturalism.

As the curtain goes up for the 2017 NDP leadership contest, the party needs to bring a distinct approach to what matters to Canadians. It would do well to draw on the traditions of social democracy and democratic socialism mentioned in the preamble to the party constitution, and take inspiration from the ideas of Oliver and Taylor.

Today many Canadians are hurting. Years of full-bore capitalism since the adoption of the free trade agreement with the U.S. have produced growing inequalities.

A generation of debt-burdened young Canadians are mired in precarious work, unable to think of buying a house, founding a family, or enjoying a quality of life that was supposed to be accessible to all.

Continental integration with the United States was never a good idea.

Why would the Canadian Parliament limit its own power and place the destiny of the country it was elected to serve into the hands of a foreign government?

With an unspeakable political disaster occurring south of the border, the idea of relying on the U.S. government to provide a stable environment for Canadian prosperity looks even worse than in the mid-1980s when Brian Mulroney divided Canadians over the issue.

Yet, preserving a free trade environment with the United States remains Canada's economic strategy.

Surely NDP leadership candidates can come up with something better, more confidence-building, more worthy of attention and government action than continental monopoly capitalism.

Michael Oliver was the president of Carleton University when in 1980 he founded and became the first president of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (disclosure: I became the third, in 1987).

The NDP needs to take seriously the perspectives developed by the CCPA on trade, investment, federal fiscal policy and taxation.

The incredible NDP "balance-the-budget" gaffe of the 2015 election (the moment I knew we would win, said Trudeau adviser G.M. Butts) would never have occurred if the campaign team had briefed themselves on federal budget basics.

Provincial governments or cities do not have currency-issuing central banks and (exclusive of needed public investment) pay attention to maintaining balanced operating budgets.

Following a budget deficit, when the federal government borrows and adds to the national debt, it adds to the stock of marketable securities, creating wealth for pension funds and other investors. The central bank holds these securities at no cost to the government.

Federal government debt is an asset for those who hold it. Reach into your purse or billfold and pull out a $5 bill. What you have in your hand is government debt. When federal debt is reduced, money and wealth disappear.

Private debt creators, a.k.a. banks, do not want government debt displacing their money-making machines so they oppose deficit spending. Those machines are now stripping students of their capacity to determine their future.

The NDP leadership candidates need to be on the side of the students not of the bankers.

The kind of income redistribution needed to reduce fundamental inequalities in Canada requires progressive income taxation. Canada had a system with 10 tax thresholds until the Mulroney Conservatives reduced it to three, under the erroneous guise of tax "simplification."

Canada's employment insurance scheme needs to become a comprehensive minimum income scheme, financed by progressive corporate and personal taxes. As it now exists, EI is mainly a regressive tax. Precarious workers draw no benefits yet must pay into the scheme anyway.

Three times a federal NDP candidate, Charles Taylor, a highly decorated philosopher has written eloquently on the issues that animate Quebec politics.

In the 2015 election, despite having a Quebec-based leader, the party lost its Quebec compass. It went from 59 seats to 16, when the Conservatives made wearing the niqab in citizenship ceremonies an issue. As a result, the Liberals (39 seats) the Bloc (10 seats) and the Conservatives (12 seats) rebounded.

In the 2017 leadership contest, the winner must be someone at ease with the changing terrain of Quebec politics. Being bilingual is necessary -- but not sufficient. The NDP leader needs to be bicultural as well.

Justin Trudeau has been the main focus by the NDP in Parliament. The partisan preoccupations with Trudeau taking a private helicopter ride or spending excessively on PMO expenses has not diminished his appeal.

Despite questionable leadership, the prime minister is still running 10 points ahead of his party in public opinion polls.

Signs do point to a slide in Liberal fortunes, even with Trudeau as leader. A minority government is a likely outcome in 2019.

Should the next NDP leader capture the public imagination, there is no reason why, at a minimum, the party could not hold the balance of power and bring needed changes to Canadians. The upcoming leadership race matters.

Duncan Cameron is former president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: steve/flickr

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