Jack Layton speaks at an anti-prorogation rally in Ottawa on Jan. 23, 2010. Photo: Xiaozhuli/flickr

Q – I’m someone who is a bit obsessive about values polling, I look at all of them that I can find, and what strikes me is that if the seats in the House of Commons were assigned to parties based on how their policies lined up with Canadian-stated values, the NDP would have a majority.

Why do we have a Conservative government when Canadian values actually line up so well with the NDP’s values and policies?

Well, the first reason is that we have an electoral system that permits massive distortions of the public views when it comes to the results, the seats, and therefore the governance. We’ve had that for some considerable time, it’s just particularly evident right now when you have a government that in two successive elections couldn’t get less than 62 per cent of the public to vote against them. Yet they end up with 100 per cent of the power… 100 per cent of the executive power, and maybe something than just a little less than 100 per cent of the legislative power. At the same time, they are transforming the judiciary with their appointments so they’re rapidly increasing their power in the judicial arm of government as well. So that is why you need proportional representation and why we continue to fight for it and push for it.

I think the reaction to the prorogation showed that there is an appetite for considering these issues and I think that is great. I love the grassroots nature of it. It gave it more legitimacy I think. So that is number one.

Number two, of course, you have the traditional governing parties that have alternated in and out, have had access to the support of the dominant forces in society. In particular, the largest, most powerful corporate entities, the banks and the oil companies, who seem to be the one constant when it comes to those who benefit by government policies. As the government alternates back and forth between red and blue they are tied to this notion that tax cuts and a shrinking capacity to do things together through our collective enterprises and public services is fundamental.

Finally, you’ve got, in our case, you’ve got a party that has been rebuilding since the populist impulse was split up in the early 90s with the creation of the Bloc Quebecois, on the one hand, and the Reform Party, on the other hand. So suddenly you had three parties with a populist edge, so putting our party back into play and strengthening it and having it develop and mature in some important ways has been a project that I think I was given by the membership to do, and we’ve had three elections in seven years to work at that and we’re making some progress.

Q – This is one of the things I’ve written about, and I guess it is a criticism of the NDP, but I see as preoccupation with political tactics which comes at the expense of longer term strategy and political vision. How do you respond to that criticism?

I don’t think it’s correct. I don’t accept the argument. In fact, what we’ve been working hard to do is to weave together the progressive elements and components of our country into a strong political force and that requires some pretty long-term thinking and I think that we have been engaged very much in implementing that.

Just to give one example that’s extremely important — because it’s been the blockage to our growth for the first 45 years of our party’s history — which was figuring out how to translate our founding principle. Which was that the people of Quebec constituted a nation within Canada. That was a part of our founding positions in 1961, weaving into real policy.

At our convention in Quebec City in 2006, we adopted, by 90 per cent of the vote, a very comprehensive policy called the Sherbrooke Declaration, which really was quite a major transformation of the way in which our party operationalized federalism. Reflecting principles that we’d accepted but that we’d never turned into comprehensive policy framework.

Having done that, this then opened the door for us to get almost half of a million votes in Quebec in the last election. Again, because we don’t have proportional representation that didn’t translate into the seats we should have had. But we did, on the other hand, get the first-ever Member of Parliament elected in a general election and we received more votes in Quebec in the 2008 election than we did in western Canada combined

Secondly, we took an extremely strong and unpopular position — at least at first blush it seemed unpopular, on the war. That wasn’t minor tactics — that was major strategy and reflected who we are as a party and where I believe the majority of Canadians are.

Unfortunately, sometimes there is a lag [laughs] between when you take these strong and major positions, that one was also taken at the Quebec City Convention in 2006, and when the public comes around to seeing that, ‘Hey, you know, that makes sense, we identify with that position.’ Sort of like Tommy [Douglas] when he took his position on the War Measures Act, which was not a tactical move at all, it was a serious strategic decision that immediately resulted in a plummeting in support. But it turned around to generate a growth of respect and ultimately support over the longer term.

I think our position on climate change was another very strong strategic move, where we worked to get through the House of Commons and successfully did, the first ever bill of any democratically elected government in the world, establishing the 80 per cent target by 2050, with intermediate targets according to the UN science, prior to Copenhagen. Unfortunately, because we have the senate, it never got around to putting the bill through and Harper called an election in 2008 and prevented that from being signed by the governor-general.

We then turned right around after the election and reintroduced it. [The NDP’s Bill C311 was subsequently passed in the House of Commons.] But these are major strategic moves that have been done in close consultation with civil society, that climate change bill was worked on very closely with the Pembina and the Suzuki Foundations. Just like our position on the war, which was built on our relationships with civil society working around peace and disarmament issues, quite well documented in Steve Staples book around missile defence for instance.

Those kinds of building projects are why I believe we are now at 37 seats and likely to grow significantly in the next election.

Q – Do you think that in terms of where you’re at now in the polls that you will get beyond 37 seats?

Polls are the last thing to change… always the last thing to change. I mean the other thing I would mention to people who offer that criticism, is where were you (I’m not speaking about you personally), where were the people who share this view that we’re just into minor tactics when the coalition was proposed and worked on. I suggest people read Brian Topp’s book, I mean this is major. This was a strategic attempt to give effect to the will of the Canadian people as expressed in elections and then frustrated by the lack of PR. We’ve been ready to move on that in three successive minority parliaments, all of which is documented there and in my own book.

Q – This partly based on casual conversations with people who, I essentially think, want the NDP to do better, but I’ve heard the comment more than once about lack of vision. Partly, of course, this is because you have a media that is either indifferent or hostile.

Well, if they’re watching for our vision to be expressed in the At Issue panel on CBC, then I would suggest that they need to do a little deeper thinking [Laughs]. I mean, let’s face it, if you are counting on the news broadcasts to give an indication of what’s really going on, then what you are saying is you are willing to accept the proposition that a four-second sound bite on occasion ought to deliver the complete vision and perspective of a political party, because that is all they get. That is why I write books. That is why I make speeches. That is why we put video on the website. That is why we have 100,000 people on our e-news now.

We are building in the networking and social-networking world, so as to try and end the run of the massively concentrated media world that we have to deal with now, and to reach out in other ways. I mean we’ve never had so many people involved in our party in 25 years at the grassroots doing good stuff. How do we get the former chief of the Saskatchewan First Nations [former head of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, Lawrence Joseph] indicating to us that he wants to run for us in northern Saskatchewan? That kind of thing doesn’t happen if you are sitting around playing small minor, juvenile, tactical games.

I’m very, very excited about this and when we see what is happening in Quebec and the kind of people we’ve got coming to us and how we are growing there, I mean, we won the only seat in Alberta with a candidate who was running against the untrammeled, unlimited development of the tar sands. That was a courageous and bold strategic decision. Taking a big campaign jet and flying it from Stephen Harper’s constituency down to 3,000 feet over the tar sands, because they wouldn’t let us bring the media in to look at the devastation of the pollution. So I’m excited about it, Murray, I’ve got to tell you I’m excited.

Q – It is interesting that in terms of leadership you’re now polling second to Stephen Harper. I look at Harper and I can’t quite figure why he is so popular as a leader when his policies are in such contrast to people’s values. I think back to Ronald Reagan. Most of the policies Reagan pursued were opposed by the majority of Americans and yet they still re-elected him, and in part it was because they said, well at least this guy believes something. Is that part of Harper’s popularity?

Well, Reagan went on a positive emotional appeal. Harper goes on a negative emotional appeal. It’s based on fear. So he ends up with a base of support that responds to the notion that we should be fearful of one thing or another. Fear provokes a certain kind of anger and a certain kind of response. By the way, I think that is the reason why he hit a ceiling. He tried to break through it with the piano performance and With a Little Help from My Friends and suddenly people said, ‘Oh, maybe the guy isn’t all about fear.’ Canadians are fundamentally not fearful people, in the majority, they’re hopeful people.

Q – In the last election you stated you were running to be prime minister and I’m wondering what was the thinking behind that? I think the response of most people was ‘well that is not going to happen,’ and maybe some skepticism that you actually believed that. Would it not partly hamstring you in terms of allowing you and the NDP to be who you are, a force pushing from the left? If you’re running to be the governing party then does that not restrict you in terms of having to compete with the Liberals?

Not at all. In fact, most people, most Canadians except a certain small group that talks about this kind of thing, said: ‘Well, what did you think you were running for?’ I mean, that’s what I ran into. ‘Well of course. You’re running candidates in every riding, you’re laying out a full program, it’s carefully put together, you have a team, what are you running for if you’re not running for prime minister?’ What it was, was an attempt to say there is an alternative to the same old parties that we’ve had.

Q – People keep hoping that Harper will just go away, but wondering how we can get rid of the man.

Hope won’t do that, unless you convert it into action and activism, which is what we are spending a whole heck of a lot of time doing. Fortunately, we now have a model which, of course, can’t be translated directly by any means, but it’s a model that has showed you can end run some aspects of traditional politics. And that is what we saw flowing out of the Obama campaign with all kinds of new approaches and techniques that resulted in people getting involved, especially young people.

To me, it’s like going to the doctor, the first thing they check is your pulse. If there is something wrong with that, then you have an issue. Well, the equivalent of a pulse for democracy is the number of people that participate in something as basic as the election and we’re in free fall. Something is wrong with our political system in that, people are engaging less and less.

You’ve got hate-fests of attack on politicians of any stripe, and even the word politician is pronounced with derision and disdain by no matter who on these networks that are out there, including, sometimes, even the CBC. People don’t want to be associated with failure, so why would you go out and vote for a politician given that by definition a politician is going to be a failure. To the extent that you can drive down turnout then you have an opportunity to have those that are particularly fearful and therefore motivated to go out and vote… they’re niche markets, that you can then really, really go after. And this is Harper’s specialty and it is right out of [George Bush’s advisor] Karl Rove.

Q – There does seem to be this gridlock in federal politics. It reminds me of the movie Groundhog Day, it’s just repeated day after day. I’m wondering if a new coalition agreement is possible with Ignatieff as Liberal leader? It would be necessary to go into the next election talking about a coalition so that you then have a mandate to pursue that once the election is over if the conditions are right.

What I’ve always said is that we are willing to work with any party that is willing to work with us on things we believe should be accomplished. That is how I go into elections and that is how I come out of elections and that’s how you operationalize them.

If you look at most of the European contexts, the parties run with their program and they try and convince as many people as they can to support their program and then they simply say, and Europeans of course know this after years and years of experience, that parties will come together in some combination after the vote. That’s also happened here. Stephen Harper was ready to combine with Gilles Duceppe; in fact he relied on Duceppe for the first two major confidence cycles, the Budget votes in 2006. People forget who it was that sat out those votes and kept him in power. It was the Bloc.

Q – Do you get a sense that the Liberals would be interested?

Who knows? [Laughs.] I thought we had it. We even had the signature of every single one of them — sent to the representative of the Queen. I thought that was pretty solid. But it sounds like the Bay Street bankers that met with Ignatieff had more influence than the broad sweep of Canadians that supported doing something right.

Ignatieff had a chance to be prime minister and he walked away from it. Harper needn’t be in power right now and that would have reflected, in fact, what the voters would have preferred in October 2008.

Q – I wanted to touch on a few policy issues. The Liberal and Conservative tax cuts, I know you know this intimately, have reduced government revenue by almost $80 billion a year. That is twice as much as the current deficit. You could pay off the deficit and have a national childcare and pharmacare program. These cuts were so radical that we actually hear talk of tax increases, probably for the first time in 15 to 20 years. Even two-thirds of the CEOs on Bay Street are saying we need tax increases on high-income earners.

I know the NDP has come out for a halt to further corporate tax cuts, but I’m wondering if you’ll be coming out to call for a higher tax brackets for the wealthy and the super-wealthy?

We’re analyzing the state of the government’s finances. Of course, we are trying to prevent some of these very moves that you are describing from being made. In fact, we moved in the House of Commons just three weeks ago that the corporate tax cuts for January 1, not be implemented. Unfortunately, we were unable to get the sufficient number of Liberals in the room to implement that, to have that motion adopted. That is why it was a bit of a surprise two weeks later to have Mr. Ignatieff come out and say we shouldn’t have more corporate tax cuts. I mean the speeches they were making against that proposition just three weeks earlier were quite strong.

What you have to do is sit down and look at the state of the finances. It is not possible to know now where precisely we are going to be. We do believe that a strong system of cap-and-trade needs to be put into place, and that’s a revenue generator, a very efficient revenue generator in terms of economic transformation towards a greener economy.

We are talking about the importance of the CPP and the doubling of the CPP over a period of time, which will have some implications in terms of revenues. Precisely what other proposals we need to bring forward is really always going to be a question of analyzing the state of the finances at the time an election actually happens, and laying out a program that is going to accomplish what we need to do step by step. At the same time, be reasonable as far as where Canadians would like to see us go. You make those judgments at the time and we don’t know when the election is going to be, so I don’t put out my election platform without having a clue about when the election is going to happen.

Q – I haven’t heard the party call for decreases in defence funding — or even a halt to the Conservative’s planned increases in that funding into the future. The current defence budget is huge — larger relatively than at any time since the height of the Cold War yet we have no identifiable enemies and our involvement in Afghanistan is coming to an end.

On the matter of budgets, we are constantly reviewing and revising our budget proposals and our campaign proposals to be prepared for whichever comes first. We do want Canada’s defence policy to focus on UN Peace Keeping Missions such as the Congo and others rather than the war in Afghanistan. Canada’s role in the UN effort is pitiful even as Canadians want us to play an active role as peacekeepers in the world.

Q – The Conservatives have let it be known that they may make public financing of parties an election issue. Is the NDP satisfied with the current system or are there any changes you would like to see to the current system?

We think it is vitally important to keep big money out of politics. Public financing is what allows for a leveling of the playing field, so you are able to bring ideas forward that do not have the support of the most powerful economic forces. We are certainly very strong defenders of that concept. We think it was a legacy left by Jean Chrétien, which was particularly important.

Q – As usual, Mr. Harper makes these calculations pretty carefully and given the amount of money they are able to raise, their assumption obviously is that they could do away with the public financing and they would hurt less than the other political parties.

I think that there is a bigger picture here. He would eliminate restrictions on third-party campaigning and that is where the big money would go. Then those who have groups with access to multi-million-dollar third-party type campaigning, like big pharma, big oil, big banks, etcetera, etcetera, would spend all kinds of money.

Q – The Liberals, and of course they say lots of things, so we’ll see what they say in their campaign. But it is interesting that Ignatieff a couple of months ago said that they would pursue a national childcare program regardless of the current deficit. Now, what is your sense of that, would you support such a national childcare program?

Not only would we support it, we have put legislation before the House to implement it. It went almost to third reading in the last Parliament and it’s before the House again. With a complete program all defined as legislation, it is in the form of the Canada Health Act. It respects Quebec’s unique situation because of the role of education in Quebec being so critical. So much so that the Bloc Quebecois voted for it. The Bloc Quebecois has never voted for a new social program in Canada, the only one and the first one they voted for was the NDP’s childcare bill. That is why the Code Blue people are so thrilled about it.

On the other hand, when we look at the Liberals on childcare, I remember the ’93 Redbook, which said they would absolutely bring it in if the economic growth exceeded 3 per cent — 50,000 spaces per year, new spaces, each and every year that the GDP rose more than 3 per cent. The GDP rose more than 3 per cent throughout their entire tenure and they never brought it in.

We kept saying to Ken Dryden, when that last minority Parliament got moving, we said: ‘Put it in legislation, don’t do one-off agreements by province, because it simply won’t work. It can then be abandoned by any future administration without a vote of parliament.’ Which is of course, precisely what happened. Those idiots! They were so full of their own view about how things should be done that they didn’t lock it in, in legislation. This is why Tommy and New Democrats and ultimately Ed Broadbent and Bill Blakey insisted that Medicare had to be enshrined in the Canada Health Act. It couldn’t be left as just a fiscal set of agreements — and that is what we argued about childcare.

That is why we have written a National Housing Act — Olivia has brought it before, it is based on all the work we did back in the 90s — which for the first time ever it has gone through second reading and is now at a standing committee. So we’ve got a National Housing Act written the way it should be. We’ve got a Post Secondary Education Act, modeled on the Canada Health Act but for the federal government’s role in post secondary education. We will have is a complete legislative framework so that the moment that we’re able to put a progressive administration into place, the work will already have been done.

Q – One of the most emotional issues facing any political leader is the issue of Israel and the Palestinians and a lot of people are feeling it is hard to have a debate in Canada because people feel intimidated, often by charges of anti-semitism if they express support for the Palestinians. What is your party’s position on the recent decision by Israel to build 1,600 more units of housing in East Jerusalem, which of course, Palestinians claim is the capital of their future state?

We have a deep concern about that. We have constantly said that this growth of settlements exacerbates the set of obstacles that stand in the way of what we believe ought to happen, and what so many others believe ought to happen. Which is a comprehensive negotiation of a two-state solution. So naturally that is a deep concern. Even Stephen Harper’s government has said that they are opposed to that.

Q – The NDP has been proven correct on many issues, but rarely gets credit in the media, as you pointed out. The Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin said that until there is a newspaper in the NDP’s corner their ideas won’t get validated. With the crisis in the media sector now, do you think it would be smart for progressive organizations and unions to perhaps actually buy a newspaper?

That’s a very interesting question. I used to believe that it was essential, but with the decline of newspaper readership and the rise of new media and electronic forms of communication it may be possible for those new forms of being in touch, particularly those that involve engagement with people, opportunities for back-and-forth.

The other thing is political parties would have a tough time going out and rustling up tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to buy a newspaper. The union movement, I suppose, could look at that kind of idea and I know that different individuals have, from time to time. Frankly, there are so many challenges right now in front of working people and their organizations, they’re just being attacked on every front, it’s very difficult to look at that kind of an option. You’ve got organizations like rabble.ca and others that are out there engaging people in new ways. We’ve got these new tools and I think that their effectiveness was dramatically shown by the response to the prorogation.

Q – Any final remarks you’d like to make?

I’ll just finish with this comment. People ask me about these different things and it’s the old story about how you build a house. I want to build a brick house and that means when the shifting winds happen the house doesn’t fall down and you have to start again. I think in the past we neglected Quebec and were never quite able to figure it out. Although Ed came close, we had a robust Quebec organization in 1987, but we just weren’t able to break through.

When I became leader I said: ‘We’ve got to fix this. It’s like trying to build a house with a quarter of the foundation missing. You can’t do it and I’m asking for your mandate to start building this part of the foundation and then we’ll start building on top of that.’ I believe that we are well on the way with that project now. That means this house ain’t gonna get blown over anytime soon.


Cathryn Atkinson

Cathryn Atkinson is the former News and Features Editor for rabble.ca. Her career spans more than 25 years in Canada and Britain, where she lived from 1988 to 2003. Cathryn has won five awards...


Murray Dobbin

Murray Dobbin was rabble.ca's Senior Contributing Editor. He was a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over 40 years. A board member and researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy...