Peter Tabuns is widely seen as the favourite to win the Ontario NDP leadership. However, the race has tightened during the long campaign to choose Howard Hampton’s successor and Tabuns, as frontrunner, has been the in the crosshairs of the other three candidates.

Tabuns’ consistent focus, as the policy wonk of the leadership quartet, has been on party policy with the New Energy Economy as the centrepiece. Tabuns’ vision, based on the American “Blue-Green alliance” of labour unions and environmentalists, is to create jobs and reverse the decline of the manufacturing sector through a massive program of investment in the renewable energy sector that would “reshape the economy and reshape our relationship with the environment.”

“I’m concentrating on that for a number of reasons,” he says. “In part because I‘ve got a background – environmental issues, climate change, and it was very clear to me in the work that I did… that unless I bring together the jobs agenda with the environmental agenda it’s just not going to go where it has to go.”

“We in Ontario are major importers of energy. We spend $40 billion a year on energy in Ontario. We import 90 per cent of what we use. Coal from the United States, oil and gas from Alberta, oil from the North Sea, from Nigeria, from the world market of oil production and when you actually start developing renewable substitutes that – if you do it right – have the potential to create an awful lot of good jobs and a substantial increase in the amount of money that’s recycled in your economy.”

In response to critics who say his platform isn’t a full economic plan, Tabuns points out that “Leo Gerard and the Steelworkers have centred their economic plan around it.” And, he argues, “If you look at what’s going around in the world in terms of climate and in terms of energy, the jurisdictions in the next few decades that put themselves on the footing where they have affordable, reliable, clean sources of energy – those are the ones that will be left standing and the ones that are dependent on oil and gas and coal will be in deep trouble.”

Tabuns also claims that his policy ideas have influenced the rest of the field, “I’ve found since the start of the campaign is that … both Andrea and Gilles have started to talk more about green economics,” adding that Horwath’s proposals on transportation are “consistent with” what Tabuns said at his campaign’s launch.

Tabuns is perceived as the candidate of the ‘party establishment’ and backed by party strategists and past NDP Provincial Secretaries stretching back three decades. This is a strength but, with many party members feeling frustration towards the party establishment, it is also a liability.

Other candidates have called for a change in the relationship between the party’s head office and riding associations so that more money remains with riding associations. Tabuns has talked less about internal party matters and this may cost him votes from outside of NDP strongholds. Nevertheless, Tabuns has the longest list of endorsements, including one from former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent, and has received donations from the greatest number of individual contributors.

Tabuns’ support appears to be weaker among labour delegates whose vote is weighted so that it’s 25 per cent of the overall total. Tabuns has the endorsement of the Toronto Steelworkers Council, the Toronto Labour Council, UNITE HERE, CUPE Local One, the leadership of the CEP union. However, Andrea Horwath has one the support of SEIU, the leadership of the Ontario Federation of Labour and, most importantly, the senior leaders of the Steelworkers union, Steel being the single largest component of the overall labour delegation.

A whisper campaign, that falsely claimed that as Greenpeace head he locked out employees, has hurt Tabuns among union activists. In fact, Greenpeace has never experienced a strike or lockout. Greenpeace spokesperson Spencer Tripp told that in 2002 Greenpeace ended its door-to-door fundraising because rising overhead meant the canvass was “not meeting the fundraising standards of the association of fundraising professionals.” Foot canvassers were offered unionized positions as telephone canvassers. Several of them protested the move, however, according to a statement by the union, calling the dispute a lockout is “inaccurate” and “the circumstances surrounding the closure of the door canvass were amicably resolved.”

Here’s what Tabuns had to say on a range of other topics.

On why he wants to be party leader

“[Ontario is] facing two very profound crises – the economic one, the decay of our industrial base, our economic base and the environmental crisis and I want to take those on and for me the best place to take those on from is the leadership of the Ontario NDP.”

On the New Energy Economy

“If you actually want to make distance on climate change you have to build a political coalition that has the power to move the agenda. An agenda that speaks to protecting or improving peoples’ standard of living through strategies for sustainable environmental development, I think, is the one that gives you the potential to pull together a new majority for change. When you look at Ontario and you look at the deindustrialization and the loss of union density, you see a situation in which working people, the NDP, progressive forces are weakened. In a situation where you have a stronger industrial base, you have a stronger political base to move the agenda forward the way that we’ve been talking about moving it forward for a long time. ”

On his main strength as a candidate

“A vision of where we can go with Ontario that’s comprehensive, that speaks to people in the 21st century. I wouldn’t say that’s the case with the other three.”

On the role of the party leader

“To have a clear vision of where to take a society and within that the party … to build a strong leadership team and then, using that, build a strong organization … to make sure that the changes you want to see happen have the foundation work in place to ensure those changes can happen.”

On his proudest accomplishment in politics

“Stopping Enron when it wanted to take over the city’s district heating utility. It was a tough fight, and I won … Fighting that kind of privatization and protecting strategic public ownership was very useful. [Also] starting the Better Buildings partnership, the City of Toronto’s energy efficiency program for commercial institutional buildings — just demonstrating that you can put people to work with green economics.”

On the Bob Rae years

“Part of what happened in the aftermath of the Rae years was tremendous cynicism about the party because it didn’t deliver on at least one of its most central programs… It took action against the trade union movement, its closest ally in this society, and that engendered tremendous cynicism … If we win and we can’t deliver on things that really should be deliverable then what’s the use? … The major mistake was not treating the foundation of your party’s existence as the foundation but as a special interest … and failure to deliver on a key part of your agenda … the key stuff that you build a campaign around people have to know that they can count on your conviction to move it forward … the failure to deliver on public auto was profoundly destructive.”

On rebuilding the NDP

“We have to focus on political campaigns that will mobilize people and obviously you have to do them in concert with partners … with trade unions and environmental groups that are willing to work on these issues to show the NDP as pushing for a ‘jobs and the environment agenda’ that will make a difference to people’s lives — I think that is a campaign that will bring people on. OPSEU is interested in campaigning around temporary and contingent workers and when I go out and talk out there that’s an issue that moves a lot of people and I think it’s worth fighting on …. [it] would move a whole bunch of people in New Canadian communities, it would move a whole group of people who are newly out of universities and trying to get into the job force and can’t get a permanent job … I think it could be a campaign that would mobilize … I think the potential’s there. ”

On communications strategy, election campaigning and the ‘Get Orange’ slogan

“We need a modern communications strategy … the things we were fighting for in the last election were useful to fight for but the communications were not effective and frankly we suffer as a result of it… We need the next two and a half years to prepare for the election … We need to get our MPPs out of Queen’s Park much more. We need to be meeting with people, talking with them, mobilizing them and frankly, learning from talking to them how to speak about issues that matter to them. Focus groups and polling are useful [as is] having a good communications company … but my historic experience has been that I’ve done best when I’ve gone through community canvassing and talked to people at the door and gotten a sense of what they care about and how they speak about it and using their language and their issues to move them. ‘Get Orange’ just didn’t say anything to anyone.”

On what involvement the grassroots should have in writing the election platform

“The caucus and the party leadership need to go out and talk to the grassroots and figure out how to write that platform. And reaching beyond the grassroots into populations that we haven’t talked to for a long time and go through and find those elements that will move them.”

On how he can rebuild the NDP’s relationship with the CAW

“I think it’s possible to work with the CAW and bring it back. There are a lot of activists in the CAW who are politically active in our party. Yes, there’s been a disconnect at the top levels but at the grassroots there continue to be people who work with us and with whom we work … The NDP will have to show the CAW that it’s relevant to it, that it’s willing to fight around its issues and defend it, that an alliance will be of some use to its members but it’s not enough to say it, you have to demonstrate it. ”

On how the NDP can appeal to recent immigrants

“The NDP needs to look back at why we were successful with Portuguese and Italian communities in the early 70s. We worked with and … built relationships with activists in those communities who were organizing around critical issues; Worker’s Comp being one of the central ones. When you work for the community, demonstrate that you can organize, campaign and fight, that you can be relied on, then you build trust. It’s important to go to dinners and social functions and all that but to my mind far more critical is the political organizing and campaigning and if you do that then you bring the layer of that community that is willing to be politically engaged and they bring others with them.”

On the importance of a class analysis

“You have to understand class and how it works in this society. I would say the overwhelming majority of people in this society don’t think in class terms. I mean my father was an auto mechanic, I grew up in a working class immigrant neighbourhood in Hamilton — everyone considered themselves middle class and that meant they weren’t rich and poor, they were in the middle. I think to understand the dynamics of a society it’s important to understand the class structures.”

On whether the NDP should campaign between elections

“I think it’s four years of campaigning and building political campaigns that can move people. With allies in civil society, in NGOs, in the trade union movement, other movements, new Canadian communities [the NDP] can be part of useful campaigns.”

On fighting poverty

“Raising the minimum wage even at the beginning to at least the poverty level would make a substantial difference to a lot of people’s lives. Changing the rules around union organizing so it’s easier to organize would make a difference to a lot of people’s lives. Starting to phase in universal daycare — in Quebec it’s had a substantial impact on childhood poverty. Actually spending the money they have on affordable housing and putting up affordable housing would help an awful lot of people.

On Michael Prue’s suggestion of re-examining Separate School funding

“When you raise it you clean all the other issues off the table and so for me you have to decide if this is the issue that you want to spend the next election on or not and I think there are other things that are far more pressing and that’s where I want to spend the next election and the next few years of campaigning.”

On Andrea Horwath’s calls to rebrand the NDP

“Well, you can call it what you want I guess. If the party isn’t doing things that excite people then you can put whatever colours you want on the stickers. The critical thing is a party that’s activist, that believes in activist government, that believes in government that will lead and if you’re that and I think just speaking to people in a new way. Rebranding rhetoric is getting kind of old.”

On proposals by Prue and Bisson to accept more corporate donations

“We already raise some funds from companies, I don’t see growth there of any consequence because our policies don’t speak to corporate Ontario and because I have no interest in being beholden to a group that would want us to change those policies.”

On why people should vote for him

“I think I have the vision that will bring the most people to the party and have the best chance of rebuilding us as an organization to make a difference in Ontario. As simple as that.”


Andrew Lehrer is a Toronto based writer and researcher. This is the second of a four-part series featuring each of the ONDP leadership candidates.