Dr. Michael Byers, a professor of international law and political science at the University of British Columbia, recently announced that he is seeking the NDP nomination for the riding of Vancouver Centre.
Am Johal recently sat down with Dr. Byers at Cafe Deux Soleil on Vancouverâe(TM)s Commercial Drive to discuss the issues that have prompted this high profile academic to enter electoral politics.
Am Johal: I am a frustrated New Democrat. Why should I belong to a party that has no hope of forming government in my lifetime? This is a dilemma that many Canadians feel on the lackluster record of the social democratic movement in this country. Can the NDP be a moral force in the country and still succeed in winning?
Michael Byers: Politics is about persuasion, influence and power. The difference between an NGO and political party is about being a force that is interested in winning elections.
The NDP has won many elections at the provincial level. Think of Saskatchewan, where Tommy Douglas’s five majority governments were just the beginning. The NDP has been vitally important in shaping the country.
And then there is the influence of the NDP when it has held the balance of power – think of Lester Pearsonâe(TM)s two minority governments – with the NDP as a consistently progressive and persuasive voice. The Pearson government was amongst the most successful in Canadian history, thanks in large part to the NDP.
In addition, the NDP has long generated new policy positions that are taken up by other political parties. There is nothing inconsistent about wanting change for social justice and human rights reasons and also wanting political power. Political power is a means for implementing progressive change.
This country would be less humane, less progressive, less peaceful in its orientation were it not for the ongoing contribution of the NDP.
As an international law scholar and human rights activist with a public profile, you were heavily courted by the Liberals, where you could have been a Cabinet Minister. Why did you choose theNDP?
I did meet with Mr. Dion one-on-one. I feel sympathy for him but think he has some serious shortcomings. He cannot communicate his policies and has a lousy sense of timing, for instance, introducing a carbon tax at a time when fossil fuel prices have just doubled and Canadians are already struggling to adjust to that drastic change.
I wish that he had introduced a carbon tax when he was environment minister. Or at least laid out this policy proposal shortly after becoming leader of the Liberal Party, rather than waiting two and a half years.
I did take Mr. Dionâe(TM)s interest seriously. It was clear that he was offering something significant, and that he was looking for a progressive policy voice.
But the NDP is a more natural fit for me. TommyDouglas used to preach at the schoolhouse a mile and half from my grandparents’ farm near Weyburn. My parentâe(TM)s first date was attending one of Tommy’s speeches in 1962. I literally owe my existence to the man, and not just my political views.
Dawn Black and Jack Layton are both good friends of mine. Dawn is a hero for standing up for the fundamental rights of prisoners inAfghanistan. She highlighted the incompetence ofGordon Oâe(TM)Connor, the defence lobbyist turned Conservative defense minister. She was instrumental in having him removed from that post. She is one of the reasons that I am entering politics.
Can you articulate your criticisms of the Liberal and Conservative positions regarding the Afghanistan mission and their support for extending it to 2011?
My main concern is that the current counterinsurgency mission cannot succeed. We are squandering the lives of brave Canadians and innocent Afghan civilians. These deaths are unnecessary. The most serious decision a democratic country makes is sending our young men and women into harmâe(TM)s way. This mission is being undertaken for other reasons, including a desire to cultivate favour in the White House.
The defense lobby and some of our generals are also happy about the need for new equipment and resources. At the same time, the mission is personally – though quietly – opposed by many men and women within the Canadian Forces.
I do think there is an important role for Canada in helpingAfghanistan. But until we show the U.S. and NATO that we are determined to pull out of the counterinsurgency, we will not be in a position to carve out a new role – and exercise leadership in developing effective long-term solutions.
You have been outspoken about the North and Canadian sovereignty in the context of climate change. Is there a way of dealing with the international dimension of this debate in a way that brings the country together?
Arctic sovereignty is much more than a military issue.And yet Stephen Harper has pursued this as a military issue only.
Jack Layton and I travelled around Nunavut together last August and learned about the crises in housing, health care, education, environmental protection and economic development – all of which are exacerbated by the crisis of climate change.
If we’re going to address these challenges effectively, we need to engage the experience and insight of those who live in the North. It has to be a collaborative exercise. And yet Mr. Harper went to northern Baffin Island to announce a new port for Canadaâe(TM)s navy without any consultation with the Government of Nunavut, and then flew right over Iqaluit on his way back to Ottawa without stopping to meet with Inuit leaders – an astonishing example of his dictatorial approach.
Housing is a major issue in Vancouver Centre with the rental housing market pricing people out of the West End. How will you push this issue in your riding?
Thereâe(TM)s a housing crisis in Vancouver that has all sorts of negative consequences. People canâe(TM)t live where they work, and so they have to commute, with implications for their health, relationships, sense of community – and of course the environment.
It’s also an issue of human rights, particularly for the GLBT community in Vancouver Centre. People move here from across the country to escape the prejudices and safety risks that remain in less progressive regions. The West End is a critically important safe haven that can only continue to fulfill that role if the federal government asserts leadership on affordable housing – just like other G-8 countries do. It was Hedy Fryâe(TM)s government that cut the national housing program in 1993, when she was supposedly representing the West End.
Then there is the related crisis of homelessness. It is unconscionable that there are so many people without a roof over their heads in such a wealthy country. As a committed human rights activist, I will fight hard on these homelessness and housing issues.
My great great grandmother was First Nations. They are the people to whom we, as a country, owe the most. Services for the aboriginal community, who make up over 30 per cent of the homeless, need to be dramatically improved – and run by aboriginal organizations in partnership with the federal government.
I want to take Hedy Fry to task for the existence of private health care in her riding, directly undermining the legacy of Tommy Douglas. She should know better as a medical doctor. She should have prevented this.
The other issue is of course climate change. Iâe(TM)m greener than theGreen Party. Iâe(TM)ve been fully and publicly engaged on this issue for the last five years. I am partnering with a leader of the federal NDP who has been working on this issue for thirty years. We have the best plan.
Our policies are all about combating the climate change crisis – and doing so in ways that do not punish ordinary Canadians or push an already stressed economy over the brink. And unlike the Harper government, our cap-and-trade policy involves real emissions reductions almost immediately, as well as significant investments in public transportation to enable people to get out of cars, and the retrofitting of homes to reduce heating costs.
The NDP is much more than a first-rate environmental party; it also has a progressive social agenda that brings people together. We are the party of health care, housing and human rights. We are the party with a comprehensive plan to govern the country. And we will do so better than the Liberals or Conservatives ever have.
Vancouver Centre is a two-way race between Hedy Fry and Michael Byers. There is no need to vote strategically, and no need for a protest vote. All I ask is that voters choose the person who will be their most energetic, outspoken and effective voice in Ottawa.