Gilles Bisson: Good for the business of revitalizing the ONDP?

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Gilles Bisson is a centrist social democrat who argues that the NDP should include law and order issues as a main plank and take a collaborative attitude to business, including targeted corporate tax cuts to stimulate research and development and accepting donations from corporations. He would thus drop the NDP's current policy of not accepting donations from big business.

"I think it limits us ... the corporate sector understands as I understand, as a citizen, that democracy costs money and everybody has to participate ... If they're prepared to give me money why not take it?"

Bisson rejects the notion that accepting corporate donations could compromise the NDP. "I got a [$5,000] donation from Grand Forest Products, which is a large forestry company in northern Ontario. I had been out on the picket line at a lockout now that's been going on for two and a half years along with the workers in that plant ... The employer knows that when it comes to certain core issues I'll be on the opposite side of the fence but they also know that I'll work with them on other issues that are of mutual concern. If they have issues when it comes to things that we can do that are cooperative with the union, the workers and the community I'll be there so why wouldn't you accept it?"

Approximately 28 per cent of Ontario NDP members live in northern Ontario and Bisson has won the support of fellow northern MPP France Gélinas and all eight NDP MPs from northern Ontario. Bisson doesn't see himself as a regional candidate, however, or as handicapped by the fact that he would be the second northerner in a row to lead the party.

"Yes, I come from northern Ontario but I've lived in Toronto for over 25 years ... I'm the only candidate who really has travelled this province extensively for the last 30 years and has lived in different parts of it so I think I have a very unique perspective of Ontario."

Bisson emphasizes the issue of the party's fundraising formula. At present, in non-election years, riding associations are only able to keep 10 per cent of what they raise. He says the problem is "it really stifles riding associations from doing the work that has to be done every day, signing up members on PAC because that's where the big money is. So the structure of centralizing the fundraising and the membership signups through the central party really stifles the local riding associations from having the initiative to go do that themselves."

Bisson would change the funding formula so that 60 per cent of money raised stays in the ridings. He rejects criticism that this would starve the central party of money and force it to lay off staff.

"We have laid off most of our organizers because we don't have the money ... If we have a system that continues the way that it is now we'll never have the money to hire the organizers that we want because the party will never grow.... [but] if the local riding association knows that they can go sign you up on the [Pre Authorized Chequing] and that they get to keep 60 to 70 per cent for the riding association they will bust their buns to go out and sign up members which gives the party more money."

Bisson is the only candidate who was an MPP during the Rae government. He also voted for the "Social Contract" that created a rupture between the NDP and the labour movement, which has not fully healed to this day.

When asked about whether he would vote for the Social Contract, Bisson said, "No, I thought it was a mistake then as I do now but everybody understands the process is that the caucus makes a decision and the process of caucus is that everybody sticks together ... The problem with the Social Contract was not the concept, the problem was opening the collective agreement and if we had allowed local unions and unions to decide for themselves how to find savings to deal with the ten social contract days without opening the collective agreement I think that would have been looked at as a very positive experience. The mistake was legislating it."

Bisson argues that the NDP loses votes when it only emphasizes social programs. "[People] say listen, I trust you on those things but you're not talking about a whole bunch of other things that are important to me and, number two, how are you going to pay for it. Our answer is always ‘well, tax the rich.' I'm saying that's a losing argument. Most people that are rich don't want to be taxed and we all want to be rich so people turn away from that argument so the key for us is we have to convince people that we know how to grow an economy."

Here's what Bisson had to say on a range of other topics.

On why he wants to be party leader

"Because I believe that we should be aiming for government ... if we feel so strong about the issues that are important to us as New Democrats, as social democrats, we have to implement that agenda ourselves. The second reason I'm running is that there are changes that need to be made within this party. The party has got some serious structural problems in the sense that everything is far too centralized."

On his economic plan

"We can't compete with China, we can't compete with low wage economies, we would never be able to drive the wage rates so far down, people wouldn't stand for it. So if we're high wage economy we have to produce the products of tomorrow. The key is research and development. We need to ... use every tool that we have at our disposal. Everything from, yes, allowing employers to defer their taxes this year in order to invest in research and development, paid back when they're making money on their investment. Help them with capitalization by securing loans. Partner with universities, trade unions, communities and others in order to become the world leaders at research and development. [If we] produce the products of tomorrow ... we will then have the products that people want to buy, not just products that everybody else is making."

On raising crime as an issue

"[It's] always frustrated me that on the issue of crime this party has been very very quiet. If you're in downtown Toronto or downtown Timmins ... crime is an issue, gangs are an issue ... We need to as a party go to where people are at from the social democratic perspective. How do we approach the issue of crime? I say open your schools at night. Be serious about community policing. Allow training programs that give hope of being able ... to get a job tomorrow so that they don't need to get into a gang ... be there with the programs to support parents ... If we make those investments and we're serious about attacking the issue of crime from a social democratic perspective I believe that people will support us."

On his main strength as a candidate

"I'm the only candidate running who's had the experience of being in government and being in opposition ... Also, I've been around the legislature for 18 years and ... there's hardly an issue you can stump me on because I've seen that show before. And I think it's very important that our leader is sure on his or her feet because you need to project as a leader a sense of confidence and I have that sense of confidence because of experience. The other thing is I'm a very effective communicator ... I have an ability to be able to communicate with people in a very direct way.

On why the NDP hasn't been able to recover from the Rae years

"The [Rae government] was given a pretty bad rap by the media and by ourselves. We within the party turned the guns on each other ... Listen, it was a great government. We did things that we should be very proud of as social democrats. [Secondly], we were very demoralized after the election of 1995. The party did not have the financing to do what it needed to do on a sustainable way to rebuild the party. And I think we needed some time between us and Bob Rae ... Bob going to the Liberals quite frankly has helped us."

On the lessons of the Rae years

"As a social democrat if you get elected to government you need to govern as a social democrat and you've got to be true to your roots ... We were against Sunday shopping, then we voted for Sunday shopping. We were against casinos, then we were for casinos. We were for collective agreements but we did the social contract so it really confused people ... So the lesson I learned is if you get elected as a social democrat you act like a social democrat."

On communications strategy, election campaigning, and the "Get Orange" slogan

"How I would run a campaign is very different. The first thing is it comes back to fundraising. We need to change fundraising rules in this party ... The party has to retire its debt and it has to have the ability to be able to also run a full campaign. If you haven't got the dollars you won't be able to communicate anything. The second thing is you need to deliver a consistent clear message. We have to stop chasing headlines and we have to stop just criticising everything the Liberals do ... We should be talking about what our party has to offer people in the province of Ontario. Stop playing the role of opposition and start looking like a government. Start looking as the party that knows where they're going, that's going to speak out on issues that are relevant to people that say we believe in protecting the programs that are so important to us like health care and others and here is how we're going to pay for it."

"You have to brand yourself way ahead of an election so that people when you get to a campaign say ‘I've heard Gilles Bisson and the NDP talk about that for the last year and a half and God are they right.'"

On involving the grassroots in writing an election platform

"Platform and policy are first developed at the local riding association level ... The caucus also has a role to play in that because caucus members, because of the work that we do on a 24-hour basis, is talking about policy and putting forward ideas ... But for those people out there who say it's so important to open up the party to have conventions where we can talk about anything, I think sells short the reality of how you are to develop platform."

On repairing the NDP's relationship with labour and the CAW

"I've got the backing of CAW locals, there are two affiliated CAW locals in the party and I've got one of them, so that's starting to happen. We're seeing a lot of labour people get involved who weren't involved before because I think it's been a long time since 1995 and I think people are starting to recognize that we need to move on. ... We need to have regular meetings with the heads of unions in this province between the leader of the party and some of our party executive ... so we can have the dialogue that's necessary to know where each other is going and what's going on so if there's an issue that's going to be off side on one side or the other so that we're able to figure how to adjust so we don't end up in a conflict."

On attracting immigrants and visible minorities to the party

"If you come from a riding that's by and large Portuguese or by and large East Indian we should be looking for a social democrat within that community who shares our values. And if that candidate, he or she, says you know what they're taking me seriously because it's going to be a $70,000 campaign and there's going to be staff and it's going to be organized and there's a good central message, we will elect people who we've never elected in ridings before. And that's how you change the face of the party. It's through fundraising, it's not just ideas."

On campaigning between elections

"I don't want caucus members to be at Queen's Park four days a week, I expect them to be on the road, on a tour that's organized by the party, by the caucus and by the riding associations that works to a central plan of running 107 candidates in the next election that have a chance of winning."

On Michael Prue's proposal regarding separate school funding

"It's the third rail of Ontario politics ... getting into those kinds of debates at the end of the day divides the province, divides the party and it's long memories thereafter. ... Amalgamating school boards into one big unified system is not going to save us money; it'll cost us more money. And it'll become much more removed from the people so I think from the policy perspective it doesn't make any sense"

On Peter Tabuns' New Energy Economy

"The problem with Peter is he's really a one issue candidate. I think Peter has successfully identified what is part of an economic strategy and a very good one, that Ontario needs to position itself as an economy that's developing the technologies and manufacturing processes that work towards greening your economy ... but the problem with having just that as your economic problem is it really puts you in the same boat as Stephane Dion. ... What do you do with the traditional economy that's there? So yes, greening the economy is a great idea but it's only one part of an economic strategy. "

On why people should vote for him

"Well, first of all because I'm a hell of a nice guy. Why wouldn't they? [laughs] I've got the experience, I've been in the legislature for over 18 years, I've travelled this province for the better part of 30 years. I understand Ontario quite well, more so than anybody else. I've a clarity of vision of where I want to go, I understand where I want to take this party, and ask to do things as a social democratic government should do as they do in Europe and other places. I understand how to organize and that's going to be the key part to the next election ... and I've got leadership ability. I am able to motivate people and move people more so than anybody else and I speak effectively, I'm a good communicator. And I'm bilingual which I think is very important."


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

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