Niki Ashton

Yesterday,’s online discussion forum babble hosted Churchill MP and NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton for an interactive interview in which Niki answered your questions on her bid for the keys to Stornoway. Here is an abridged and edited version of that interview. Read the complete interview on babble here and join the ongoing discussion. Be sure also to read babble’s interviews with Brian Topp, Nathan Cullen, Peggy NashPaul Dewar. Thomas Mulcair and Martin Singh did not accept our invitations for interviews.

babblers: In reference to your plan for a more inclusive economy, point five states: “Tax reform, including measures that target the ‘affordability gap’ for many poor, working and middle income families. Ensure corporate tax structures promote innovation and job creation.”

Could you please elaborate on what measures you feel the NDP should take to target the affordability gap, and what measures the NDP should take on corporate tax structures for job creation? Both Nathan Cullen and Brian Topp have spoken of raising taxes on the wealthiest Canadians, along with eliminating the exemption from capital gains taxes, and raising corporate taxes. Are these things that you favour, and if so, by how much?

Niki Ashton: I would review the tax system with the goal of making it more progressive and shifting the burden of taxation from low-income and middle-class families who are struggling to make ends meet to those who can afford to pay. I would appoint a tax reform commission. One of the fundamental mandates of the tax reform commission would be to treat all forms of income more equally as part of a more progressive tax system. The primary goal of the commission would be to modernize our tax system and in particular review all aspects of our tax system to make sure they are equitable and progressive. The mandate would be for the commission to make recommendations to the Government for implementation beginning in 2016.

The commission would also look at tax expenditures. We need to examine the burden facing Canadian families, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet. We need to look at raising the basic personal exemption to allow low-income families to earn more money before paying taxes. We need to increase the child tax benefit in recognition of the cost of raising children. We need to look at boutique tax cuts for things like public transit passes or participation in sports and cultural activities. We need to make improvements to the Canada Pensions Plan and ensure that seniors are able to live in security and comfort.

I would roll back Stephen Harper’s tax cuts for big corporations. I would ensure that corporate tax structures promote innovation, job creation and a more green economy. It’s about calling for a fundamental reform of the tax system. I’ve talked about the basic principles but it is important to remember that the next leader of the party is going to be potentially leader of the next government. I’m talking about the principles that would guide us. The commission is aimed at how we would immediately act on those principles.

b: Given that you joined the NDP caucus in supporting the Libya mission, what do you see as the role for the Canadian military, particularly in Canada’s foreign affairs?

NA: On January 25, I announced my plan to renew Canada’s purpose in the world based on the values of peace, diplomacy and global solidarity. I have made clear that I would make the NDP Minister of Foreign Affairs specifically responsible for the promotion of peace. And I described a much different role for Canada’s military.

Jack Layton and the NDP fought for years to support Canadian troops by bringing them back home from Afghanistan. We must keep them home, and give them the respect and new opportunities they deserve. Moreover, we owe our veterans and their families ongoing support to deal with all injuries incurred overseas, including and especially PTSD.

Our Armed Forces should focus on defending Canada and providing humanitarian assistance to people facing catastrophic emergencies — from earthquakes to floods to forest fires — throughout Canada and internationally. Furthermore, the militarization of the Arctic is not the priority of Canadians living in the Arctic, nor does it reflect Canada’s interest in international cooperation and the rule of law.

We must speak out as a force for peace in the Middle East, including supporting Palestinian statehood as part of a two-state solution as well as opposing illegal settlements and the killing of civilians.

I opposed the extension of the mission in Libya. And I have been alarmed by Stephen Harper’s war-mongering in terms of Iran. We must counter Stephen Harper’s rhetoric such as when he said the greatest threat to Canada’s security is “Islamicism”. That is unacceptable and dangerous rhetoric and we can’t afford to be silent about it as a party.

b: As technology becomes an ever larger part of our lives, access to that technology at an early age becomes critical. For children these days, not having access to a computer at a young age will become more and more like not having access to books at an early age. As the economy changes, Canada would benefit from a high level of technological literacy throughout the country.

What approach would you take towards getting technology in the hands of all Canadian children? Do you see a “one tablet per child” as an achievable program?

NA: Technology has the potential to be the great equalizer, providing opportunities and access to information for people living in every part of the country, no matter how remote. But it can be a double-edged sword. For people on the wrong side of the digital divide, it can actually contribute to greater inequality. It can be fatal to someone’s chances to taking a job for which they might otherwise be eminently qualified. And this is particularly the case in rural and northern Canada; there are still communities in my riding in Northern Manitoba, for example, that don’t have full access to high-speed Internet.

Specific programs like “a tablet for every child” probably fall under provincial jurisdiction. But the federal government can show leadership in closing the digital divide. We must provide funding to upgrade infrastructure in remote regions of the country. We can work with First Nations communities, which fall under Ottawa’s jurisdiction to provide a higher quality of education to children attending First Nations schools, including access to the latest technological tools. And we can make life more affordable to put these kinds of essentials in easier reach of all Canadian families.

b: There have been more than 14,000 foreign takeovers of Canadian corporations and valuable assets since just 1985. More than three-dozen key sectors of Canada’s economy are majority foreign-owned and controlled and mostly by rich Americans. We’ve witnessed the closure of Electro-Motive recently in London, Ontario and 450 jobs lost to Caterpillar-Indiana, now a right-to-work state. Ken Lewenza said recently that Caterpillar violated investment rules when they bought Electro-Motive in 2010.

What would you do to stem the decades-long tide of predatory foreign takeovers of Canadian corporations and assets? Would an NDP government led by you consider re-nationalizing any key sectors of Canada’s economy, like manufacturing and oil/energy?

NA: One of the key issues I have raised in this campaign is the degree to which foreign takeovers are hollowing out our economy and devastating workers and their communities. Workers at US Steel in Hamilton, Caterpillar in London, Rio Tinto in Alma, in Northern Ontario and in my own riding in Northern Manitoba, have all seen the impact of predatory takeovers.

As MP for Churchill, I saw how the Conservatives allowed Vale, a Brazilian company to take over Inco. They then gave them a billion dollar low interest loan to shut the smelter and refinery in my home community of Thompson. In Hamilton, US Steel promised jobs and investment — then cut 1,500 jobs. The Conservatives took them to court but have now reached a settlement that is nothing short of a sell out.

It is time we stand up for our Canada. In this campaign, I’ve called for tougher regulations including a lower dollar value for screening, greater guarantees for jobs and investment and clear recognition of the need to protect strategic industries.

I believe that as Canadians we need to review our involvement in our economy, particularly in the resource sector. It is ironic that an increasing number of foreign takeovers are being made by state-owned entities from other countries. I would not rule out greater public involvement in our resource and other strategic sectors.

During the campaign, I have specifically identified that Canada should be looking at establishing a crown corporation for the production of generic drugs. Drug costs are one of the biggest cost drivers in health care, and generic drug manufacturers charge a huge mark-up on medications. We must look at innovative ways of strengthening our public universal health-care system.

b: Last week, Canada’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission on residential schools released its interim report, outlining a slate of recommendations including implementing an educational program in Canadian schools. So far, there is no word from the Harper government on engaging with the Commission’s recommendations. In British Columbia, the official inquiry into Vancouver’s Missing and Murdered Women — most of whom were aboriginal — has been boycotted by many of advocacy groups because they feel it does not take seriously its mandate of prevention and healing. Your colleague Charlie Angus exposed the inhumane conditions suffered by the James Bay Cree in Attawapiskat this winter. Meanwhile, aboriginal land claims sit in bureaucratic limbo.

Your history of supporting First Nations rights and issues is well-known, and your riding includes many First Nations reserves. As leader of the NDP, what will you do to stop this cycle of trauma, perfunctory apology and bureaucratic dithering in which Canada’s First Nations continue to suffer some of the worst living conditions in the Western world?

NA: Ending the Third World conditions in Aboriginal communities across Canada will be one of my top priorities if I am elected Leader and Prime Minister.

There is no excuse in a country as wealthy as Canada to see the poverty in which Aboriginal people live and the violence, discrimination and oppression that Aboriginal women and men deal with on a daily basis.

We need to work with First Nations leaders to repeal the Indian Act and replace it with a legislative framework that respects the nation-to-nation relationship. Such a framework must also respect First Nations treaty rights and facilitate their inherent right to self-government.

We need to establish an independent Land Claims Resolution process that has the resources necessary to negotiate dozens of agreements at the same time, the necessary authority to reach binding agreements and targets and deadlines by which land claims need to be resolved.

We need to recognize that the duty to consult and accommodate First Nations people when it comes to resource development projects is binding on the federal government as well as on provincial governments; that means, for example, respecting the right of First Nations communities to participate in environmental reviews.

We must make immediate investments in education, health, and housing. We must remove the 2% cap on First Nations education, including the Post-Secondary Student Support Program. This cap has for many years put Aboriginal young people at a disadvantage. We must see increased investment in health services and immediate action to resolve the housing crisis in Aboriginal communities. And we need to work with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people to ensure that they have the opportunity to participate in our economy at every level.

b: Given the pitbull politics that the Conservatives employ and the venomous-snake approach of the LPC, in gearing up for the next 4 years each NDP leadership candidate should be able to explain to us how her or his acknowledged Achilles’ heel will be protected.

How do you propose to prepare yourself for the predictable attacks on your relative lack of experience in politics? For instance, do you envision mobilization (of youth, minorities, and other supportive groups) to counter such attacks, and how would you strike a balance between waging the battles yourself and relying on veteran MPs?

NA: I have dealt with the Conservative attack machine directly. In 2006 I was targeted because I was nominated and campaigned in support of same-sex marriage. In the 2011 election I was targeted by Conservative robocalls because I support trans-gendered rights. I have found the best way to fight the Conservative attack machine is to expose it and fight back on the issue itself.

I believe that I have as much experience as many of my opponents, but more to the point — I believe that my age is more of an asset. I have a perspective that I can bring to public policy questions that is different than that of many other political leaders; I’ve talked about pensions, for example, from the perspective of a young person, as part of a generation that fears we may never be able to retire. I think that perspective can be very powerful, if the party takes advantage of it. I can reach voters that other leaders simply can’t.

The key message of our campaign is that we need New Politics. I think that Canadians have reinvented politics; they’re looking for something different from leaders today. They know that one person doesn’t have all the answers and they get frustrated by leaders like Stephen Harper who pretend that they do. It’s part of what makes them cynical about politics. And they believe something, and I believe something, that I think Stephen Harper has forgotten. Leadership isn’t about power for yourself. Leadership is service to others.

Canadians know that all of us rely on advisers. Stephen Harper relies on spin-doctors and corporate lobbyists. For myself, I will make it clear that I intend to make decisions based on solid evidence about what works and what doesn’t. And I will put forward a vision of a new kind of leadership — one where leaders have the confidence to allow others to show leadership, too.

It will mean leading a government where politicians provide funding and establish guidelines at the macro level but allow people with expertise to make decisions at the micro level. It will mean working with provinces and territories, and Aboriginal communities to solve problems; the fact is Ottawa doesn’t always know best. I look forward to working with the other leadership candidates in this race, veteran Members of Parliament and our great team of new MPs.

I believe that in the next election the Conservative attack machine will be totally discredited and that our message of hope and real change for Canada will connect with Canadians from coast to coast to coast and we will be able to elect Canada’s first NDP federal government.

b: In 2009, you were the only MP in the House of Commons to stand up and question the Harper Conservatives from earmarking a portion of Social Sciences and the Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) doctoral fellowships — grants from an arms-length institution — for “business-related degrees.” Today, two of Canada’s biggest three English-speaking Universities face looming TA and support staff strikes, while some 100,000 students in Quebec are on strike against rising tuition fees.

Our universities continue to abandon the classic principles of higher education in favour of a corporatized governance model which professionalizes degrees meant to make better citizens, not better producers and consumers. Canadian students are seeing historically high debt loads and tougher and tougher barriers to affordable education.

What do you propose to do to undo the Conservative assault on higher education and restore education as a right for all, rather than the privilege of a few?

NA: As post-secondary education critic for the NDP in the last Parliament, I was proud to oppose the regressive Harper agenda on research and more broadly post-secondary education. It is critical to stand up for academic freedom and the value of all research in our institutions. The Harper government’s ideological interference in research from the social sciences to the environment must be exposed and opposed. I believe that decisions about what projects receive government funding or tax incentives, or which projects are given the green light by regulators, should be free from political or bureaucratic interference.

A key theme of our campaign has been the growing inequality in Canada. That inequality is seen in the increased cost faced by students when it comes to tuitions and debilitating levels of student debt. I was the only candidate in our first all-candidate debate to speak of accessible education as part of my plan for an inclusive economy.

On February 1, I was proud to participate in the CFS National Day of Action where I stood in solidarity with students and called for:

– Increased federal funding for post-secondary education;

– A dedicated transfer of federal funds for post-secondary education backed by a Post-Secondary Education Act modelled on the Canada Health Act to guarantee standards of quality and accessibility;

– Lifting the cap in federal support for the PSSSP to ensure that more Aboriginal Canadians can access post-secondary education and participate in the Canadian economy

In our all-candidates debate in Montreal I also expressed my solidarity with the students in Quebec who are calling for affordable and accessible education.

I believe that education is key to moving forward — and the priority must be to support our post-secondary education system and make it affordable and accessible to all.