NDP leadership

INTERVIEW: Guy Caron on basic income and rebuilding the NDP in Quebec

“Orange Wave” MP is campaigning on a platform of progressive economics

Today we feature the second interview in our series of profiles on the federal NDP leadership candidates.

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Guy Caron was third to enter the race, declaring his candidacy in late February. He is also the newest to federal politics, having been elected to represent Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques in 2011's Orange Wave. He was national president of the Canadian Federation of Students from 1994 to 1996, and is a former economist for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.

As one of Canada’s few bilingual media outlets, we at Ricochet feel bilingualism is a key requirement for leadership of any federal party. To assess that skill we are posing one policy question in French to each candidate.

How would you summarize the reasons for the party's loss of support in 2015, and what are your impressions of the party's post-mortem review? Do you have any criticisms of the review?

My own perspective is a Quebec perspective but it’s also related to what happened in the country. First, there’s the perception that the Liberals actually had a more progressive, more left-wing platform than what we had. I do believe this perception was largely due to some commitments that were made, including the commitment to have a balanced budget every single year and not to raise taxes, either income taxes or sales taxes. Those elements, combined with what Liberals committed to during the last campaign, did give a perception that the Liberals were actually running to the left of us.

Every proposal I’ll be making will actually be costed out and given a fiscal framework at the end of the campaign towards the end of the summer.

In Quebec, we had some different problems. One of them being that we did not have any specific platform for Quebec — our most major commitments were the universal child care and universal pharmacare, both of which you actually have in Quebec. That made it that we didn’t really have anything specific in Quebec. That, combined with the identity question that came to be in the election, showed a massive decrease of support in a very short time and at a time when Canadians were looking at who would actually be the majority party in Quebec. All of that combined led to a very disappointing result.

And the post-mortem review?

I know Rebecca Blaikie [who chaired the review panel] has done amazing work, going from coast to coast to coast to talk to members. When I talk to members, they are actually glad that the exercise was done. And in terms of the structural changes that could have come out of that, I don’t think we have seen much yet.

I think in terms of the lessons to be learned, what we have in terms of the report and in terms of the perception from the members and from the leadership race will actually help in trying to avoid what happened in 2015. I will tell you, if we do not draw lessons from 2015, we are bound to repeat the same mistakes.

In brief, what kind of issues will you emphasize in order to mobilize existing supporters and win over new one? You have become known for the basic income plan proposal, but what else are you focused on?

There’s still 188 days until the end of the first round of voting, so there’s plenty of time to lay down a platform. And the fact that we don’t have a debate now for two months — we’ll demonstrate and flesh out a bit more of the policies. I said from the get-go that two challenges to be met are economic inequalities and climate change.

In terms of economic inequalities, basic income is actually a big part of it but we’ll soon have [plans] that have to do with the tax system, with tax evasion as well, along with some commitments that will be part of a comprehensive climate [plan] I’m calling for, the transition of the economy to a renewable-based economy, including transitions for workers. I can tell you that in terms of what needs to be brought to this race, I’m obviously drawing from the fact that I’m a progressive economist. That will be a big part of the choice I’ll be representing. Also, I believe that the next leader will have to bring unity to the party very fast, in time to prepare for the election. The platform and the ideas I bring forth will also be oriented towards that goal.

You mentioned in your interview with CTV’s Your Morning that party leadership race proposals are not typically costed but that you intend to do so. Where are you at with that for your basic income proposal, and what level of income would this provide for people?

Every proposal I’ll be making will actually be costed out and given a fiscal framework at the end of the campaign towards the end of the summer. I just feel it’s something that has to be done. You can promise everything to the members, but in the end members have to know at least what the implications are, either positive or negative.

In terms of basic income, it is a complementary basic income, not a universal one. It’s meant to top-off support revenues or working revenues, especially for the working poor, that are not reaching the Low Income Cut-Off (LICO). It’s not intended to replace but to supplement the social safety net through the tax system. What you have to understand is that we currently have some form of basic income built into the tax system. You take [the Canada Child Benefit, the Guaranteed Income Supplement and the Working Income Tax Benefit], you integrate it and you can actually increase its scope to reach every single Canadian and to ensure that no one in Canada would be below the LICO. No one will actually be prevented from meeting their basic needs and they will be freer to participate in their communities and societies.

And so the amount of the income supplement would bring the person above the LICO?

That’s right, at the level of the LICO for those who are under.

Economically, the Liberals have arguably kept us in a kind of holding pattern, using deficit spending to make some mild investments in infrastructure. What should the NDP do to improve the economy? To create new, good jobs, especially for young adults? And what should it emphasize so that Canadians understand and engage with their plans? This communication issue has sometimes been identified as a problem for the NDP.

Infrastructure is a good thing, actually, and we had an infrastructure platform in the last campaign, which was fairly significant as well. But you’re right, the Liberals promised to go into small deficits of ten billion to fund infrastructure. Canadians actually agreed with that. The problem is that we now are facing much larger deficits, almost three times that much, with very little infrastructure spending being done. I do believe that you can go into deficits if the returns will be good for economy, but you need to tell Canadians what you intend to do it for and bring some results in the end. When you just spend money without any accountability and without any results, I don’t call that a good deficit. But if it’s invested and gives working people [a hand up] and eventually brings a surplus to the society, it shouldn’t be shunned.

What people are looking for is, am I going to have a job?

I find it interesting and actually refreshing that you are talking about job creation. Because I believe we need to be a lot more aggressive in staking our ground in those terms — either economic growth or job creation. We talk a lot about redistribution and social programs, which is good, and the NDP is recognized and praised for its past work and its current vision on social issues. But in terms of economic issues, what people are looking for is, am I going to have a job? Is my job secure? The quality of a job is something that we don’t flesh out as much as our social vision for society. In my campaign, I will definitely have plans for proposals that will be addressing the issue of job creation, quality and security. I will have one element released before the end of April.

All in all, I think what I want our members and Canadians to know is that tinkering with the economy will not necessarily bring any more results than what the Liberals are getting right now. Because they are not getting results. The reason is that the economy has been entirely restructured over the last 30 years. That has created or exacerbated income inequality and instability and insecurity in the job market — what we inherited from Reaganism and Thatcherism. We have to propose something that will restructure the economy and start redesigning it to look more at long-term prospects.

The Leap Manifesto highlights an important divide for the NDP. It seems that there has been no follow-through to debate the manifesto at the riding level, despite the convention commitment. As leader, would you ensure that debate? And you are opposed to the Energy East pipeline. Will you personally be engaging in acts of direct resistance against Energy East if construction does go underway?

As you said, I’m opposed to Energy East. I’ve said that it doesn’t make sense economically or environmentally, and the same goes for the other two pipelines that have been talked about for the same reasons. What we have to look at as a priority is not only making the environmental assessment more rigorous — we should not be losing the forest for the trees in the sense that the fight that we have to lead is, really, climate change and a transition towards an economy based on renewables that will make pipelines obsolete and have no place in the economy of the future. And that has to be done while ensuring that no workers are left behind.

The Leap Manifesto is basically eight main articles that we all agree on because we’re New Democrats. One element is central to my campaign: basic income. The other items address the issues of environment and energy, which we are debating in this leadership race and which I strongly hope will be constructive in the sense of bringing us closer to that goal of an economy based on renewables.

But will you stand with people who are physically and peacefully trying to block the construction?

Well, listen, I’m not going to talk in hypotheticals here. I’m just telling you that I’m opposed to Energy East and that I’ve been fighting and I will be continuing to fight it on those grounds. But my priority as a politician is to try to ensure that the political solution will actually be there. I’ve been working with some of the groups in Quebec — because Energy East goes through my riding — so at this point this is what I can say.

Immigration and the status of refugees are hot issues right now across the United States and Europe. The NDP has asked for a 90-day suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement. How would you approach this issue as leader?

The issue of immigration, especially for refugees, is an issue, to me, of human rights. We have people who are fearing for their security who are coming in, and you’re right that we’re calling for a suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement because it is supposed to be for countries that are safe for refugees. At this point, I don’t think this is something the U.S. could qualify for under their regulations.

I’m just not sure, in my eyes, that BDS is the most constructive way to try and intervene in what’s happening in the Middle East.

Polling is one thing. But the right thing is a different thing. And the right thing is to actually welcome refugees, to actually help them and ensure that we are minimizing the risk and harm that can come to them, especially when they are trying to pass the border. It’s something, honestly, that is crucial in upholding human rights and refugee rights, which Canada has always, at least in words, been in favour of. It’s crucial, primordial to fight for that principle.

The implementation of Jordan's Principle has gained renewed attention in recent months. What would an NDP government do differently in order to equalize First Nations health care and also child welfare funding levels? And more generally, what would be your priorities on Aboriginal issues?

To implement the decision of the Human Rights Tribunal regarding child support services would be a first thing. This is something the Liberals promised. I can’t understand why Liberals are actually not interested in going in that direction. It seems so clear that this is the right thing to do.

Over and above this, another commitment that was made by us — but also by the Liberals and the Liberals don’t seem too intent on keeping it — is elimination of the 2 per cent ceiling on funding of social services in First Nations or Indigenous communities. This has been needed for a long time and it has resulted in massive underfunding, which we’re feeling the effects of now. Any type of meaningful relationship that the federal government has to have with First Nations, Métis nations, Inuit nations has to be along a nation-to-nation relationship. We need to respect our word and follow up on our word.

French question: A core segment of the NDP base cares a great deal about ending the Israel-Palestinian conflict and expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people through adoption of BDS measures. At the same time, it's not an issue to which the average Canadian is attuned. How would you approach this issue?

Editors’ note: Caron responded to this question in French, and we have translated the answer below. Unsurprisingly, the francophone Caron scored an A+ for this language skills from the editors of Ricochet’s French edition.

I’m proud to have voted against a Conservative motion that sought to condemn the BDS movement. I’m just not sure, in my eyes, that BDS is the most constructive way to try and intervene in what’s happening in the Middle East. I’ve been to Israel. I’ve also been to the West Bank, where I had a chance to speak to Israelis and to Palestinians, and I see a link with what has happened in Canada.

Under Stephen Harper, we spent 10 years trying to explain to the world that Stephen Harper was not Canada, and Canada was not Stephen Harper. In the same way, Israel is not Netanyahu, and Netanyahu is not Israel.

But there is a sense in Israel that we have abandoned the progressives. When I went there, an Israeli progressive approached me, one of the first people I met, and asked me, “Why have you abandoned us?”

There are progressive Israelis who want to work towards the same goals that we want as a progressive, social democratic party. For example, ending the colonization of the occupied territories and working towards a two-state solution. There are Israelis who want to work with us, but we have broken our ties with them. We need to be proud to stand side-by-side with Israeli parties that have the same positions as us, in the same way as the Conservatives were not afraid to support Likud and appear with Netanyahu.

I think a constructive approach is to re-establish the links we have lost, to convince our social democratic allies to do the same, and to undertake constructive work with our allies, on the Palestinian side as well, so that Canada can play a useful role in the Middle East.

If the Trans-Pacific Partnership is ratified before the 2019 election, would an NDP government under your leadership aim to withdraw from it?

It’s not a good deal. You know what? I would be open, even, to reopening — not necessarily withdrawing — but it’s my intention, eventually, to reopen some other agreements. The TPP is a bad deal. I would have no problem doing that. In other deals that we have, we could actually look at the possibility of ensuring that they move from being free trade deals, which mostly protect investments, to fair trade deals, which would include elements that would promote environmental, labour and human rights and promote health and safety standards. In that sense, I would actually be open to reopening trade agreements, starting with the countries we have signed with who have worst human rights records.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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