Ed Broadbent on how the NDP can win this fall

Former party leader sees a social democratic nation ready to elect an NDP government
Broadbent Institute

Ed Broadbent was a member of parliament for over 24 years and leader of the federal New Democrats for 14. His record of 43 seats in the 1988 election stood as the NDP’s best election result until 2011, when it was obliterated by Jack Layton. To many party members, Broadbent is a quintessential elder statesman of a geographically, and often ideologically, diverse party. For those who question compromises made in pursuit of power, his continued belief in the party as the best vehicle to fight inequality indicates that the social democratic impulses of the party remain strong under the leadership of a Liberal transfuge.

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Ricochet spoke with Broadbent to find out his thoughts on the sudden surge that has New Democrats dusting off the #TM4PM hashtag Mulcair used during his 2012 leadership campaign. We asked whether the NDP can win in October, what impact inequality will have on the campaign, what to expect in Alberta, the odds of a guaranteed annual income and the impact of the Energy East pipeline debate on the election.

The last time the NDP was leading in national polls, if you don't count a brief period in 2012, you were the party leader. How does it make you feel after all these years to see the NDP back on the doorstep of power?

Well, it's frankly terrific. Back in '87-'88, we were really on an upward swing, and then for a variety of complicated reasons went back down. I would say what is going on now is almost the culmination of the rejuvenation that began when Jack Layton became leader. I supported Jack for the leadership, but there were also a lot of new younger people who came into the party then, and there has been a constant increase in degree of activity since that time, not just in Quebec but across the country. You know the situation in Quebec going back to the orange wave, and this has continued.

Since Jack has been leader, I've been by and large an interested spectator, and I've been very pleased to see the development of social democratic ideas and policies which have now reached into Alberta.

In February the NDP were at their lowest point since 2012. Now they're in a dead heat with the other main parties in the polls. To what do you attribute this surge in support for the NDP over the past three months?

This is complicated guesswork, and nothing better than that. But I would put my finger on two major factors, one positive from the point of view of the party, and one which we had no control over. The positive one is the job that Tom has been doing, for over a year now, in really getting a social democratic, progressive agenda out there. Whether it's a $15-per-day childcare, attacking part of the poverty issue through a $15 minimum wage, or environmental innovation and notably the attack on Bill C-51, which is a terrifically important move to counter the anti-human-rights policies, frankly, of the Harper government.

I think these things cumulatively, and especially Tom's forensic skills in the House of Commons, all of this coming together began to pay off. On the flip side the bloom has come off Trudeau and the Liberal party to some real extent. People were looking very much at both the NDP and Liberals as alternatives to Harper, a number of people misbelieving, in my view, that the Liberal party is a progressive party, but nonetheless I think a lot of Canadians were thinking that.

If Trudeau had any other name I don't think he'd have been having the free ride he's been having in the polls since becoming leader. But the bloom came off his leadership in recent months, in part I think because of the contrast between the kind of leadership Tom Mulcair has been providing, and his own sort of flip flopping on issues, symbolized I think very clearly by C-51. Most progressive Canadians would have seen that as a pretty cynical approach, to say you're opposed to the legislation but then at the same time, virtually in the same sentence, say you're going to vote for it.

One thing that's interesting that many people have picked up on — Jamie Biggar from LeadNow posted about it on Facebook — is that when more right-wing media outlets talked about the NDP surge they tended to attribute it exclusively to the Alberta election, while more progressive or centrist media outlets tended to credit C-51 and the Alberta result. Would you say it was more one than the other or both?

Absolutely both, and I don't really think any intellectually sophisticated causal analysis could come to any other conclusion than that it was both. This is where I praise Tom for doing it. Roy Romanow and I wrote an op-ed in the Globe attacking the bill just after it was introduced, and then Tom and the caucus took a good position and it was a courageous one, because they didn't know where the popular opinion was going to go. Now it has come around.

I think that has played a role for many progressive Canadians who came to see C-51 for the extreme piece of legislation it is, and it became a motivating factor in their voting intentions. This is one of those issues where it has become a vote-determining issue, and that has benefitted the NDP. But at the same time the symbolic significance of the Alberta vote quite clearly has played a role as well.

That's very hard to quantify, and maybe some sophisticated polling studies will show this, but Alberta had a spinoff effect across the country for a number of people who had maybe not supported the NDP federally before. They said, “Well, clearly the people in Alberta, as the perceived outside of Canada, are more inclined to be on the conservative side,” or so Canadians think, “and if they can say it's time to try the NDP if you really want some progressive change, then maybe we should too.” I think that had an effect on voters across the country.

A number of those voters, who go back and forth between us and the Liberals in opposition if they want to have a vote against the Conservatives, something that changes their minds is, can they win? Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals have had a certain advantage with those Canadians who are saying, “I just want to get Harper out, and maybe the Liberals are more likely to do this than the NDP.”

The Alberta result showed, no, the NDP can do it as well. So those Canadians who were hesitating came around and said, “No, we're going to do what the people in Alberta did, and really choose progressive change by voting for the NDP.”

That raises a question for me looking ahead: Do you think the NDP can win this fall? And if so, what are the steps they need to take to get from here to winning an election that's still months away?

I would say keep doing what you're doing, and that's two-fold. Tom and the caucus and the party apparatus should continue to promote and advocate progressive policies in the confidence that a majority of Canadians can be persuaded we're right on those things. Keep it up, I would say, don't change any of that. Continue with thoughtful, progressive policies.

The second thing Tom is doing is that outside Quebec Tom isn't very well known. He's known by those who follow politics carefully, and those of us who watch question period from time to time can see how effective a parliamentarian he is, but most Canadians don't do that and aren't that focused on day-to-day politics. So what he began during the past year is to get out, particularly in English Canada, to meet people in more informal circumstances. This is crucial. People in Quebec know him well, first as a Quebec cabinet minister, then as a federal leader based in Quebec, so Quebecers know Tom quite well, but other Canadians don't know him as well by a long shot. Part two is you've done the policy thing, now it's the personal thing, get out and meet more Canadians, particularly in English Canada. And again I can say just keep doing what you're doing. That is what they're doing now.

Through the Broadbent Institute you've released a lot of polling about the attitudes of Canadians towards inequality. Can you tell me what your polling has found about those attitudes, and what impact you think that is having, or will have, on the federal election campaign?

In each of the two years prior to this one we released a rather comprehensive survey of attitudes, done by a credible polling firm at arm’s-length from the Institute. Questions were on a whole range of issues, like do you care about unfair taxes? Do you care about income inequality? Would you favour government action to improve our pension situation, particularly in the case of the CPP? Are you in favour of taking action on a sustainable growth policy in terms of dealing with the environment? Now on all of these questions, virtually all of them, including on attitudes towards the trade union movement, something in the order of 50 per cent or higher of Canadians are positive.

As a lifelong social democrat myself, I was very reassured. It had always been my guess, back when I was leader, that Canadians for complex reasons had evolved as a social democratic nation in the population, but regrettably not yet at the national level in our politics. The polling data meshes very successfully with the political objectives of the NDP. From my point of view it's encouraging.

Speaking of Canada as possibly a social democratic nation, the mayor of Calgary recently floated the idea of a negative income tax, which is another way of describing a guaranteed annual income. I think this is an idea that's been around in Canadian politics since you were the leader of the party. Now Naheed Nenshi suggested this was something the Notley government might consider, especially given new minister Joe Ceci's past in poverty work. So I was wondering what you think of the idea of a guaranteed annual income, if you support it, if you think it's a policy that should be advocated for at the federal level?

I think it should be looked at very seriously. Interestingly enough the first paper published by the Broadbent Institute was a paper by Tom Kent, who is a highly distinguished Canadian, principal advisor to Lester Pearson when he was prime minister, and who was the intellectual father of the social democratic programs at the national level brought in in the ’60s. Medicare, Canada Pension, et cetera. Tom Kent did a paper for us on a minimum wage, which you can read on our website, and it is something which I think should be considered seriously.

Moving away from federal politics and back to Alberta for a minute, when you see the election of an NDP government in arguably Canada's most conservative province it's obviously quite surprising. How do you expect that government to fare, and what are the major challenges you think they'll need to overcome?

All the early signs for me are very encouraging. I don't know Rachel Notley personally, but I've watched with increasing appreciation for her ability and skills, her candour and her personal warmth. But it's her tough mindedness, and good decision-making that will be most important. The size of the cabinet was a very good beginning I thought, to have one of the smallest cabinets in Canada, 12 ministers instead of 20 or 24 like Ontario or the federal level — these are obscenely large and wasteful cabinets. She has a small one, which is fully capable I'm sure, in terms of managing a province, so that's a very good beginning.

Already as we speak she's begun to implement her promise to reverse the PC cuts in education and health. So she's moving ahead with what she committed the party to do during the campaign. Significantly she has not backed away in any way from her commitments to the energy sector but has essentially said she wants to sit down and talk to the leading figures in the petroleum sector, which makes immense sense. Any premier of any party has to deal honestly and frankly with the major industries in their province. In Alberta it's petroleum, and she's said she wants to sit down and have frank discussions.

In my view, she's taking all the right steps. She's going ahead with the review of royalty policy, which the people of Alberta supported, so she's hanging in there clearly on her commitments.

In Quebec around 70 per cent oppose the Energy East pipeline, and over half of Canadians do as well in polls. As it stands right now neither the NDP nor Liberals have a clear position on the pipeline. Do you think one or both parties will feel compelled to take a position as they fight for votes, particularly in Quebec where the Bloc could use the pipeline issue to act as a spoiler in close races?

I'm not on the inside. I'm just observing what the party is doing at the provincial and federal level as an outsider, and I'm just not sure when and what the policy position will be on that. But I've been following Tom's policy initiatives so far, and I've been very impressed. So I would expect he'll do the right thing on that, however he decides.

Do you think they need to take a position? Both Liberals and NDP have avoided taking a clear position thus far. Do you think they'll be forced to take one before the election?

I normally like a party to be clear on where it stands, but I also know from living political reality that when you take a position, a particular key one, when and what that position should be has to be determined from the inside…. I really don't feel confident that I'm in a position to give a clear answer to that, as clear as I would like to.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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