NDP leadership candidate Paul Dewar on the grassroots, fixing foreign policy, helping the poor, and more.
Dewar: 'Anyone who's serious about winning the leadership has to take B.C. seriously.'
Paul Dewar is direct when asked why he wants to lead Canada's New Democratic Party: "I think I'm the best person to take our party to the next level."
That kind of talk sounds audacious in a race where several of his competitors answered the same question by talking about how the party would rather not be having the leadership race at all, it having been made necessary by Jack Layton's death. There's a legacy to continue, and they are humbly offering to continue it, should members see fit to put their trust in them.
Having won official Opposition status in last May's election and moving past the Liberal party, the NDP is likely to mount the strongest challenge to Stephen Harper's Conservative government in the planned 2015 election.
That makes the NDP's leadership race key to Canada's future, said Dewar. "It's not just to be leader of the official Opposition. It's to be leader of our party and aspire to be prime minister of this country."
Profile foreign policy
The MP for Ottawa Centre, 48-year-old Dewar talks about building the party and preparing to form the government. "The history of our party is a grassroots party," he said. "We do best when we engage the grassroots."
At the same time, the former foreign affairs critic and teacher says there's a need to attend to policy areas that recent governments have neglected. He'd return Canada to being a leader on the international stage, address peace and security issues, and build a more compassionate country, he said.
CANDIDATE NIKI ASHTON: 'YOUNGEST VETERAN'
When Delta North MLA Guy Gentner introduced Niki Ashton, a candidate to lead the federal NDP, to the B.C. legislature in November, he stressed her youth.
"If all things go according to plan, she'll be the youngest prime minister, at the age of 33," he said.
Speaking with The Tyee, Ashton said she was the youngest woman in Parliament when she was first elected in 2008, but that changed in last spring's election. "I'm now old, officially," she said. "I'm the youngest veteran."
Asked about the issues Canadian youth face, she said, "A critical one right now is the economy. I mean young people are facing some of the highest rates of unemployment in decades."
The daughter of Manitoba cabinet minister and long time MLA Steve Ashton, she noted that work prospects are changing and young people are entering "increasingly, a labour market that is geared towards the short term contract, less stable than anything our parents were faced with."
They join that unstable job market with a record level of student debt, she said. "It's a pretty grim picture in terms of young people finding their economic footing and being able to start a life at the same or a more grand level than their parents."
Nor do housing prices allow young people to get established, she said. "Our parents would have been able to buy a house out of university with a job or getting on with whatever, university or not, but that's no longer the case."
The environment is another source of uncertainty for young people, especially with a federal government that appears not to care about it, she said. Noting financial security is impossible without environmental sustainability, she added, "Our generation will have the most to pay if we continue down that path, and that's what we're saying, we have to get off that path."
She said she'll release a housing plan later in the campaign that will include details on how to make home ownership more affordable.
On the economic front, she said she supports measures that allow Canadians to control their own economic destiny. There is a trend towards foreign ownership of companies that use Canada's natural resources. That needs to be reversed so jobs adding value can be kept in Canada and our resources can be used to create good paying jobs, she said. -- A.M.
"I want to see we have a coherent foreign policy that's in the best interest of our country and in line with our values," he said. "We are going to have a country, and I'd like to be a prime minister, who says we are going to take better care of each other and not apologize for that."
Whether it's the Middle East, Africa or climate change, Canada should get involved when other countries ask for help, he said. We have a strong tradition of participating in United Nations peace keeping missions, but are now 55 out of 108 countries in our contributions.
We should also be more active in international development, he said. "Canadians are thirsting for that." Canada needs to be a leader on foreign policy, not just take positions that echo those of other states, he said. "We need to promote that more and put it out there as something that's a priority for us as a government in waiting."
In March, Dewar championed a private member's bill to make it easier to provide low-cost generic drugs to Africa, which passed in the House of Commons.
Too often the media and politicians themselves seem caught up in horserace politics, rather than issues, he said. The focus is on pocketbook issues, what politicians will do for individual voters, he said.
"I'm convinced the way we win is to open up the debate to other issues," he said. The NDP needs to give people more reasons to vote, in contrast to the Conservatives whose strategy in recent elections has been to suppress participation, he said.
Towards the end of the interview, however, he did acknowledge the last three stories about him had looked at his ideas. "When I've put ideas out there, they've been covered," he said.
Speaking to The Tyee, he said his chances in the race are "as good as anyone's," and covered a wide range of issues.
There needs to be more support for home care, and the health accord debate should go beyond a discussion of funding and look at what kind of system we want, he said.
He suggests creating a national pharmacare program. While that sounds big, it would be easy to begin coordinating drug purchases between all the provinces, which would provide economies of scale and save governments' money, he said. "That could be done right away."
Poverty is best fought by making sure people get the money and support they need, he said. He suggests taking all the benefits that are already provided for seniors, children and families and bundling them into one program.
"It would have an impact immediately," he said, noting it would require coordination with the provinces.
Asked if that amounts to a "guaranteed annual income," he said calling it that and presenting it as a new program would scare people. Reorganizing programs that already exist would be more likely to find support, he said.
The federal government could invest in projects to improve the value added to natural resources in sectors like forestry, Dewar said. One way would be to give tax advantages to companies that are creating and keeping jobs here. Tax cuts would be for the companies that are providing value, not given across the board, he said.
Asked about the Enbridge proposal to build twin pipelines between Alberta's tar sands and Kitimat and the Pacific Ocean shipping routes, Dewar said, "I think that's frightening when you consider there are concerns right now."
Human health, water contamination and Fort McMurray's air quality are all issues, he said. "We haven't figured out the balance," he said.
And the pipeline itself will have risks, he added. "Spills happen and problems occur."
The proposed addition of seats to the House of Commons rightly recognizes that B.C., Alberta and Ontario need more representation, Dewar said. It does not, however, address our electoral system's real shortcomings, he said. "I find what's more typical with people is not necessarily having more MPs in the house, but how MPs get there."
Dewar supports moving to a mixed member proportional system of representation, where the House of Commons better reflects parties' percentage of the popular vote, a position in keeping with the NDP's platform.
Harper's proposed changes to the Senate should be junked, he said. Even if senators are elected, they will still need to be appointed by the prime minister, and they will be serving in a system that's not representative.
"It's an entire mess," he said. B.C. in particular is underrepresented, with six of 105 Senate seats, despite having 13 per cent of the population.
The Reform Party, where Harper's roots are, wanted a "Triple E" Senate, Dewar pointed out. "There was the 'equal' part." The other two Es stand for "elected" and "effective."
While in B.C. in November, Dewar's meetings included NDP MLAs Rob Fleming, Spencer Chandra-Herbert, Shane Simpson and Mike Farnworth.
"I think anyone who's serious about winning the leadership has to take B.C. seriously," he said.
None have so far endorsed him. Two The Tyee spoke with have said they are waiting until later in the race when they've heard from everyone to make a decision. Dewar did announce the support of two "prominent" British Columbians, former North Island MP Catherine Bell and a newly elected councillor from Cumberland, Roger Kishi.
With the vote scheduled for March 24, 2012, there's still a long way to go in the campaign.
It's important to keep the agenda realistic so it can be delivered on, said Dewar. "It's a matter of not taking on too much," he said. As either an oppostion or a government, "You can easily take on 50 different issues."
That does mean an NDP government won't be able to make all the change that's needed at once. "People understand that. People live their lives that way," he said.