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Fix Canada's 'Gross Disparity': Topp

New Democrat leadership candidate on taxes, energy, Parliamentary representation, and more.

By Andrew MacLeod 16 Nov 2011 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

Since announcing his campaign to lead the federal New Democratic Party, Brian Topp has paid special attention to getting the ducks lined up in British Columbia.

The metaphor is his. "You've got to hunt where the ducks are," he told reporters on the steps of the B.C. legislature in late October. "The ducks are here in British Columbia."

The NDP may be a national party with members and areas of strength across the country, especially following electoral gains in Quebec in last May's federal election, but B.C. has 30,000 of the party's roughly 86,000 members. That strength is partly thanks to the provincial party having generated sign-ups as part of its own leadership race earlier this year.

As Topp, often described as a good strategist, observed, "Anybody who wants to be a leader of the federal NDP must do well in British Columbia."

That could give Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen, based in Smithers, a hometown advantage, and he did announce the support of four MLAs this week. And the point is surely not lost on Outremont MP Thomas Mulcair, considered a front-runner along with Topp, who visited the province in recent weeks.

But so far, with the race in its early stages, neither has attracted the number of endorsements Topp has been able to announce. They include some of the province's most respected NDP politicians and campaign workers.

Support from Carole James, MLAs

That particular day at the legislature in Victoria, Topp was announcing the support of five MLAs from Vancouver Island -- the party's "cathedral," as he called it -- including Victoria-Beacon Hill representative and former leader of the provincial party, Carole James.

Earlier in the month, Topp had announced the support of four MLAs and two MPs from Surrey. James' former chief of staff Jim Rutkowski is working on the Topp campaign, as are former outreach director Raj Sihota and former party secretary and current Adrian Dix supporter Gerry Scott.

Topp understands the importance of building a strong economy and using it to address the inequity in Canada, James said. "I've been really pleased about the work Brian's doing talking about those issues." He also has a strategic mind that will help turn those values into action, she said.

Following that announcement, Topp spent more than 20 minutes talking with The Tyee in a legislature hallway. He answered a wide range of questions efficiently, sometimes with a smile, once with a laugh, and other times giving the impression that he'll suffer fools if necessary.

"The first thing to say about the federal leadership race is this is a race that nobody wants," he said when asked why he wants the job.

The goal he'd been working on was to make Jack Layton the prime minister, building on an election where the party won 103 seats, came second in 100 and became the official Opposition for the first time in the party's history, he said.

The plan was to review party policies and be ready to win the next election, he said. "It was a big job to do. It was one I was looking forward to and tragically, unbelievably, Jack was taken away from us."

Instead, he spent much of the summer sitting with Layton before he died, he said. "He told us, 'find a way to carry on my work,' and so that's what I'm aiming to do having put my name forward."

Seats advocacy

Were Layton still alive and had B.C. Premier Christy Clark followed through on her pledge to call an early election, Topp would have been managing the provincial party's campaign.

"I think we were very ready indeed," he said, adding he believed the team came together well and had a compelling slate, message and platform. "Had the government called the election, they would have been handily defeated by the New Democrats. In that sense, I may be one of the very few people in British Columbia at the time who regretted that we didn't have an election."

Despite the connections to the province's politics, Topp is not necessarily free to advocate for it within confederation. His answers often focused on Western Canada, rather than B.C. in particular.

"Western Canada and Ontario need more seats, there's no doubt about that," he said, for example, when asked about a bill that would give B.C. six more seats in the House of Commons.

The bill leaves the province under-represented for its population, while also giving Quebec three more seats to keep its representation in line with the national average and keeping smaller provinces like Prince Edward Island over-represented.

Advocacy on the matter will be left to the provincial party, however. "Our party here in British Columbia will advocate for more seats than there appears to be in the bill, which is their job to do as spokespeople for British Columbia," said Topp. "Adrian Dix is a great spokesperson for B.C."

The federal party will look at the bill and decide whether it's acceptable or in need of further amendment, he said speaking on the day the bill became public. "My view is, it's a good start. Western Canada and Ontario need those seats."

It's worth noting there are another 30,000 NDP members spread across the three prairie provinces, giving the West a majority in the party and the ability to pick the winner in the leadership contest.

Harper's Senate fix unfair to BC: Topp

The seats issue raises a broader question, however. To what degree can a party that's had a major breakthrough in Quebec represent the interests of the West?

Topp says simply, "Yes, we can advocate for Western Canada and for all Canadians, and I think the trick is to find the reasonable compromises that make the country work."

On other questions, such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's plan for the Senate, his criticism is sharp. B.C. has six of 105 Senate seats, far less than its population would warrant. While a senator from New Brunswick represents 75,000 people, one from B.C. represents some 710,000 people, almost 10 times as many.

"Mr. Harper is proposing an elected Senate, which would therefore have the same powers as the House, with Western Canada grossly represented in the chamber," Topp said. "He's proposing the worst of all possible worlds."

He opposes the plan "in particular because it is so grossly unfair to British Columbia and Alberta," he said.

The change would require opening the constitution, and if the constitution is being opened anyway it would be better to just abolish the Senate, he said, articulating a position that has been part of past NDP platforms.

Wiser use of resources needed

On another question of interest to B.C., Topp said the oil and gas industry should be developed in ways that are less dependent on exports and that keep jobs here.

"I question the whole model of pipeline development, west and south, for Western Canada," he said. "I think this is a fundamental issue for the western Canadian energy sector."

Comparing it to raw log exports, he said the current model is to mine as much as possible, for as cheap as possible and charge as low royalties as possible, then "to pound essentially unprocessed bitumen into pipelines, to ship them to Texas and other customers overseas, to be refined elsewhere, then sold back to us as finished products."

The development is happening in a way that's too fast and is overheating both Alberta and the nation's economies, he said. It's environmentally reckless and economically foolish, he said, "the whole model of us keeping the smoke, and them getting the jobs."

Rather than Ottawa impose an energy policy, a Trudeau move that spurred the rise of the Reform and Conservative parties, the West needs to build a consensus on how the resource should be developed, Topp said.

The aim should be to have a high-end, well-developed economy that adds value to the resources extracted here, rather than exporting them raw, he said.

"There is a role for government to make decisions about what kind of economy we want," he said. "And let's be clear, the government is making those decisions now. The government has decided this is the model of the economy that it wants, and it is on the wrong track."

Along with reshaping the economy, the country's wealth needs to be better shared, he said. The gap between people at the top and the bottom of the income scale has been growing, resulting in what Topp calls a "gross disparity."

"It is time for a national government that is going to push in the other direction, that is going to commit itself seriously to building a more equal country," he said. "That includes the tax system, which has numerous reverse Robin Hood measures in it that are designed to benefit people who need help the least."

Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has called that vision "a dream," Topp said. "It is indeed a dream. A dream we are pursuing for a more equal country and our task is to become Mr. Flaherty's nightmare by being an effective opponent, and that's what we're going to do."

NDP members will pick a new party leader on Mar. 24, 2012.

Coming: A wide-ranging Tyee interview with NDP leadership candidate Thomas Mulcair.

[Tags: Politics.]  [Tyee]

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