Peggy Nash’s not-so-long shot at the NDP leadership

The Toronto MP pitches government as the great job protector

A long shot no longer

Photo by Blair Gable

The seeds of a political life can be planted in the most unlikely places. For Peggy Nash, the Toronto MP who ranks among the serious contenders for the NDP leadership, the Languedoc countryside in southern France proved fertile ground. As a 20-year-old University of Toronto French major, she spent the summer of 1971 there as an au pair to polish her language skills. The couple who employed her happened to be French journalists back from covering political upheaval in Latin America. For a suburban Toronto kid who hadn’t been much engaged by politics, their worldly talk made a deep impression. “It got me interested and led me afterwards to doing solidarity work with Chileans and Salvadorians,” Nash recalls.

In fact, she went on to work for causes of all sorts—from feminism to environmentalism. But her main route to politics was that thoroughly traditional New Democrat path, the labour movement. Starting out as an Air Canada ticket agent straight out of university, Nash climbed the union hierarchy to become the first woman to lead the negotiation of a major auto industry contract, bargaining for the Canadian Auto Workers with Ford Canada in 2005. Her prominence in Toronto left-wing circles put her squarely in Jack Layton’s sights. The NDP leader, who died last summer from cancer, recruited her to run for Parliament. In what turned into one of the country’s most hotly contested ridings, she was defeated in Toronto’s Parkdale-High Park in 2004, then won there in 2006, lost the seat to to high-profile Liberal Gerard Kennedy in 2008, and took it back in 2011. [Thank you to commenter Christopher W Schulz for correcting the earlier version of the sequence of election results in Parkdale-High Park.]

In Nash’s leadership bid, that track record for tenacity matters. Her manner is typically unflappable, occasionally to the point of blandness. Evidence of a fighter’s streak helps among the NDP undecided. In the most recent leadership debate in Winnipeg, she positioned herself as keeper of the Layton flame, taking rival Thomas Mulcair to task for suggesting the NDP still needs to modernize itself, even after the late leader’s 2011 election breakthrough. “We got the support of 4.5 million people,” she said. “Don’t you think that proves that our party has been renewing itself?”

Among other contenders, Brian Topp, Layton’s former campaign director, has emphasized tax hikes on capital gains and on anyone earning $250,000 or more. Nash tries to shift the emphasis. “I think the NDP has often focused on wealth redistribution,” she said in an interview. “I’ve tried to focus on creating good jobs.” Her platform calls for government to more directly choose which companies will get federal grants and loans. She calls for an R & D innovation fund to target high-tech firms, tax credits for companies that buy advanced equipment, and for forcing foreign companies investing in Canada to make binding employment commitments.

Challenged on how government can be counted on to pick the right companies to back and protect, she counters the Conservative approach of across-the-board corporate tax cuts “just hasn’t worked.” When it comes to battling the Tories, Nash can point to a concrete case of the government acquiescing to her approach: as a rookie MP, she helped lead the push against an American corporation’s plan to buy MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., the British Columbia space technology company. The Conservatives ultimately blocked the takeover in 2008.

Nash’s preoccupation with protecting and creating jobs runs deep. Her father worked at a massive General Electric industrial lighting factory in one of Toronto’s early post-World War II suburbs. That plant, though, long ago closed down, replaced by condos, and its jobs have gone overseas—a common story across North America. Nash came of age as an airline workers’ union official during a period of rapid deregulation, intensifying competition, and the privatization of Air Canada. That experience shaped her views about how government should play a more activist role in a harsh global economy.

She was also inspired by a speech Helen Clark, New Zealand’s Labour prime minister from 1999 to 2008, gave at a women’s labour conference in 2003 in Australia. Clark inveighed against deregulation and tax cuts, and spoke in favour of spending on social programs. “They were doing things in New Zealand,” Nash says. “I was getting frustrated in Canada.”

Her best chance to shake off that frustration, Nash figured, was to position herself to be industry minister in a future Layton government. Instead, after his death, she opted to try to succeed him. She looked like a long shot, as Topp and Mulcair were the early favourites. One veteran NDP official said early discussion among some Nash fans was less about her chances of winning than whether she could avoid embarrassment. That concern eased as neither Topp nor Mulcair pulled away, and Ottawa’s Paul Dewar and B.C.’s Nathan Cullen further divided the NDP membership. The winner at the NDP’s Toronto convention March 23-24 is impossible to predict with any confidence.

Nash has picked up key endorsements, including Pierre Ducasse, a former Layton adviser in Quebec, where securing the NDP’s stunning election breakthrough is arguably the party’s top priority. (Nash’s fluent French is an asset there.) She got the nod last week from CAW president Ken Lewenza, perhaps predictably. After all, union insiders figured out long ago not to underestimate her. Nash’s leadership rivals may now be learning the same lesson.


Peggy Nash’s not-so-long shot at the NDP leadership

  1. The leader we need!

  2. Peggy Nash, the best Prime Minister Canada has yet to have

  3. Peggy is a great choice for leader; she moves beyond the traditional NDP talking points and reminds us that Canadians are looking at more than just social issues, they also need to believe we can lead on the economy. We are a strong party with great policy, and with Peggy at the helm we are sure to be leaders on many fronts. I honestly believe Peggy will bring a positive change to the voters’ perception of the New Democrats. She is a leader that I trust, that I believe in.

  4. Apparently no one’s watched a single debate…Peggy has done nothing to impress,,,Nathan Cullen is the best person in the race without question,,,

  5. If NDP`ers choose Nash they will be carrying on the winning tradition of their Party when they chose McLaughlin and McDonough who each won their own seats while leading their Party to 9 seats in 1993 and 1997.

  6. Nash beat Sarmite Bulte in 06 , not Gerrard Kennedy. Also, the latest leadership debate was in Montreal on Sunday, March 04

    • Was about to make the exact point.

      Peggy lost to Sarmite Bulte in ’04.  Beat her in ’06 then lost to Gerard in ’08 and then won again in 2011.

  7. Peggy would be the best leader for the NDP in terms of having progressive policies and for her understanding of economics. However, a lot of people are going to vote for Nathan Cullen because he is the one with the realistic policies and willing to cooperate with the Liberals to stop the Cons in 2015. Unfortunately, no NDP candidate is interested in talking about the biggest issue facing the country:  http://nickfillmore.blogspot.com/2012/02/ndp-leadership-candidates-ducking.html

    • Cullen is not going to win. The Dippers are voting using a preferential ballot system, and none of the candidates have particularly strong first ballot support (Mulcair seems to be the frontrunner, as best I can tell). Having a bold policy – like proposing strategic cooperation with the Liberals – is problematic in that kind of a system, because it limits the potential for second choice votes.

      Nash is pretty well-placed to pick up the second choice preferences of other candidates, particularly Topp and Ashton. Dewar has been making the case that he is the logical second choice, but I think his lack of French fluency will (and should) limit his ability to pick up support in later rounds. However, I don’t think Nash is the right leader for the NDP. They’ve got to consolidate their gains in Quebec, and cement their position as the primary governing alternative to the Conservative. Nominating an English Canadian leader from the CUPE wing of the party is the wrong way to accomplish that. I have little doubt that Mulcair is the one Harper fears most. 

  8. Nash has House experience, speaks French and upholds Layton’s vision. She can take on the scandal ridden Conservatives!

  9. Not a word about her support for the Libyan war last year. Every NDP mp supported the war as well. With wars in the planning against Syria and Iran what can we expect from the NDP. Wars are decided elsewhere and all 3 Canadian parties march in tune. We don’t have a party that truly looks after Canadian interests.  Harper is prime minister because he attended a Bilderberger (the New World Order) meeting and was given the stamp of approval by them. The Canadian media, which also attends Bilderberger meetings, then sold him to the public. An election just gives the air of legitamacy to whichever candidate the Bilderberger group want as leader. Democracy is just an illusion to keep people in line.

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