As part of our coverage of the NDP leadership, we’re running interviews with each of the candidates here at Macleans.ca. Previously, we chatted with Nathan Cullen, Peggy Nash, Paul Dewar, Niki Ashton and Martin Singh. Next up, we talk with Brian Topp. He and I spoke this morning and here is a slightly abridged transcript of our chat.
Q: I guess we’ll start on one of the issues that seems to have focused the campaign in the last week or so: this issue of Mr. Mulcair and where he would take the party. I know you believe that he would take the party to the centre. How do you think that would manifest itself? Do you see that in specific policy ways that he would change the party or redirect the party?
A: I think we’re having a debate about two views of the party. Mine is that the orthodoxy thinking that we have seen in Canada in the last 20 years or so has come from Liberals and Tories, who think that if you’ve got billions of dollars lying around in the federal government the best thing to do with them is to give them to rich people through tax cuts and that it makes sense to leave climate change to our children as an issue to deal with and that rising inequality is okay. That’s orthodox thinking in my mind. And new thinking comes from New Democrats who don’t agree with those priorities and propose alternatives. You can get back to a progressive tax system. You can deal with climate change now. You can work on equality now. An alternative view of the party, which I think Tom Mulcair essentially outlined when he launched his campaign, is that that’s wrong. That one of the problems that needs to be fixed in Canada is with our party. That our party needs to be reformed. And that what he has in mind in reforming the party is a reformation of the party somewhat along the lines of what Tony Blair did to the Labour party in the 1990s, which is an attempt to move the party more to the centre, to adopt an agenda that looks more like the agendas that have been pursued by Liberals and Conservatives because, in this argument, it’s the price of victory, the price of power. And therefore, the tax issue, for example, that I’ve outlined is not a priority, it shouldn’t be dealt with. Yes, we need to deal with climate change, while we’re having a debate about some of the details, and that equality isn’t really at the centre of our work. Those are the two visions of the party that are before us. They’re very familiar debates. People on the democratic left have been having this debate all around the world for a couple of decades now. My view is that parties that adopted that essentially Blairite approach were all defeated in recent rounds. And if you look at what progressives and social democrats are doing in the world these days, for example what Barack Obama is saying about his agenda for his second term, what Francois Hollande is running on in France, that modern social democrats, modern progressives are advancing a vision similar to the one I’m putting forward.
Q: The counter argument on the British Labour side would be that before they were defeated, they won. Several times. How would you respond to that?
A: That was true in its time, but now we’re talking about now. And I don’t think most people are inspired by a vision coming from social democrats which is basically saying that we’re wrong about what we believe in and that our opponents are right, so we’re going to be like them. In Canada, where we already have the Liberal party that has been historically very successful, in my view if you basically reform your party so that you’re trying to be the Liberals, at the end of the day, the public will vote for the real Liberals.
Q: Both of you and Tom seem to refer to what Jack did with the party. In your view, did Jack move the party to the centre?
A: I don’t think so. I think Jack updated the party. I think Jack talked about today’s issues. But I think, in his heart, Jack was a social democrat.
Q: Did he change the language of the party? One of the things that Tom seems to come back a lot is this idea that the language of the party needs to change or could be renewed or needs updating. Do you think Jack did that already?
A: Tom is attacking the working families language that the party was using five and ten years ago. And with the greatest respect to Tom, I don’t need to be instructed on that. The party updated its language, the way that it talks about its priorities, in the last two or three campaigns and the sort of newer language, the fresher language, the more inclusive language if you will, was used throughout our campaign in both English and French in 2011 and was being woven into our work in 2008 as well.
Q: What are the lessons of the Quebec success story for the NDP? What do you take away from that?
A: I think the lesson in Quebec politics is that Quebeckers were tired of 20 years of strike votes. And that they were persuaded that they didn’t just need to defend themselves in Ottawa, that they could cast a positive vote to remove Mr. Harper from office and to replace him with a federal government that was closer to their values. In that sense you could say that they came to share some of Jack Layton’s hopefulness and optimism, that it was possible to have a better federal government. And I think the underlying bones of that breakthrough will still be there in 2015 if we do our job.
Q: How much of it was Jack, in Quebec specifically?
A: Jack was absolutely critical to that breakthrough, there’s no question about it. We built that campaign around him, he had worked diligently for many years to connect with Quebeckers and he finally succeeded. It was very important, there’s no doubt about that.
Q: Does that make it harder though then to replicate?
A: I think there’s a lasting legacy. Which is having made the case successfully, it has been made. Which is that it is possible to cast a positive vote federally. So we can continue his work. But one of the things our Liberal friends discovered in recent electoral cycles is there’s no entitlements in politics. And what you have earned in one election isn’t necessarily what you’re going to have in the next one. You have to earn it again. And that would have been true if Jack remained our leader too.
Q: On taxes, the counterpoint that I think several candidates are making now is that they’ll deal with corporate taxes and tax havens and they’ll push for a Financial Transaction Tax. In your mind, is that enough to get the government on a sustainable funding track or is this where your proposals come in?
A: My basic point is if you accept the decisions the Conservatives made about the tax system then you have essentially accepted their agenda. They have broken the government’s revenues and if you don’t restore them then everything else we talk about is just talk. We don’t have the resources to do them. That’s a lesson you learn the hard way when you’ve been in government. Making lists of things to spend money on is the easiest thing you can do in government. Finding the resources for it, that’s the tough part. And setting priorities, that’s the tough part. I think we’ve made some progress in our party in this debate. Nathan Cullen, for example, ended up putting out a set of tax proposals, which are not identical to mine, but that are heading into the same direction. And that take this point: that if you don’t have the guts to take the Tories on on what they’ve done to the tax system, very much contrary to the principles and values of most Canadians, then everything else we talk about is just talk. This point has been accepted to a greater or lesser degree by my colleagues in the race. But it’s an issue that’s not going to go away.
Q: Is it your feeling that the NDP is—at the risk of over-simplifying it—that the NDP is on the right track and it needs to continue on that track? Is that essentially the argument?
A: There’s no entitlements in politics and you can’t rest on your laurels. Had Jack remained as leader he would face a big challenge now, which is to demonstrate that he and his team are ready to govern. And if I’m elected as leader, or whoever else is elected leader, will face the same challenge. But that doesn’t mean that we’re fundamentally wrong on our principles and values or in our basic proposal to the people of Canada. The people who have failed are the Liberals and Conservatives in office for the last 20 or 30 years. Look at the results. Look at what they did to the tax system. Look at what they failed to do on climate change. Look what they have permitted to happen in terms of the level of inequality in our society. And we are right to call for change on these priorities and I think Canadians will support us.
Q: How are you feeling going into this weekend?
A: I’m hopeful I’ll do well. And I’m optimistic that whatever happens, we’ll come together as a team when it’s over and we will get back to the job Canadians have elected us to do. I’m happy this long campaign is over. It’s been quite fun, it’s been a very interesting discussion, but it has also been long. And it is high time to get this decided and to get back to our work.
Q: Do you feel like the party had a chance to have its discussion and work through these issues? I think part of what’s gone on is that the press gallery sort of came late to the party and is now working through these things in the last couple weeks. Did the party itself work through all these issues over the last few months?
A: I think we had a good debate about the road we want to go on. I think we were having a good discussion about these issues … Are we social democrats or must we move to the centre? Are there specific tactics that we should decide now that we should adopt or is that unwise? I think we had quite a wide-ranging debate about that. Our party’s not used to thinking of itself as a government in waiting and we have had to get used to a new kind of debate. And so it’s been an interesting exercise for the party. But I’ve certainly been quite struck in the many, many, many meetings that I’ve held or attended in the last seven months at how seriously our members are taking all of this, how careful they’re listening and how carefully they’re weighing the choice.