As part of our coverage of the NDP leadership, we’re running interviews with each of the candidates here at Macleans.ca. Next up, Paul Dewar. We chatted this past Monday.
Q: To start, during yesterday’s debate one of the topics that came up was that Thomas Mulcair wants to change or modernize, I think was the word he used, the party. First of all, what do you make of that talk? What do you think he’s hinting it?
A: Well, you’ll have to talk to Tom to understand what he means by that. What was interesting and I think surprising for many of us on the stage was he was suggesting that the party isn’t modern enough right now and that even though we won official opposition, we really weren’t up to speed as a party. And my whole Next 70 plan, which I had to explain to him, is about taking our message further and, if you will, modernizing the technique in which we take our message to Canadians. It was confusing. I mean, he, on the one hand, he was suggested that there hadn’t been success in the West and then he had to qualify it because he was in a province where we won back-to-back-to-back majorities. I’m not sure what to make of it, other than he seems to be trying to frame his candidacy as ‘I’m the person who can take the message to win over others.’ And then he’s added something now—a strong, structured party—without evidence and without really explaining it. Like what do you mean by that, Tom? I’ve laid out my plan and he even questioned me about it. So there’s, in many ways, no there there in terms of what he’s going to do differently, other than trying to frame himself as someone who is the guy to win over those voters we need to win over. Which is what we all want to do, obviously, if we’re going to go to the next level. So I found it strange and I think it was insulting to many people in the crowd, who are very traditional Prairie New Democrats, who actually see themselves as pragmatic, modern social democrats. And they’ve won governments that way. So it was a bit odd. And I’m not sure if he understood his context.
Q: I’m not quite clear to what degree the debate is actually happening within the party, but to the degree that it is, where do you find yourself on does the party need to go to the centre or does the party need to continue on the path it’s on? Do you take a particular position on that?
A: I’d like to build on the work that we had done in the last election, which was fine-tuning our message and small, practical steps to get to a more equitable, egalitarian society. I think that’s what’s proven successful in the past and certainly my connections to the Manitoba party illustrate that I’m very much interested in taking that path. In doing so though, you don’t say, well, we’re not going to talk about the importance of our relationship with labour or the importance of working people. You actually open it up to say and we think that other people should benefit from solid pensions and benefits and that government has a role to play here. So it’s a pragmatic message, it’s a message that is in line with where we were in the last campaign. And many of my ideas either are taken from the [party’s] platform or are extensions therein. So I’m a pragmatic social democrat.
Q: On taxes, to clarify first, do you rule out the sorts of ideas that Nathan Cullen and Brian Topp have put out, in terms of income taxes, and specific to Brian’s platform, capital gains and stock options? Are you ruling those out right now?
A: I’m not focused on them, I’m more concerned about fixing what is a leaky cup right now. If you just bring in more measures that people will find ways around, what do you gain? My starting point is two-fold. One is that Brian and I look at this differently. I think his is … a tax debate. I’m looking at what services, what should the government be doing. It’s a very different orientation. It’s what’s the role of government in our economy. His is more looking at how do we look at the tax side and then maybe decide after that what we’re going to do. And so that all to say, I’ve talked about the corporate tax level … talked about tax havens and then I’ve talked about an FTT, a financial transactions tariff. That’s the starting point for me. And then we have to look at where are the other loopholes. Before raising taxes, I want to be assured what the effects would be on the economy and this wouldn’t just become more water leaking out of the cup. And we haven’t done that for years. Romeo brought this point up and it was well taken by me, is that when you look at all of the different credits and you look at all the different pieces in the most recent budgets. Look at how they’re working and who they’re benefiting. I mean, some of these tax credits are for people who might not need them. So I’d like to look at those. That hasn’t been addressed and I think we need to look at that as well. That’s the kind of fairness within our system.
Q: So would you say then that the boutique tax credits are on the table?
A: Yes, I’d like to look at those, absolutely. Who are they benefiting? I know why they were brought in. And I think our argument to people should be these tax credits versus let’s reduce the cost for your parents’ home care, their pharmacare, your kids’ education. Look at that debt burden versus this kind of tax credit you’re getting. It’s like those coupon books that kids bring home from school for fundraisers. You buy one dinner, you get another half price. Well, you have to buy the dinner first. All those are dependent upon having taxable income. What about people who can’t afford a ticket to the show? They aren’t going to be benefiting from those tax credits. I’d like to look at that.
Q: What about the argument that I think both Cullen and Topp make which is that the tax system as it is, it’s just unfair?
A: I would like to look at the fairness within the system. And again I’ll go back to my orientation: what is the role of government, what programs do we want to put in place and then, I’ve got tax measures I’ve already looked at and then let’s look at the tax system, absolutely, and the tax credits, no problem looking at it. Where Brian’s jumped to is these are exactly what we’re going to do and here’s the revenues we’re going to generate from it. I’d like to know a little more about his numbers, I’d like to know some about his assumptions. But, for me, it’s also what are we debating here? Are we having a tax debate or are we having a debate around servies for people? And I’d like to start with let’s commit to the fact we should bring in homecare, we should bring in pharmacare and we should be helping people with their debt burden for education and some other measures. Let’s take a look at that, see how we can pay for them and do some of the tax measures to do it. Versus let’s start with a tax debate and then what to do. So I think it’s a matter of orientation and focus. But, no, absolutely, take a look at the system. I think it’s a good idea. I think some of the things I’ve laid out do that. And, of course, it’s the expenditure side I think that needs to be looked at.
Q: So are there ideas of things you don’t want to spend money on?
A: Yes. When I’ve looked at the file of temporary help agencies here, we’re talking a couple hundred of million dollars that is being spent right now. I did information gathering on this when I was first elected and was treasury board critic. A couple years before I was elected, so that would have been 2004, we were spending about $100 million on temporary help agencies. It’s ballooned to over $300 million. This is when managers just go out and get a contract with a temporary help agency to do work that I think should be done in house. And contracts in general need to be looked at. It’s not going to slay the deficit, but it’s certainly in line with let’s make sure we’re trimming the costs of doing business. I’d also take a look at the expenditure side on procurement, obviously.
Q: Military procurement?
A: Yes, absolutely. You know, I was a big fan of the parliamentary budget officer. I gave him his first task, which was the cost of the war. I’d like to know what these things are going to cost before we get into them, ideally. And that was the whole premise of the office. We’re not using that office. In fact, now we have a finance minister who ridicules him personally. The whole idea of that office was so that we could project costs and so that would give us an idea of how much we have to budget for to make a decision. In this case, I think it’s been clear from Mr. Page … that there’s warnings about this is going to be a very high cost and you better be careful. He’s not going to tell us not to do it. But he’s certainly warning what the costs are and I think we need to use that office and use his advice.
Q: How do you think your French is going?
A: C’est bien. Je parle français à chaque jour avec mon équipe et avec mon ami Danny. Je crois que pour le prochain débat à Montréal, c’est mieux que le débat à Québec. Je crois que j’ai—je sais hier par exemple, ma réponse dans le débat c’est bien. Juste une question mais c’est bien, je suis tres content avec ça.
Q: Are you conscious of the fact that that’s one of the big issues that you have to face?
A: Absolutely. At the beginning of my campaign, I dealt with it at my launch. I said French is a challenge for me and I put it on the table. So I’m quite at ease. Because I know I’m not going to fool anyone … It’s a challenge and I’ve taken on challenges before. Someone said, it’s part of your happy warrior side, you just keep on going with it. You know, people throw stuff at you and what do you say? You say, yes, that’s true, I’m not perfectly fluent like my colleagues, but I’m working at it. I’ve received the endorsements of Helene Laverdiere and Hoang Mai and other Quebeckers who are just saying, we know you’re getting better at it, we see that in you and what we want is someone who can connect with Quebeckers and with Canadians and all we’re asking is that you keep working at it. And I will.
Q: How much do you have to prove in the next month? Other than the French, what are you trying to show the party in the next five weeks?
A: I think it’s a matter of showing members that I am the person to reach out and grow the party. That I actually have a vision, not just on the policy side … but who’s the candidate and the person that has the most experience? Who has the energy? Who has the passion? Who has the plan to grow the party and go beyond where we are right now? I don’t like the language of holding on. I don’t like the language of maintaining. I like the language of growing. I like the language of reaching out. And most members I talk to, that’s where they’re at. They see this as once we’ve gotten through the whole business of dealing with Jack’s loss and why we’re in the midst of this, they’re saying, okay, I want someone who I can connect with and I know is going to connect with other Canadians and my neighbours and the people I go to work with and who talk to everyday. I want that person to lead our party. And I need to demonstrate that. You know, I’ve had some people say to me, god, I meet you one-on-one and it’s great and I can connect, I want to see you do that when you’re on stage. So I need to do more of that, when I’m showing passion. I got great feedback from yesterday, my summary comments. And somebody said, I had goosebumps and I was really touched by what you said. And I need to do more of that because sometimes I don’t always show that on the big stage.
Q: It does seem to me, everybody is making different arguments obviously, but yours does seem to be, I don’t know if emotional is the right word, but it does seem to have that kind of quality to it. You’re going for an emotional connection.
A: When I’m giving a speech in the House of Commons, on something as important as the budget or on the war or the detainees or Abousfian Abdelrazik, I do all my research and homework, but it’s when I think of what this issue means to me personally and what’s going to affect people that I connect and then I give my strongest arguments. Instead of just giving a dry overview of the issue, on the one hand on the other hand, I don’t think that grabs people and it certainly doesn’t grab me. So my focus and my way of trying to bring people in, win them over, is that emotional side. To say, you know, I want to give you something you can believe in. Because the people who are party members, they’ve decided to take some time and some money and put it on the table, because they believe in what we’re doing. This isn’t just buying a product at a store. This is making a commitment and a commitment around values and a commitment around principles. And they believe in us and we have to give them something to believe in. And they want a leader who can take them to that future that they believe in, if you will. It was interesting, two people I met, cousins, in Winnipeg. One had been a Red Tory before and he was I’d say around late-50s, early 60s and a woman about the same age, maybe a bit younger, who had never joined a political party beforehand, never been to a political event before and she was very distraught at what was happening with Harper and what was happening to her country. Decided to sign a card sheet, hadn’t been committed to any one candidate and she came out to my event and I had given my stump speech about what I believed and there had been questions back-and-forth and she came to me and she was very moved. And that really stuck with me because I thought, this is what it’s all about for me. This is about connecting with people. People who’ve made that choice. This woman had never been invovled with a political party before and she made that step to get involved and that’s who I want to and I need to connect with.
Q: And then how does that translate to the real politics of early spring when inevitably Stephen Harper runs the campaign against you as leader? What do you do then?
A: Well then two things happen. One is we get out quick and early to people like her and say, this is what’s going to happen and here’s how we need to respond. And these are the issues that matter and let’s keep our focus on that … we have to frame this and say, right at the beginning, this is what they will do and this is what we will do. And instead of just trying to shout louder and shout back, what we need to do is change the frame from defining us to me defining myself, with members and then Canadians, first, before they can do that and then framing them and defining them for who they are.
Q: But that means an air war, no?
A: Yup, it means that and that’s what we have to do, right away, no question.