Jack Layton in conversation: riding high, talking policy and politics

The NDP leader stops by Maclean’s in Toronto for a wide-ranging discussion

After catching a strong updraft the polls, Jack Layton stopped by Maclean’s in Toronto late last week for a wide-ranging discussion with editors and writers. The NDP leader held forth on everything from protecting consumers, to paying for his platform promises, to his party’s apparent mid-campaign breakthrough in Quebec (covered in a previous posting here).

As well, Layton talked about post-election scenarios, repeating his pledge to work with any part in all parties if the result is an unstable minority House. He looked energized and sounded upbeat. Yet at the outset of this campaign, Layton was widely regarded—after prostate cancer treatment in 2010 and hip surgery early this year— as frail, and his party in danger of being squeezed between the Conservatives and Liberals.

Layton’s defiance of those dire early predictions is arguably the campaign’s biggest development so far. An edited text of the conversation, held in a sunlit boardroom on the morning of April 21:

Q. The Prime Minister has said that if he’s elected with another minority, he’ll try to pass the very same budget Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled just before the government fell. And he suggests the election will have given him a mandate to do so. Do you think he should be able to pass that budget and at least govern for a while if he wins a third minority?

A. My view is that all party leaders—and that would include whoever leads the largest group in the house, which I hope to do—has a responsibility to work together with the other party leaders. I just ask a very simple question. If you say to Canadians, do you think the party leader should be working together on your behalf in the House of Commons? 99 per cent would say yes.

And yet, you don’t see that spirit or that practice in the House of Commons. I think that has to change. I spent 30 years doing that type of thing, on city council for 20 years, and it’s a big city council, bigger than some provincial governments. My view is to always try to work with people. Yeah you had disagreements, but you try to pull things together. Even with [former Toronto mayor] Mel Lastman for heaven sakes, he and I sat down and worked on homelessness and housing. I think that whatever mandate is given to me, I’m going to work together with other leaders to try and accomplish what we try and set out to do.

Q. So if someone was reaching across to you, whoever was in the prime ministers chair…

A. I’m hoping to be in that chair. All scenarios are hypothetical until we’re in that situation. We have a lot of work to do and we’re going to keep on working at it. I think party leaders have an obligation to work with other party leaders, it hasn’t been happening enough, and I think that’s wrong, I think that’s one of the fundamental things that’s broken in Ottawa. We’ve had examples in our past where, uh, there have been good efforts to work together and good things have come from it, like medicare and the Canada Pension Plan, even the Canadian flag—all of which, by the way, had a significant role for New Democrats in Tommy Douglas’s era

Q. Any prime minister in minority situations is going to have to deal on the budget with the other parties, not simple walk in and impose something.

A. I think they should. If I get a minority of the seats, but have the most seats and clearly then not have a 50 per cent plus 1 of the votes of Canadians, then you’ve got to respect have Canadians have voted and you have to go and try and find some workable solutions. It’s normal in most countries and its normal in most human relations. Why it’s seen to be impossible in Ottawa and somehow wrong, I don’t get it and I don’t buy it.

Q. We’ve done some polling on the issues, and we got some results on the issues yesterday. It seems that on every single issue, whether the F-35 jets or health care spending, tax cuts or social spending, a majority of our respondents oppose the Conservative position. But there’s that 30 to 40 per cent that supports the Conservatives consistently. It raises a question: how much longer are the Liberals and the NDP going to divide up the majority that basically supports their outlook?

A. The way out of it is proportional representation. We have this absurdity where a party has in the 30s by way of support, and is able to get 100 per cent of the power, whether it was the Liberals in the 1990’s, or some people talk about that possibility for the Conservatives. I’m working hard to make sure that that doesn’t happen. It’s absurd and would not be accepted in most other countries. We should change our electoral system and then people can vote for what they want and what they believe in, the platform and program they like best, and then parties work together. That’s how most mature democracies function today.

You’ve talked about proportional representation in past, but it seems like a bit more nowadays. Is this going to be a deal breaker for you in the next Parliament?

A. I don’t talk about deal breakers because you never know what the context is going to be. I’m going to be primarily focused on the things we will do in the first 100 days. I don’t think there’s a single thing that we’ve proposed that couldn’t be a part of the first 100 days of any parliament. That’s where we’d focus.

Given the opportunity I would like to see our democracy being brought up to date. The anachronism of an unelected senate—if you took the time to explain it to any other democratic people in the world, they’d say, what? I have a bone to pick with the way Stephen Harper has handled the Senate. He came in with a very different concept. He used to think the way I did on the Senate. I think he even used the same word, anachronism, didn’t he? And it is an anachronism.

Q. Why haven’t you been able to work together with the Tories on that?

A. I’ve tried, we came very close one day in the House of Commons. We were pushing for a referendum on the future of the Senate. Stephen Harper was getting frustrated and he said essentially, well, y’know if certain things don’t happen, maybe we should have a referendum on the Senate. We kind of came that close, but then he saw the opportunity to put in an awful lot of his friends, even defeated candidates. Now, why doesn’t that get commentators more upset? Defeated members of parliament. Somebody who is turfed out, then getting appointed to the Senate! I mean, pardon me, but there oughtta be a law.

Q. There’s more talk of strategic voting in this election, mostly NDP, Liberal and Green voters trying to figure out how to block Tories. Is electorate ahead of the party leaders as far as uniting the opposition?

A. My view is that my job is to present what we would do and why it’s important to replace what we have at the moment. That’s my job and that’s what our team is doing across the country. I have enormous faith in voters, to think all this thing, to think it all through and I’m trying to persuade them that the best thing they can do is vote for New Democrats. Any discussion between Canadians is legitimate.

Q.  You’ve talked about bringing Quebec back into the Canadian constitutional family. Can you say a bit more about what you think is lacking in the current Constitution?

A. The problem is that Quebec hasn’t signed the Constitution, and that’s going to be an issue in our country’s future until a way is found to sort it out. I believe that first step is to replace the Harper government, which talks a good game, but hasn’t responded to the preoccupations of Quebecers. I’ve always believed there had to be found a solution, so we’ve made very concrete specific proposals about how that could be done, including some language legislation, bilingual Supreme Court judges, and a number of steps we’ve suggested.

And the second thing is to respond to the concerns that Quebecers have. If people feel the federal government is responding to concerns, which happen to be they haven’t got family doctors, they’re concerned about employment, worried about affordability and retirement security. Guess what? That turns out to be the same set of issues that most Canadians are concerned about. If we could be addressing those issues, then we might find ourselves creating the conditions where we could come to that discussion about how to bring Quebec fully into the Canadian family.

Q.  In you platform you promise action in 100 days, including on hiring and training new doctors and nurses. Isn’t that much longer-term issue? How could you make any progress so fast?

A. Well the first thing, the fastest thing that can be done is what the Canadian Medical Association has called for, which is a campaign to get doctors practicing in the U.S. to come back to Canada. It’s affordable,. They believe that we could get roughly a third of our target of 1,200 doctors that way. They believe that Canadian-trained doctors and Canadian citizens, who are doctors in the States, that there’s huge number of them, and there are quite a few that would like to come back to Canada.  But they don’t know how, they haven’t been encouraged. It’s a little bit of advertising, it’s a little bit of linkage-making. It’s remarkably inexpensive. I thought it was a heck of a good proposal, and so we just made that part of our plan. That would be the part that could happen fastest and would make a real difference. The aspect of the training of course would take longer. But, we shouldn’t wait until the renegotiations of the accord to get that started.

Q. You’re calling for tax cuts for small business, but tax increases for large corporations. Apart from the political appeal of supporting small entrepreneurs, is there a theoretical basis for that?

A. Our analysis is that a small business given a tax cut—and in fact it’s an 18 per cent tax cut that we’re talking about here, from 11 to 9 per cent—the vast majority of small businesses given that additional, workable revenue, would put it into their business, and in the vast majority of these cases that would go to hiring somebody.

What we don’t think makes sense is to give a tax cut in such a way that a company could take a tax cut and close down the very factory that is doing the production, ship that to China or the U.S. But because their head office is still here, they get the benefits of the tax cut. Meanwhile it’s cost us the jobs and we don’t think that’s right.

Q. Part of the way you say you’d pay for the new spending in your platform is by cracking down on offshore tax avoidance. You say that will eventually net the government $3 billion a year. But Canada and other countries have been trying for years to prevent this sort of illegal tax dodging. What makes you think you can make big progress fast?

A. By being determined and by putting in resources into the Canada Revenue Agency, which is had its resources cut as opposed to increased. If the CRA was a business, any CEO would be saying, look at the rate of return. Why aren’t we exploiting that business opportunity? Well you’re dealing with the rich and powerful, and maybe that’s an issue. That’s not an issue for me. I think that we should be trying to recover those funds and I think if it were done aggressively we could achieve those kind of targets.

We’ve also said, however, that in our platform, spending proposals need to be always analyzed against the fiscal capacity at the moment. That comes from the great traditions of Tommy Douglas administrations, Roy Romanov administrations. We’ve taken the same approach to it, and we’re taken modest steps, I think you probably may agree, compared to some past NDP platforms. We’re talking modest, practical steps when it comes to these different policy areas.

Q. So you’re if you weren’t able to get those revenue streams you wouldn’t do the spending.

A. That is precisely how we constructed our platform

Q. Do you anticipate any reduction in business investment as a result of raising corporate tax rates?

A. It’s difficult to know. I know there’s predictions of doom and gloom by some, but our view is that we have to keep our tax rate competitive with the US, but it does not make sense to go dramatically go below where the Americans are.

Q. But do you model in any reduction in investment?
A. We anticipate that there could be some protests, maybe that would translate into some changes. But I believe that is counterbalanced by some of our platform, for example, calling an investment on investment in infrastructure in cities. And when you look at decisions to locate head offices, and to locate economic activities, the corporate tax rate is by no means the only economic marker. Quality of life, infrastructure, transportation capacity, all of these kind of things. If you’ve got good and affordable housing, then a place becomes more attractive. It’s getting the right mix really of policies, and I think we don’t have that right mix when it comes to Stephen Harper.

Q. As part of your promise to set up a cap and trade system to cut greenhouse gas emissions, you book $3.6 billion in revenues this year, 2011-12, coming from the sale of carbon emission rights. How could you possibly get a cap and trade system up so fast?

A. It would be tough, it would take some real determination, but we haven’t had anything like the determination that’s needed. We saw some real determination in some U.S. states, things were made to happen relatively quickly. In fact, there’s a system up and functioning with some American states that we could hook up to. Those discussions were well under way but we had zero enthusiasm, to put it mildly, from our national government.  I think things could be made to happen a lot more quickly.

Q. Would you enter into a signed agreement with the Liberals and, if so, what priorities would the NDP bring to that agreement?

A. Well, look, I’m going to work with whatever mandate is given to me by Canadians on May 2. I hope that mandate will be to have the largest number of seats in the House. I will talk to the leaders—here’s what we would like to do, what would you like to do, let’s try and find a way forward. There are so many models possible that I’m not going to speculate on what the model will be. But I will tell Canadians and I said this on the opening day of our campaign, that I will work together with other parties on behalf of Canadians to get the things done that we promised to work on.

Q. This is your fourth election as NDP leader. What’s changed the most over those campaigns?

A. I think the biggest change is you’ve got five news cycles every 24 hours and a policy issue will be taken over by a tweet. That’s a big change.

Q. Your position on regulating gas prices come under some criticism, since experience suggests regulation tends to increase rather than lower gas prices. Another consumer protection initiative that I understand you are talking is on usage based billing for Internet services. You are against any form of UBB. Could you talk about those positions?

A. Sure. Well, when you have monopolies, there’d better be somebody on the side of the consumer. You have to find some techniques to stand up for the folks that are out there who have run the risk of being gouged. It’s absolutely reasonable and appropriate for us to use regulatory approaches to make sure that happens in either of these sectors.

We focused on the creation of an ombudsman so people have a place to file a complaint if they notice prices seem to be going up lock step.  Then there would be a capacity to look into these situations. We think that would apply a considerable amount of moral persuasion on these companies. Secondly, we need the Competition Bureau to have more tools to be able to attack price fixing that we believe is likely on the go, but is very difficult to prove certainly given the tools.

Q. But on UBB, prices would stay the same for most consumers but only rise for heavy users. Would you object to that?

A. But we just don’t agree with the UBB concept. We just don’t think it’s fair, or reasonable. I can understand why the companies might advocate for it, and that’s their right certainly to do so. But I think if the Internet is to realize it’s full potential then we really want to make it the place where it can be a complete free exchange of ideas and that means no to UBB.

Q. And on credit cards you’re in favour of regulating both the fees and interest rates, right?

A. Yes, we want to make sure there’s a credit card available to everybody that’s minimal, doesn’t have all these bells and whistles on it, that is five per cent above prime. And when it comes to a lot of small business we talked to, are really suffering under the current regime of extra charges and what have you. They showed me some of their bills and they were impossible to understand and they really have no choice but to pay them.

We’ve got to have a better system. I think the Americans are doing more in this area. But they’ve had more of a culture of consumer protection perhaps than we seem to have at the moment. I think it’s time to get back to that notion that someone has to be on the side of the consumer.

Q. You’re heading into the stretch run of this election campaign. Is there anything you’d like to in the final phase of the race?

A. I don’t want to change. We’re going to stay steady with our message so Canadians understand they do have a choice, even though they’re often told that they don’t. I think that’s a message that’s beginning to break through.

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