Q&A: Niki Ashton

As part of our coverage of the NDP leadership, we’re running interviews with each of the candidates here at Previously, we chatted with Nathan Cullen, Peggy Nash and Paul Dewar. Next up, Niki Ashton. Ms. Ashton talked to our Gabriela Perdomo.

Q: You’re very young. Just 29-years-old. Why did you decide to run for the leadership? Why now? It’s certainly audacious.

A: [She laughs] Jack Layton taught us to believe in a new approach to leadership. I think we need to continue in that direction. My generation is at a crossroads, facing this old way of doing politics by the Harper government: the robocalls, the tactics to shut down debate in parliament. This disengages so many people. So I’m proud to be part of a generation that is looking ahead and wants to see a brighter future. Ultimately young people are the ones who pay the greatest costs when we do things the wrong way.

Q: You are part of the renewal wave of the NDP. Does that put you at odds with other members of the party?

A: I’m very committed to the principles of the NDP. I believe that these principles have brought us the success that we saw in this last federal election. I believe our progressive policies inspired people in Quebec, particularly, where we saw such an increase in seats, and across Canada. What people are seeing with the old politics of Stephen Harper is that we need a real alternative. And that real alternative is the NDP. So I think we shouldn’t water down our principles. I’m concerned when I hear reference to language around modernizing. We need to be aware of the kinds of challenges we’re facing; they’re not the same challenges of 20 or 50 years ago. I think we need to be pragmatic about what these challenges are. But principles focusing on equality and fairness, those are principles that we can’t let go of. And if anything, in order to take Harper on and be the real alternative, these are the principles that must guide us. There’s a lot of debate [about this] going on in this leadership race. I think we do need to invite more Canadians to join us and be part of building an alternative to the Stephen Harper government and it’s something I’ve done in my campaign. I’ve signed on a lot of new people. But the work that we’re doing must be guided by our NDP principles.

Q: You talk about diversity as a core political value. Do you think other candidates are neglecting this value?

A: I’m the only candidate that’s the daughter of immigrants. And I grew up in a community where I was able to connect with Canada’s multiculturalism. I’m proud to come from a different background, and I’m proudly Canadian and proud to speak both official languages. My goal is to become Canada’s first multicultural prime minister and represent the changing face of Canada. We are an increasingly multicultural country and I believe that it’s important that we not only talk about diversity but that we are that diversity. The other candidates have their own approach. They’ve talked about different things. In the debates about family I was the only one to talk about immigration and the freezing of the family sponsorship and the impact of that on our diversity.

Q: I have a similar question about marijuana. You have been vocal about decriminalization. Do you think the other candidates are not as comfortable talking about it? 

A: It’s definitely a concern amongst people my age and it’s raised when I’m at events. I think we need to be smart on crime. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police talk about how their system is burdened; how they have to spend so much time and resources going after the small end of the criminal spectrum. And what I suggest is, let’s be smart, let’s be innovative. Let’s put it in the jurisdiction of the provinces, take it out from the national Criminal Code. Let’s leave it to the provinces to figure out what’s best for them. Harper’s approach is his way or the highway. He’s more and more engaged in creating policy that’s not evidence-based and my approach is that all policy ought to be evidence-based.

Q: Tell me about your proposal to make post-secondary education a right. Do you mean free tuition?

A: The plan I put forward is for the federal government to assist in creating more affordable and accessible education for students. Since the mid ‘90s we’ve seen the federal government pull away from some students and the impact has been record-high student debt—debilitating student debt. We need a “Post-Secondary Act” that ensures a direct transfer to the provinces aimed solely at post-secondary education. We also must remove the two per cent cap on aboriginal funding and we have to look into the federal grants programs. Reducing tuition fees ought to be part of our economic plan. Federal funding isn’t enough. And the funding that is [there] isn’t making a difference in reducing tuition fees. We ought to ensure that there is more money going to the provinces but with the aim of reducing tuition fees rather than being invested only on bricks and mortar and other programs.

Q: You have been in Parliament for two terms. First elected in 2008 and then re-elected in 2011. What kind of lessons in civility do you take from this time in the House of Commons?

A: Jack Layton’s commitment did set a different tone in this parliament. And I think that’s important. Part of the old politics is people turning on their TVs and not being able to hear what people are saying because there’s so much yelling and heckling. That tone of respect that we’d all like to see is critical. I also believe that it’s very important to be respectful but also to be courageous and be a strong opposition to the policies we’re seeing from Harper. I strongly believe we must take Harper on and not just in the House of Commons but outside, across the country. Because the policies coming from his government are set to change the kind of country we are. A lot of Canadians didn’t vote for the approach that he’s taking and the agenda that he’s putting forward. And we have to be strong in our opposition.

Q: You were the chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women. What part of your work there do you see developing into NDP policy on women?

A: Well, what I saw in the committee was how much the status of women is not a priority for the Harper government. And it’s in line with the kinds of cuts and changes being made to gender equality issues over the last four years. But as part of my 10-point plan for an inclusive economy a key point is establishing gender equality. Bringing back pay equity legislation, bringing back equality as part of the status of women’s mandate. I have made a commitment that if I were to be elected prime minister I would appoint a minister in charge of equality to have an overarching mandate. Not just in terms in gender, but recognizing that this is something that’s ultimately Canadian, that we all ought to be equal and not see discrimination based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. We’re seeing that women continue to make less money, they continue to face violence. I’ll specifically point to domestic violence against aboriginal women, which the government has been grossly negligent in doing anything about. We need to have a real strategy for dealing with aboriginal people, the third-world conditions that many of them live in and that are conducive to women facing violence. We need to be comprehensive but it’s key to make it clear from the beginning that gender equality is part of our mandate.

Q: On Sunday’s debate in Montreal, many of you questioned Thomas Mulcair for wanting to modernize the party. Can you elaborate on that?  

A: I asked him a question on the debate and I focused on the way he’s been critical of some of the key aspects of our party. And I challenged him. Because I think the way that we criticize an economic vision that doesn’t benefit Canadians, or how we stand up for working people and stand up for ordinary people is a key part of who we are and that’s why people vote for us. I want to see the NDP in government and I think it’s key to maintain our principles. The real person we should be taking on is Stephen Harper, rather than our own party.

Q: How does taxation come into your mix to stop income inequality? Is fiscal policy going to be a tool?

A: It’s definitely a tool in the toolbox. What I’m going to do is appoint a commission to do a review of our taxation system, which is really needed. And the mandate would be to do a review with the understanding that we need a taxation [system] that is more equal and more fair. This comes from the fact that middle- and low-income Canadians are seeing a crunch; there’s an increased affordability gap in urban communities. So I do think we need to have a review and implement tax policies that are fair on Canadians.

Q: You’ve come a little short on campaign donations compared to the other candidates—you’re in last place. What kind of lessons do you draw from your campaign’s fundraising efforts? 

A: I’m really proud to come from a very grassroots campaign. Our priority has been ideas and I’m proud of a team that has put forward bold ideas on foreign policy, health care, justice… that’s really the goal. We’ve continued the fundraising but we’ve always said our priorities are to get on the ground and winning people over with our bold ideas.

Q: But would you recognize that maybe you should have paid more attention to fundraising?

A: I don’t regret anything that we’ve done on this campaign.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.