Stephen Lewis, for the record: ‘I am, truly, insufferably buoyant’

The NDP’s elder statesmen gives his ‘last hurrah’ at the party’s Edmonton convention

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Former Ontario New Democratic Party leader Stephen Lewis speaks during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton Alberta, April 9, 2016. Jason Franson for Maclean’s Magazine.

Former Ontario New Democratic Party leader Stephen Lewis  speaks during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton Alberta, April 9, 2016. Jason Franson for Maclean's Magazine.
Former Ontario New Democratic Party leader Stephen Lewis speaks during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton Alberta, April 9, 2016. Jason Franson for Maclean’s Magazine.

Former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis delivered the following remarks at the NDP policy convention in Edmonton.

Tom Mulcair, Members of the Federal Caucus, Distinguished Delegates: I feel privileged to be at a podium that was occupied by Rachel Notley. When I heard her recite the extraordinary achievements of the first few months of government, my mind went back to a campaign in Saskatchewan in the mid-fifties, when I was lucky enough to travel with Tommy Douglas as he recited the same kind of litany of achievements, and I thought to myself ‘what lovely historical continuity’, from Tommy’s days then to Rachel’s days now, and how much the democratic left has brought to the social and political culture of Canada.

I approach this podium in ebullient frame of mind. In fact, I’m in such good spirits that it’s positively indecent. I realize of course that my demeanour is entirely out-of-whack … after all, we suffered a crushing setback in the federal election. I should be brooding, gloomy, curmudgeonly, sour … all the symptoms of demoralizing defeat.

But I’m none of those things. I am, truly, insufferably buoyant. And there are two reasons why. First, I’ve been through it all before. When I was Provincial Leader in Ontario, I led the party to three successive second or third place finishes; I’ve often said that my tenure as Leader was marked by transcendental futility. With great respect, by comparison, Tom Mulcair is a rank amateur.

Second, the Liberals have already begun to fray. That doesn’t mean the bloom is off the Justin rose. It will last for a while longer … he’s a Prime Minister of amiable disposition and appearance. Sure, he’s riding high in the polls today, but that’s the most ephemeral thing in the world. The test comes on policy not aesthetics. And predictably, the Liberals are already shuffling backwards into the precincts of ignominy where they so comfortably reside.

I must admit, as I launch into my remarks, that this is a difficult speech to make. I’m not at all sure that I’ve gauged the atmosphere accurately. I want to set out, very selectively — I say selectively because you can’t possibly cover everything — a number of issues where the approach, the analysis, the policy of the NDP differs profoundly from that of the Liberal Government. This isn’t a matter of some minute repositioning of the NDP to the left of the Liberals. This is a matter of fundamentals. We differ from the liberals on so many issues in so many ways that there’s a world to conquer. I don’t get this stuff about the blurring and meshing of the so-called centre-left.
Allow me, on your behalf, to count some of the ways.

First, feminism. It is a huge pleasure to have a Prime Minister who unselfconsciously calls himself a feminist. And the clever use of the phrase “It’s 2015” has now entered the lexicon of political memorabilia. But we have a message for the Prime Minister: feminism is a vacant construct without a child care program across Canada.

You don’t provide child care with a limited financial transfer to individual families. You provide child care as a matter of well-funded public policy, with spaces for all who need them and trained early childhood educators to staff them. In terms of social policy, there’s arguably nothing more important for this country at this moment. Someone has to tell the Prime Minister that the use of feminism has a hypocritical ring when the women of Canada, who play the central role in the raising of children, are denied the child care to which they are entitled as of right.

Second, electoral reform. The Prime Minister has said, ad nauseam, that we will never again fight a Canadian election based on the system of ‘first past the post’. Bravo. Canadians, in various opinion surveys, have indicated a significant plurality in favour of change. And the change everyone is talking about is proportional representation.

But there’s an ominous, unprincipled cloud emerging. In the guarded, cautious language employed by the Prime Minister it becomes clear, ever-so-clear, that there will be a variation on the present electoral process, but the variation will protect and benefit the Government.
You don’t need prophetic vision to know that we’re about to experience one of those brazenly cynical political moments: The sonorous sounds of desirable change will mask the self-serving manipulation of desirable change. It would appear that something called ranked ballots now has the inner track in the mind of the government, and to use Ed Broadbent’s evocative phrase, it would be like the ‘first past the post’ system on steroids. But it would be conveyed as qualitative change.

I could say, “how disappointing”. Electoral reform is an issue whose time has come. Proportional representation cries out for implementation. But whom are we kidding? Do we really think that the government will relinquish the cozy asylum of political advantage? This is a fight we have to win: it should consume our energies.

Third, Bill C-51. Here’s the nemesis if ever there was one. This piece of hoked-up anti-terror legislation, so excessive in tone and content, so contemptuous of civil liberties, so effectively lacerated during the course of the election campaign, is apparently sticking around, largely in its present form, to live another day.

Our Prime Minister, having promised significant changes to the bill, is again subsiding into the shadows of incrementalism. You see, he didn’t mistakenly support the bill, and then scramble for redemption by suggesting there would be amendments. The Prime Minister truly and fundamentally agrees with the bill, and will offer only the most cosmetic shifts in wording and nuance.

You have to smile, a grim tight-lipped smile. Liberals never disappoint.

Fourth, healthcare. Herein lies one of the most distressing gaps in the budget. There is no provision for a re-designed funding formula for healthcare into the future. I remember all the way back to the Charlottetown Accord, when another survey of Canadians, attempting to identify our defining characteristic, revealed, overwhelmingly, that it was healthcare. That’s what Canadians most cared about. And I daresay, the same sentiments would be expressed today.

It’s our issue … from Tommy Douglas to Roy Romanow, it’s our issue. We cannot allow it to be depreciated or trifled with. Modern, sophisticated economies, do not regard health as a soft sector. Public health lies at the very heart of the international Sustainable Development Goals; goals meant to govern public policy for the next fifteen years; goals effectively ratified by every one of the 193 member states of the United Nations, Canada of course included.

It is now finally understood, worldwide, that resources for health are the sine qua non of a civilized society, and the foundation of economic growth.

We have so much ground yet to cover. The Liberal pledge for homecare appears to have been abandoned, and universal pharmacare is nowhere to be seen. Those are programs that we must pursue as though life depended on it because, in fact, life does depend on it.

Fifth, international trade agreements. The economist, Joseph Stiglitz recently said that he’d met with Chrystia Freeland, the Liberal Minister for International Trade, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January. Now just to provide the context — and setting Stiglitz aside for a moment — the World Economic Forum is a gathering, overwhelmingly, of multinational corporate leadership with a sprinkling of politicians, and Bill Gates types, who engage in a protracted orgy of self-congratulation about how they collectively save the world.

People who attend are not what you would call left-of-centre. Stiglitz is an anomaly. He apparently pressed on Chrystia Freeland the negative consequences of signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and according to Stiglitz she seemed to understand.

Poor Joseph. How was he to know that he was taken down the Trans-Pacific path? Less than two weeks later, the Minister signed the TPP in New Zealand in the presence of twelve Pacific Rim partners. It was said to be ceremonial. It is said that extensive consultations will take place across Canada before there’s a House of Commons vote.

Is there anyone in this hall who thinks the TPP won’t be formally endorsed by the government of Canada? The irony is that with both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders coming out against the TPP, it may not even be embraced by the United States.

And rightly so. The TPP, as with so many other current international trade agreements, results in the loss of jobs — a possible loss of 60,000 projected for Canada — and the Investor State Dispute provisions put at risk Canada’s autonomy as a democratic state. Foreign corporations, were they to claim unfair treatment, can effectively bypass Canadian laws and seek compensation from an international tribunal. And there is no appeal. These are ridiculous provisions; the ugly quintessence of corporate capitalism.

But that’s not all. There is an even more pernicious aspect at work. As I learned, painfully, over the years involved with HIV/AIDS, one of the greatest benefits of these trade agreements is conferred on the brand-name drug companies. They negotiate and receive preferential patent privileges that undermine the manufacture of equivalent generic drugs. For the pharmaceutical industry, the trade agreements are a financial bonanza. For impoverished citizens of developing countries, fighting communicable and non-communicable disease, they can be and often are a disaster. For countries like Canada, they will inevitably mean an increase in prescription drug prices.

No Government of Canada should lend itself to the knee-jerk signing of the TPP. No Government of Canada, in this day and age, should embrace the discordant siren song of free trade.

Sixth: Arms sales. What in heaven’s name possesses the Liberal government to consummate the sale of light-armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia? It reveals so much about this government, so much that cries out for an aggressive political response.

The arms sale shows an astonishing contempt for human rights. Not only has the Government of Saudi Arabia recently been excoriated by the United Nations for the conduct of war in Yemen … the wholesale and indiscriminate slaughter of civilian populations; but it’s also a country where beheadings of dissidents rivals the madness of ISIL. There is absolutely no guarantee that the weapons in question won’t be used, at some point, to assault the Shia minority within Saudi Arabia. We’re talking about a regime whose hands are drenched in blood.

And of course that’s not all. The sale also directly contradicts stated Canadian policy. We’re not supposed to be sending armaments to countries that have a ‘persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens’. Saudi Arabia is the embodiment of the meaning of the word “violations”. And the government of Canada refuses to release its so-called assessment of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. So much for the newly-minted policy of transparency.

But perhaps what is most offensive and revealing in all of this is the proposition, oft-stated by the Foreign Minister, that the contract is sacrosanct: it can’t be broken. We know that Stephane Dion is a nice fellow: he must be privately writhing with the disingenuous guff he has to disgorge. We’re in the earliest stages of this sale, and the sale is overseen by the government … what do you mean you can’t break the contract? What you mean is that you won’t break the contract, and with the greatest respect, that’s just nonsensical claptrap. As is the proposition that if we pull out, others will fill the gap …well let them. What kind of twisted logic is it that says we should cozy up to murderers because if we don’t, others will.

And there’s an additional matter that I wish someone would put to the Prime Minister one day in Question Period: what kind of feminism is it that sells weapons to a government steeped in misogyny?

There is of course an elephant in the room: between two and three thousand jobs at General Dynamics in London, Ontario. I absolutely affirm the point: we cannot be indifferent to the lives and prospects of working-people. But if those jobs are crucial, as they are, and if the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia is odious, as it is, then a serious, progressive government pulls out all the stops to create three thousand jobs in another manufacturing environment, or another sector, or using infrastructure funds in southwestern Ontario … whatever it takes.

It is not beyond our capacity to say no to the Saudis and yes to employment.

And while I’m on an issue of foreign policy, let me address one other matter. The budget was absolutely pathetic on the question of foreign aid. The amount of increase for Official Development Assistance over the next two years is a travesty. The Liberals are maintaining the same level of aid as the Tories … 0.24 per cent of GDP, putting us somewhere between 16th and 20th on the development assistance scale of OECD countries. It’s particularly outrageous when the target of 0.7 per cent — almost three times as much — was fashioned by the great iconic Liberal himself, Lester Pearson.

Prime Minister Trudeau has to understand that when your foreign aid is paltry, and your commitment to human rights is suspect, and your climate change policy is a charade, and you run for the Security Council, you’re putting a successful run at risk.

Seventh: Climate change. This is tough. I acknowledge that. I listened carefully to Premier Notley.

But frankly, around global warming, there’s a rallying cry for the Party because the position of the Prime Minister is no position at all. At the Federal level, there is a serious vacuum of content and leadership; there is instead a superfluity of twaddle and rhetoric. There are some provinces wrestling with the response to global warming, a variety of policies that may or may not work, but at least it shows a twitch of concern on the part of provincial jurisdictions, compared to a Federal government that presents the stance of a limp bystander.

Oh yes, the Prime Minister went to Paris, and shared in the celebratory jamboree. But the bitter truth about Paris that is so hard to acknowledge, given the public relations frenzy, is that it was a failure. Everything that was agreed on is voluntary; every target is voluntary; every mode of reporting is voluntary: there’s not a single mandatory requirement except to report every five years.

We don’t have five years.

When you add up all the pledges, all the targets submitted by every country at Paris, the world faces a terrifying temperature rise way above the 2 degrees centigrade that is contained in the Paris Declaration and is supposed to keep the planet from self-immolation, let alone the 1.5 degrees centigrade that is the aspirational hope. And where Canada is concerned, our targets still reflect the bogus figures set by the Neanderthals who stalked the political landscape for the last ten years.

I’m kept awake at night thinking of what our grandchildren will face. I have some history here. Please forgive this brief detour.

Back in June of 1988, at the request of then Prime Minister Mulroney, I chaired the first major international conference on climate change. It was an amazing assemblage of 300 politicians, academics and scientists from across the planet, held in Toronto, opened by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Prime Minister of Norway who had just tabled her epic report, Our Common Future, the product of the Commission on Environment and Development. She was followed by James Hansen, of the Goddard Space Institute, who had just completed testimony before a senate sub-Committee in the United States, making the point that June of 1988 was the hottest month on record.

The debate raged for several days raising all the issues with which everyone is familiar. At the end of the conference, a colleague and I were asked to draft a Declaration to reflect the sense of the proceedings.

This was our opening paragraph: “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally-pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war. The earth’s atmosphere is being changed at an unprecedented rate … these changes represent a major threat to international security and are already having harmful consequences over many parts of the globe”. We then set out a number of specific recommendations covering every facet of global warming, recommendations that were still relevant at the time of the Kyoto Accord, recommendations that are still relevant today.

It’s 28 years later. The progress — relative to the targets of 1988 — is negligible.

I’ve taught climate change as part of a course on the Millennium Development Goals and then Sustainable Development Goals for ten years at McMaster, McGill and Ryerson universities. I’m obsessed by the subject. And for what it’s worth, I believe the world is headed for an apocalyptic event between 2030 and 2050 that is absolutely irreversible. It will be one of those hallucinatory climatic convulsions. The damage we’ve done to the planet, and our refusal to confront that damage, constitutes nothing less than a monumental crime against humanity.

And that’s why, it seems to me, the Leap Manifesto is a document worthy of discussion.

Now I readily admit to a conflict of interest. Not only was I at the launch of the Manifesto, but I am reasonably friendly with its authors. Nonetheless, I’m taking my courage in my hands to address what has become a hot issue for this Convention. But I want to do it in a somewhat unorthodox way.

The Leap Manifesto is a radical document; of that there’s no dispute. It contains propositions that cause profound offence in the oil patch. It clearly causes distress to the Premier of Alberta. And I readily concede that amongst many social democrats at this Convention there are levels of intellectual consternation and skepticism.

But that, I would argue, shouldn’t dispatch the Manifesto to obscurity. I’m attracted to the idea that it could become a centrepiece of constituency debate over the next couple of years … the kind of proposition that re-energizes and re-animates, through the lens of a determinedly left-wing analysis, a social democratic party that’s searching for renewed vision. I make no assumptions about the outcome two years hence. I make no assumptions about what would be discarded and what would be endorsed. I know only that the resolution on the floor indicates that Leap, in whole or in part, can be rejected by riding associations, and obviously by provinces.

An intense exchange of views on all the issues raised in the Manifesto can only be healthy. What kind of a Party are we that would run from internal controversy when we seek a re-definition of who we are and where we’re headed?

Aboriginal rights, the plague of inequality, pipelines, fossil fuels, corporate taxation, public transit, the caring professions … the list goes on; it’s a potential compendium of public policy.

And at the heart of it lies a truth upon which the entire world agrees: the transformation to a renewable economy.

It’s time to put to bed all the understandable, but misplaced skepticism about the transition to renewables, most specifically, wind and solar. Last year, 2015, was the first year when the expenditure, world-wide, on renewable forms of energy exceeded expenditure on fossil fuels. More, it was the first year when expenditures on renewables by developing countries exceeded that of industrial nations … it’s amazing what’s underway. Just last Monday, the lead editorial in the New York Times carried this headline: “A Renewable Energy Boom”. The editorial ended “The falling cost of renewables is a clear plus. The prospect of keeping energy affordable while saving the planet should inspire leaders to bolder action.” Note the words ‘while saving the planet.’

Isn’t that what we should be fighting for? As always it’s a matter of political will. You want to transform the economy; it can be done: just settle on a crusade to develop renewables. It’s not something that happens overnight, but it can happen. It’s happening in Germany; it’s happening in Denmark; it can happen in Canada. I don’t depreciate the Herculean effort that’s required, but it’s not beyond the capacity of human intelligence to pull it off. And yet nothing in the Liberal budget would make you think that this Federal government cares one whit about a transformation.

Alberta is of course our deeply troubling dilemma. This province fears the further loss of jobs … how could it be otherwise? We all heard Premier Notley today. How could you not feel for the human predicament of this province? If and when there is to be a transition, let it be particularly thorough and careful, and the planning must include, through their unions, the thousands of workers whose jobs and homes and families and lives are on the line. We’re a socialist party for God’s sake; no one can suffer the unceremonious loss of jobs. I say to my trade union colleagues: the workers must never pay a price.

But as everyone wrestles with these issues, these inescapable issues that are visceral in every way, there is an over-riding truth: the move to renewables is the greatest job creation program on the planet. It’s a Marshall Plan for employment.

So simply let the Leap be the entry point to one of the great philosophic and pragmatic debates that engages democratic socialists in Canada.
OK, Let me not knock things through the wall.

I’m always laden by ideological recollection at times like this. I think back to my dad when he was NDP leader and his endless struggles with Liberals in the 1970s … the War Measures Act and wage and price control. I think back to the middle of the 1990s and the craven brutality of the financial cut-backs that we haven’t yet fully recovered from. Like you, I absolutely know what’s coming despite all the folderol of sunny ways and sunny days.

I recognize the painful defeat we suffered. I recognize how tough it is, in a democratic socialist context, to integrate, to harmonize all of these competing and conflicting narratives. I recognize the tension that will exist tomorrow morning in the vote on the leadership.

But I have to end as I began. I’m irrepressibly filled with optimism. Just yesterday Avi reminded me of a phrase from the Pentagon: ‘a target-rich environment’. When it comes to the Liberal government, we live in a target-rich environment. There is so much to fire at. And we fire at it from a determinedly left-wing analysis. And we let the chips fall where they may.

There’s no reason to believe that progressive and principled stands will consign us to the waste bin of history. Indeed, the politics of other countries — the most fascinating being the United States — suggest a tremendous surge of support for those, like Bernie, fighting inequality head-on. And when you consider the social movements in this country … Idle No More, Occupy, Black Lives Matter … there is a ground swell with which we can amalgamate to make our presence dramatically felt in the next campaign.

You know what I hate? I hate being a member of the geriatric class. I hate being in my dotage and over-the-hill. This is almost certainly my last hurrah. I’d love to be in the House of Commons, or running for parliament to stand shoulder to shoulder with the NDP caucus, hounding a government whose flimsy veneer of progressive politics will evaporate before the next election.

Some sixty years ago, David Lewis, in a lecture titled “A Socialist Takes Stock”, wrote: “The modern democratic socialist should proclaim his or her aims loudly and passionately. The equality of men and women is the socialist watchword; the moral struggle against injustice and inequality is the socialist’s duty; to be a strong and powerful voice for common men and women against the abuse and oppression of the privileged minority is the socialist’s function; and to forge an ever finer and higher standard of values and a richer pattern of life and behaviour is the socialist’s dream”.

Those words were true sixty years ago. They remain true today.