Advice for Jack Layton from distinguished roster of NDP elder statesmen

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sun May 15 2011.   By Haroon Siddiqui, Editorial Page

Still sorting through the multiple meanings of the stunning federal election results — the regional, not national, trends that saw the NDP sweep Quebec and the Tories make inroads in Ontario, leaving the Maritimes and the West largely unchanged; the Tories making the most of their 2 per cent increase in popular vote; the hand-wringing over whether the Liberals should merge with the New Democrats — we have yet to fully absorb the emergence of the NDP as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition for the first time in our history.

The media have attributed this sea-change to Jack Layton’s cute moustache and his cane. The triviality fits the times in which the collective political memory extends to yesterday’s TV images. This does an injustice to the NDP’s long and distinguished track record as the single biggest intellectual and practical force for egalitarianism in Canada.

It was Tommy Douglas’s NDP government in Saskatchewan that pioneered medicare. It was the NDP that put pensions and unemployment benefits on the national agenda. It was the NDP in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia that ushered in affordable public auto insurance, which we could use in Ontario.

The NDP also has had a solid track record of fiscal prudence.

Allan Blakeney in Saskatchewan (1971-82) produced 12 balanced budgets. When his successor, Tory Grant Devine, left a huge deficit and a $14 billion debt, the NDP’s Roy Romanov (1991-2001) balanced the books. In Manitoba, Ed Schreyer (1969-77) produced surpluses in eight of his nine budgets. When his successor, the Conservative Sterling Lyon, racked up a deficit of $200 million within four years, his NDP successor Howard Pawley cleared it and created a surplus. (Pawley’s memoir, Keep True: A Life in Politics, published by the University of Manitoba Press, has just been released).

Only Bob Rae in Ontario (1990-95) left a big deficit, a legacy of a debilitating recession as well as poor management.

By contrast, look at the conservatives’ record — the deficits and debts created by Ronald Reagan, Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper and Mike Harris.

The NDP has had iconic leaders — quintessential Canadians: honest, principled and brave, wise and witty, amiable and approachable, averse to wedge politics.

The most fun to be with was Douglas, who after being premier (1944-61), became federal leader (1961-71). The “the little Scot” always had a joke, sometimes at his expense. He was once debating a Tory at an outdoor event, using a manure spreader as a platform. He began: “This is the first time I’ve spoken from a Liberal platform.” To which a farmer sitting up front shot back: “Let her roll, Tommy. She ain’t had a bigger load yet.”

His successor, David Lewis, also an immigrant (from what’s now Belarus), was so articulate that if you reproduced his extempore comments verbatim, you’d be reading perfect sentences and paragraphs. Remarkable, given that English was not his first language — he had learned it reading Charles Dickens with a Yiddish-English dictionary.

His son, Stephen, who became leader of the Ontario NDP and has distinguished himself working on AIDS in Africa, is easily Canada’s most eloquent speaker today.

It was David Lewis who forced Pierre Trudeau’s minority government (1972-74) to start Petro-Canada as a crown corporation.

His successor, Ed Broadbent, (1975-89), proved one of our best parliamentarians. His successor, Audrey McLaughlin, was the first female leader of a national party. Her successor, Alexa McDonough, (1995-2003) courageously led a campaign to repatriate Maher Arar from the torture chambers of Syria.

What can we expect from Layton?

I spoke to Schreyer, Pawley, Romanow and Stephen Lewis. Here’s what they expect him and want him to do:

Restore civility to Parliament.

Put economic equality front and centre. “It’s in the economic realm that the body politic is hurting,” said Schreyer. After five decades of building an egalitarian society, “we are moving in the opposite direction, with 1 per cent of the population in North America controlling 26 per cent of the wealth, and with unconscionable levels of compensation for the executive echelon. Yet here’s Harper cutting taxes for those already enjoying a standard of living that’s beyond the wildest imagination of most Canadians.”

Define the NDP platform’s cap-and-trade proposal for climate change. Come to grips with a carbon tax.

Try to align Quebecers’ social democratic values more permanently with a federal, as opposed to a separatist, party.

Articulate a foreign policy that would restore Canada’s role in the world, not as a warmonger but as an advocate of peace, human rights and development.

Lead a values debate at home to help reverse the right-wing tilt of our public policy.

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