‘The task of a party is to get power’

January 18 1988

‘The task of a party is to get power’

January 18 1988

‘The task of a party is to get power’


The federal New Democrats reached their highest-ever level of support in opinion polls last year and led both other major parties in July. Many Canadians began to view an NDP government in Ottawa as a serious possibility—and began to take a closer look at Ed Broadbent, the party 's leader since 1975. With a federal election widely expected in 1988, Broadbent faces high expectations among his supporters for an NDP breakthrough. National Editor Andrew Phillips and Ottawa Correspondent Michael Rose spoke with him last week in his office on Parliament Hill. Excerpts:

Maclean’s: You had a very good year in 1987, but at the beginning of this year the polls are showing support for your party dropping and the government's support going up. Did you peak too soon? Broadbent: If you look at it year over year, we are five or six points above where we were at this time. So if you put it in perspective, it’s been a great year. If you compare it with the high point of July, we’re down somewhat. It doesn’t surprise me an awful lot. Everyone was waiting for [the government] to get some kind of turnaround—so it was a matter of time before they turned around somewhat and we went down somewhat. The significant thing is that we still have the closest three-way fight in Canadian history.

Maclean’s: Many people suggest that the signing of the free trade deal may have given the government a boost. Since you are so opposed to the deal, isn't that a danger signal to you?

Broadbent: In the short run it has taken the focus off the unfairness of the government—and in particular on the integrity issue so closely associated with this government, including the personality of the Prime Minister. So, free trade has been, I think, a plus for them in that sense. Canadians were looking for at least some issue that they were prepared to fight for on principle other than the pettiness of patronage that this government has been associated with.

Maclean’s: A former federal secretary of the NDP, Gerald Caplan, said that some Conservatives have approached people in your party about a possible coalition or power-sharing after the next election. Is that true?

Broadbent: I have not the slightest evidence of that.

Maclean’s: Still, Liberal Leader John Turner spoke recently about the possibility of a Liberal-NDP coalition. What's your position?

Broadbent: I was surprised at Mr. Turner’s response on that issue. I would have assumed that, like ourselves, he would have put more emphasis on his intention as leader of the Liberal party to win the election. That certainly is our objective now, to win the next election, and we’ll see what happens after that. Maclean’s: Does any party, but yours in particular, risk losing its identity in a coalition?

Broadbent: It’s such a hypothetical situation that I think it’s a fruitless exercise for me to speculate on the pluses or the minuses. All that I sense is that we are now for the first time in a position to be planning, like the other parties, to win the election.

Maclean’s: Surely there are lessons for

you in the Ontario experience, where the provincial NDP supported a minority Liberal government for two years but lost seats in the subsequent election? Broadbent: Lots.

Maclean’s: What are they? Some people have suggested that the Ontario NDP should have demanded cabinet seats in order to ensure that it would get credit for the government 's accomplishments. Broadbent: Some people have made that point. Some people have made the contrary point. And I’m not making any point right now because, as I say, it’s hypothetical.

Maclean’s: The Liberals have moved to the left on a number of issues recently. Isn't there a danger that the line between them and the NDP will be increasingly

blurred in the minds of many voters? Broadbent: Whatever the Liberals do, we have to stand our ground. I said to my caucus colleagues after the 1984 election that, as sure as we are in this room, the Liberals will start talking like New Democrats. And they have. Somewhat reluctantly, they seem to be emerging with an approach to issues that constitutes a carbon copy of our own. They have moved into our turf, [but] we haven’t gone silly and said the Liberals are sounding like us now, so we’d better take some other policy just to distinguish ourselves. There are certain people, especially in the other parties, who would always like the NDP to simply be the gadfly of Canadian politics, to be nothing but the moral conscience of Canadian politics, because that would mean they would remain with power. And I as a leader, and my party nationally, have finally said, ‘That isn’t the role for us.’ It is part of the role for us, but the serious task of a political party in a democracy is to get power, because if you don’t get power, the kind of programs you have been fighting for will not be adequately put in place. You don’t go into politics just to make speeches. And we’ve finally got into the mood of the federal New Democratic Party the desire to win elections—and not just simply be a voice of conscience prodding the other parties. Maclean’s: As part of that process, you have said that you will have to make a very clear distinction between your policy resolutions—which include such controversial measures as withdrawing Canada from NATO and nationalizing a chartered bank—and your election platform. Won't you then become more like

the other parties, backing away from fine-sounding resolutions that you have adopted?

Broadbent: No, I don’t think so at all. I don’t care which [social democratic] government in the world, whether it’s the Norwegian labor party or the Australian party, the Austrians or New Zealanders. If you took their policy books and had a look at the resolutions that they had passed as social democratic parties in previous decades, compared with what they did as governments, you would find differences. It isn’t that there’s cynicism at all. Delegates at a convention of a social democratic party quite literally don’t have the responsibility of government right then, and they tend to pass a resolution in the abstract. Now, a party going into an election has a responsibility of looking back over a number of years at all those resolutions and seeing which ones are still relevant.

Maclean’s: What are your priorities when Parliament resumes on Jan. 18? Broadbent: Our priority will continue to be, clearly, our opposition on the trade proposal. When we get the enabling legislation brought forward, we will be strongly opposing that legislation. We will have a budget that we have to deal with. That will be a major concern of the New Democratic Party, which has fought for a number of years for a serious tax reform. We will be talking about the need for effective housing programs. The child care issue will be an important priority for us. The government has got to bring in legislation to give some force to what they have committed themselves to; we think it’s a bad approach. And the gov-

ernment [may introduce] what various people have described as a morality package. God knows that if anyone needs it, they do. We will have instructive things to say about that, too. Maclean’s: Much of your personal appeal seems to be based on what many people call your ‘nice guy ' image. Still, some people who have worked for you have told us and others that you can be a lot tougher and hardheaded than you appear to be publicly. Is that a fair assessment?

Broadbent: I don’t think they’re incompatible qualities. Does being reasonably congenial in public necessarily imply a woolly-mindedness, an incapacity to make tough decisions? I don’t think so at all. I’ve had serious debates and battles within my own party. [But] if I’m fighting with someone, I want the argument to be over the issue and not the fact that there is a difference between us. So you can have a pretty good collegial atmosphere that simultaneously makes tough decisions. I suppose to symbolize it a bit, when Ian Waddell lost his critic’s role over the decision he made to oppose Meech Lake, it was Ian, not I, who said anything about it publicly. He knew that I, as leader with full support of the executive and caucus, was treating this decision as analogous to a cabinet decision, so that if anyone went off board, he or she had understood the consequences. They maintained their right, as members of the New Democratic Party to [disagree], but they lost at the same time their critic job. I think that simultaneously reflected a tough decisionmaking process but maintained a pretty effective team. □