‘Against the grain’

The NDP leader’s long quest for power

October 3 1988

‘Against the grain’

The NDP leader’s long quest for power

October 3 1988

‘Against the grain’


The NDP leader’s long quest for power

In 1987, the New Democratic Party did something that it had never done before—it took the lead in national opinion polls. Since then, the party has slipped dramatically from that alltime high in July, 1987, of 41 per cent of decided voters. The mid-September Gallup poll put the NDP at 27 per cent, compared with 33 per cent for the Liberals and 37 per cent for the Conservatives. But NDP Leader Edward Broadbent still leads Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Liberal Leader John Turner in personal ratings. And although he says his sights are firmly set on becoming prime minister,

Broadbent does not rule out the possibility of joining a coalition with either the Conservatives or the Liberals if one of them forms a minority government in the coming election. After 20 years as an MP and 13 as party leader,

Broadbent, 52, appeared confident as he talked recently with Maclean’s editors.

Maclean’s: In the past, the NDP has been a generator of some impressive national policies such as medicare. But what does the party stand for today?

Broadbent: The symbolic item for Parliament and for us now as a country is child care.

I am the kind of social democrat who believes that a large majority of things ought to be organized in terms of goods and services by the marketplace but that certain social needs, if you want to deal with equality in society,

should be taken out of the

marketplace and provided as a kind of social right. If the central need is one of increasing spaces and making them available and accessible, but at a reasonable rate for all Canadians, then there should be a decisive role by the government because the market simply does not meet that need.

Maclean’s: In what way?

Broadbent: The market meets the need of, say, someone in my income position who can pay to get quality. But for the vast majority of children, that need isn’t being met. So we have argued that the way is not through the market system—which is what the Conservatives are doing by providing tax incentives and tax bene-

fits and so on, which all experts say will not increase the availability of spaces at all. Tory rhetoric is always about the family, but they don’t understand the modem family. It is overwhelmingly both people working outside the home, and that is, as far as you can predict anything, a permanent condition of the new family in Canada. So we have begun to take it

on in a decisive and symbolic way and said, yes, we have to lay the foundation now for child care to be established as a universal right. It is a costly thing and there would be a sliding scale: the higher your income, the more you would pay.

Maclean’s: The NDP has always seemed to be on the leading edge with the issues, standing for things that people needed and wanted. Why has your party never been able to win a federal election?

Broadbent: It is in one sense a vicious circle because we are a principle-oriented party. This is not to say that the other parties are not principled, but they have small-c conservative

principles and, therefore, they are not always arguing for change by definition. In one sense, we are going against the grain of certain institutions of power, certain prevailing opinions established in society. So even if you take on an issue believed to be important for a significant number of Canadians, you are perceived to be in some sense going against the grain.

Maclean’s: What is the difference between the NDP now and at the time of the 1984 election? Broadbent: Since 1984, NDP issues and our approach have had increased acceptability, through to the point in July, 1987, when we hit a historic high in public opinion. There has been increased attention to us, and it is not enough to simply say that it has been a result of Mr. Mulroney’s failure on the one hand and Mr. Turner’s on the other. It started earlier than that, before the establishment of this government. And then Mulroney’s failures in that first year, and Turner being perceived as a small-c conservative—and other things too that were negative in public opinion—enabled us to have a continuing presence.

Maclean’s: But last year, the NDP was leading the country—now you are running third. What has happened in the interim?

Broadbent: The government has shown some minimal competence—that is, we do not have a scandal a day. But from Ontario west there has not been all that much shifting around, although there has been a fair bit in the province of Quebec. We got nine per cent in Quebec in

the last election—a very insignificant percentage of the vote. Last year, we were up around 40 per cent in Quebec—in one sense that was artificially high. But if you look at the province of Quebec now, the most recent polls showed 28 per cent. We are still going to do very well in that province.

Maclean’s: If the Liberals or the Tories form a minority government after the next election, could you make a deal with either party? Broadbent: I have said that all possible options in the parliamentary system would be

7 muid much rather be making the decisions than hammering away in opposition all the time’

considered. I am thinking about it now, obviously, and I am sure that Mr. Turner and Mr. Mulroney have to be thinking, ‘Well, if we end up with a minority situation, what are we going to do?’ They may not want to say that publicly, but anyone with half a brain knows that they have to be thinking about that. And we are also thinking about that—we do not close off any option.

Maclean’s: Have you, or anybody in your

party or office, had any discussions with Liberals or Conservatives about this?

Broadbent: I would not at this point as leader have my staff or other people talking to other parties. That would not be appropriate at all. Maclean’s: If the NDP held the balance of power, and a minority Conservative government was in office, would they push ahead with free trade?

Broadbent: Only if they were pretty foolish. They would be heading for defeat pretty quickly.

Maclean’s: Federally, government scandals may have played into your party’s hands. In that case, why didn’t the NDP do better in the Sept. 6 Nova Scotia provincial election? The party was, after all, running against Premier John Buchanan’s scandal-plagued government and actually lost one of its three seats. Broadbent: I don’t know the answer. By extension, it is a variation of the question: why isn’t the NDP growing more rapidly in Atlantic Canada as a whole? I have a theory—certainly not uniquely mine—that in advanced industrial societies, people are more likely to become social democrats the better off they are economically, and that most working families, when they feel threatened, are more likely to be instinctively on the small-c conservative side of things. There is something to that. Maclean’s: Do you think that the NDP is better off nationally than it was in 1984? Broadbent: There is no question about that— about 11-per-cent support at the start of the

1984 campaign versus close to 30 per cent now, starting an election. I certainly feel a lot better about the state of my own party. The party is much happier today—to understate it a lot—than it was going into the 1984 campaign. I knew then that I had to really get the party to feel that we were going to bounce back—and

we did it. I go in with a very different feeling now. I go in seeing that the party all across the country is eager for an election and confident. My task here is different: to try to build momentum. If we start at roughly 30 per cent of support, the challenge is to try to get that to take off a bit. So it is a different atmosphere.

Maclean’s: This will be your fourth election campaign as leader. Do you see yourself doing this for another four campaigns ?

Broadbent: No. But then again I never have. I have said in the past, and I say now, that if the party is happy with the job I am doing and if I am happy to continue and those two things mix—who knows?

Maclean’s: But you really want to be prime minister.

Broadbent: Yes—the first NDP prime minister—that is entirely conceivable now. I have always seen myself as essentially a guy who wants to build the social democratic movement through the NDP. Now it is entirely sensible to say that I could—as plausibly as Mr. Turner or Mr. Mulroney after the next election—be in that position.

Maclean’s: If you do not become prime minister, will this be your last campaign? Broadbent: I don’t know. I will think about that after the election, as I am sure other people will.

Maclean’s: If you were prime minister, what would be your first official act?

Broadbent: I would have to have a meeting with my staff and senior people who were elected to talk about what should be done in terms of priorities. Environment is very important. Tax reform and regional unemployment are important. Dealing with the important free trade issue in a serious way with the United States would be pre-eminently up there—to maintain good relations with the United States

but at the same time to extricate ourselves from what I think is a serious historical error on the part of the present government. Maclean’s: Are there any circumstances under which you could support this free trade agreement?

Broadbent: No. It is so flawed because it got into so many nontrade areas that, for me and for many other Canadians, it is better to put it behind us and pick up, in a sense, where we left off. But some elements of the trade discussions, such as the dispute settlement mechanism, could still provide a useful framework for an acceptable trade agreement.

Maclean’s: Judy Steed’s generally flattering new biography of you—Ed Broadbent: The Pursuit of Power—reveals some highly personal aspects of your life to a lot of readers for the first time. Do you find that kind of attention to your personal life to be a high cost for being in your line of work?

Broadbent: It is a cost—there is no doubt about it. All of us have a sense of privacy in our lives, whether we are politicians or not. And if any of us or certain family members had certain failures, as they are perceived in life, as an individual you wouldn’t talk publicly about their difficulties. Take my father, who was an alcoholic. That has not been in any sense a secret for me and my friends or relatives in Oshawa. But to read about one’s father—one relives a certain experience. It is paradoxical because in a situation like that, any pain that may be associated with it was not borne by that person, who may even be dead now. I would rather have my difficulties as a politician talked about. Maclean’s: What difficulties have you had in public life? What has it cost you personally? Broadbent: The biggest costs for me are friendships. Friendship needs to be sustained. It requires efforts by both friends, contact, the normal things you do together, whether it is discussing novels or going to movies or having holidays together; a sense of intimacy, of sharing. What becomes of friendship if you do not have the time to pursue that? When I say that I miss that, it is not something I have had imposed on me. I have made the decision. But it is a certain loss in one’s life.

Maclean’s: But do you like being a politician? Do you get a kick out of pulling it of day after day?

Broadbent: Yes—but I would rather be making the decisions than talking in opposition all the time. That may strike a number of people as strange, coming from someone who has been in opposition for 20 years. But 25 years ago, I was teaching at university—I never thought I would be a politician. I would never have seen myself as having the temperament to always be out there in Question Period, hammering away. Now I think I would get more satisfaction out of actually doing things and trying to put things in place rather than winning arguments. But basically, I am clearly happy. How many people can get up every day to be paid reasonably to talk to people about how you think your country should be run? That is kind of nice—most people do not have that luxury.