Bob Rae, Ontario ’s first New Democratic Party premier, has been underfire from the province’s business community since his government took power a year ago. Among the party’s most controversial initiatives are its projected $9.7billion budget deficit and proposed labor law reforms that would dramatically enhance union rights. In an interview with Maclean’s editors, Rae explained why he has retreated on some issues but is standing firm on others. Excerpts:
Maclean’s: A month ago, the government seemed to be trying to spend its way out of the recession, but now you are talking about the need for restraint. Why the change?
Rae: I think we have come to feel very strongly that we need to emphasize both. We can only do so much on the renewal side, in terms of how much we put into the economy. The other message in the budget [regarding the deficit] was, ‘That’s as high as we are going, folks. ’
Maclean’s: But don’t recent forecasts suggest that the deficit is going to be much higher?
Rae: I am not interested in forecasts. I am interested in getting the numbers under control. There were a lot of comments about, you know,
‘The NDP thinks the deficit is nothing to worry about.’ That has never been our perspective. But we cannot get spooked by it. We have to recognize that in a recession, you are going to have a deficit. But there are some practical things to do with your money that make more sense than others. We really believe that we’ve got to invest in infrastructure. We’ve got to target more industrial investment; we’ve got to target more on research and development; and we’ve got to get industry to recognize that that has to be done, as well. That means we’re going to have to spend more wisely and get people to recognize that there are other programs that have to be looked at.
Maclean’s: Does that mean you are prepared to cut base programs in areas like social services, education and health?
Rae: It’s not a matter of cutting as much as it is of controlling the increase. I do not want to get into a rhetoric where we are talking about
wholesale cuts. That’s not what’s involved. Maclean’s: Employers have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars recently because of postal disruptions. Another strike stopped millions of dollars of grain shipments and, in Toronto, some businesses were hurt by a transit strike. Yet you seem intent on bringing in legislation to give unions more power.
Rae: In the public sector, we want to create a more mature relationship. We want a very candid discussion about job-security issues versus how much the public sector can afford in a one-, twoor three-year period. In terms of the labor reforms that we are planning, it is a matter of our asking what is causing the crummy climate of labor relations in the country. In my view, it comes from many factors, one of which is union insecurity. That is a fact of life that creates a greater tendency for conflict. And second, I think there has been an assumption on both sides that they could ignore each other’s problems. The reality of the Canadian economy today is that nobody can afford to ignore other people’s problems. Labor cannot afford to ignore management’s concerns about
survival, about competitiveness, about costs, about markets, about productivity. Those are all legitimate issues that are real and that labor needs to address. At the same time, management cannot afford to take the view that labor is illegitimate and does not have a role to play, or that authoritarian management structures are the way to go for the future.
Maclean’s: But your specific proposals seem to favor the unions.
Rae: All I am saying is that if you have any kind of legal restrictions on the ability of an employer to bring in outside people during a labor dispute, in my view that contributes to a greater sense of stability. That has certainly been the experience in Quebec. The fundamental question that the business community has to come to terms with is, does it want to have trade unions at all or does it want to work from the premise that trade unions are bad and need to be destroyed? If it is the second view, that really is not constructive. It is a recipe for more warfare. I guess what I would say to the business community is, we’re going to be here for a while longer, and dialogue is a two-way street. Of course, you have those in the business community whose view is, ‘Screw them. We’ll blow them out of the water in three years and why the hell should we talk to them?’ And that’s something which, frankly, we are trying to break down.
Maclean’s: But surely that’s not the reaction of most members of the business community. The more prevalent reaction is, ‘Well, if it gets too bad, we will just leave the province. ’ Rae: We’re not immune to knowing what’s going on in the world and knowing that our competition is with Quebec, Manitoba and the other provinces, but frankly, it is increasingly with other jurisdictions in the United States. But look at what is going on. Let me give you an example. Employers say, ‘Employment equity is some screwy idea that Bob Rae thought up, and who are these people anyway?’ Well, the Americans have more advanced legislation on equal opportunity at the federal and state level than we do in Canada. To think that somehow we are way ahead, and these are wild and woolly ideas that have never been looked at anywhere else, is just nonsense. I am not denying the problems, and there are issues we have to address. For a long time, the view was that every time an employer started talking about competitiveness, he was bluffing. I think that the greater understanding now is that they are not, that the pressure is real. So people, I think, have to pay attention. □
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