- Stephen Lewislongtime member of the NDP. He led the party in Ontario during the 1970s. He later served as Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s and later as the United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. He is the co-founder and co-director of AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy organization.
The Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was elected to a majority in the Canadian parliament, ending five years of minority government. Harper has vowed to continue pro-corporate policies that have led critics to label his government the most right-wing in recent Canadian history. But the election also saw major gains for the left-leaning New Democratic Party, which won enough seats to become the official opposition party for the first time. We speak to Stephen Lewis, former Canadian diplomat and former leader of the NDP, and the Canadian activist and writer Judy Rebick. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Canada, which saw a significant political shift after its national election Monday. The Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was elected to a majority in the Canadian parliament, ending five years of minority government. Harper has vowed to continue pro-corporate policies that have led critics to label his government the most right-wing in recent Canadian history.
But the election also saw major gains for the [New] Democratic Party, which won enough seats to become the official opposition party for the first time. The NDP nearly tripled its parliamentary seats as both the Liberal Party and the separatist Bloc Québécois suffered major losses. It was the first time the Liberal Party did not finish in either first or second place in a national vote. While the Liberals have long been seen as a centrist party, the NDP’s historic surge could herald a new era in which a progressive alternative challenges the ruling government.
To discuss the Canadian elections, we’re joined by Stephen Lewis, longtime member of the NDP. He led the party in Ontario during the 1970s. He later served as Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations in the ’80s and later as the U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, co-founder and co-director of AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy group based out of New York.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Stephen Lewis. Talk about these elections, what they mean. What does it mean for Harper’s majority? And remember, you’re talking to an audience, in addition to a Canadian audience — and it was wonderful to be in Canada this past weekend — people all over the world, who are not very familiar with Canadian politics.
STEPHEN LEWIS: Right. Well, Stephen Harper is a classic right-wing government, ideologically driven, and now has a majority, and I suspect that four or five years from now, Canada will be a somewhat different country because the natural progressive instincts of so much of Canada will be diminished by a very right-wing government. But on the other hand, he was elected. It’s a democratic society, albeit he only got 40 percent of the vote, which means that 60 percent of Canadians wanted an alternative.
The unprecedented surge of the New Democratic Party — and I don’t think I’m putting that inappropriately as though it was intense partisanship — the surge of the New Democratic Party took everyone aback. And the sweep in the province of Quebec is perhaps one of the most extraordinary moments in Canadian political history, over the last two or three decades, because it means that Quebec has voted for a federalist party to represent their views as part of Canada. They have rejected the separatist, sovereignist instinct which has prevailed over the last two to three decades. And that is of great significance, because, as it were — and this isn’t metaphorical — it brings Quebec back into Canada.
So you have in Canada now a rather useful ideological fray, with strong Conservatives in the government, with a deeply committed left-wing opposition, led by a man without guile, Jack Layton, who brought tremendous authority and admiration to his campaign. And the Liberal Party, which always saw itself as the natural government of Canada, may never rise from the ashes. The separatists have been defeated in Quebec; they probably won’t be back at the federal level. Though Liberals will be struggling for place.
AMY GOODMAN: Give us the history of the NDP. I mean, this remarkable moment — it’s as if, in the United States, you have the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and, what, the Green Party, and now the Green Party has become the second party instead of the Democrats. So when the questions are asked here, for example, you know, “Are you going to throw away your vote, allow Republicans to win by voting for a Green Party and the Democrats will lose?” in Canada, it became, “Are you going to throw away your vote for voting for the Liberals and not the NDP?” And so, the NDP became number two, the main opposition party. What is the history of your party, which you led in Ontario, for example, during the ’70s?
STEPHEN LEWIS: Yes, yes. The party was rooted in what was called the CCF, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which was a combination of agrarian support in western Canada and a good deal of trade union and urban support in eastern Canada, but we never really had a foothold in the province of Quebec. In 1958, we suffered a terrible defeat politically, were reduced to eight seats, and out of that there emerged the New Democratic Party, which was a slightly different formulation but with a new passion and instinct. And the former premier of Saskatchewan, one of the most popular of Canadians, Tommy Douglas, came out to lead the party. And that began 50 years — this is our 50th anniversary, Amy — 50 years of a slow progression of social democracy in Canada gradually winning more and more support.
We formed provincial governments in British Columbia, in Saskatchewan, in Manitoba, in Ontario, now in Nova Scotia. But we never had any impressive strength beyond a third-place finish in Canada as a whole. Tommy Douglas was followed by my father, who was the leader and, for a while, held the balance of power in the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau was head of the Liberal Party. He was followed by Ed Broadbent, who previously got our highest number of seats in the ’80s: 43. Now we have 102 and 30 percent of the vote, and this incredible breakthrough in Quebec. Amy, two days ago, we had one member of parliament in Quebec — one. This morning, we have 59 or 60. It’s really quite phenomenal. And as a result, after Ed Broadbent, there came two women leaders and now Jack Layton. It’s been a slow, progressive build of social democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: The NDP is responsible for ushering in Canada’s single-payer healthcare system. In 1962, as you mentioned, the Saskatchewan premier, Tommy Douglas, who was also NDP’s first federal leader, won the passage of single payer in Saskatchewan with every other province soon to follow. Now, it’s very interesting, especially for viewers and listeners in the United States and in the rest of the world, because Tommy Douglas is the grandfather of Kiefer Sutherland, the actor, you know, the star of 24, for example, which is, by the way, “trending” today, Kiefer Sutherland, because of the action that took place that killed Osama bin Laden, you know, in sort of 24 style. But in 1983, three years before his death, Tommy Douglas talked about healthcare.
TOMMY DOUGLAS: If you want a two-tiered health program, then just continue the way we’re going. And I remind you that in this movement we pledged ourselves 50 years ago that we would provide healthcare for every man, woman and child, irrespective of their color, their race or their financial status. And by God, we’re going to do it!
AMY GOODMAN: That was the first leader of the NDP. That was Tommy Douglas, responsible for bringing in single-payer healthcare, first in one province, which is interesting, because it looks like Vermont in the United States is poised to bring in single-payer healthcare just in Vermont. Stephen Lewis, the significance of healthcare as part of the progressive agenda of the New Democratic Party that has now just become the second party of Canada.
STEPHEN LEWIS: Oh, it’s visceral to the NDP, Amy. It’s in our molecular structure. It’s holy writ. We will fight for Medicare to the death, and the public healthcare, which is provided in Canada to every single citizen, is something of which we’re immensely proud. The people of Canada consider healthcare to be the dominant political issue in any campaign, and there will now be a struggle in the House of Commons, in parliament, because the Conservative government would like to privatize dimensions of healthcare. I rather doubt that the Canadian public will permit that, and the NDP will fight a very, very hard to maintain the — what you call the single-payer system. That is one of the things which distinguishes us and identifies the democratic left.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined, in addition to Stephen Lewis, by Canadian activist and writer Judy Rebick, founder of rabble.ca, one of Canada’s leading independent news websites, and a professor of politics at Ryerson University in Toronto. Judy Rebick, can you talk about the new landscape in Canada now?
JUDY REBICK: Yeah, you know, I share a lot of Stephen’s analysis. I don’t quite share his enthusiasm, not being quite as strong a partisan as he is for the NDP. I’ve been a supporter of the NDP, but a critic, as well. And I think it’s quite serious that we have this majority Conservative government now. This is the most right-wing government we’ve ever had. We used to — they used to call themselves the Progressive Conservatives; now they call themselves the Conservatives. And they’re really very much like Bush Republicans, in my view. And they’ve run even with a minority government, which means they could be defeated at any moment, for Americans who don’t know what minority governments are. They ran a very, very repressive government, cutting funding to any group that they didn’t agree with, you know, spending a billion dollars on security during the G-20, arresting 1,100 people. So, the extra-parliamentary left, if you want, the social movements, can expect a very tough time from this government.
I agree that the NDP win is phenomenal, and Jack Layton ran an amazing campaign. He really won over the Canadian people, particularly the Québécois. You know, they went, as Stephen said, from one seat in Quebec to beating the Bloc Québécois, which was the major party in Quebec. But where I differ with Stephen is I don’t think this is a rejection of sovereignty at all, actually. I think what it is, is the Bloc Québécois, which is a sovereignist party, is also a social democratic party, and I think that the sovereigntist — a lot of the sovereignists in Quebec switched to the NDP not as a rejection to sovereignty, but as an attempt to get rid of the Harper — make sure Harper didn’t get a majority, which the Bloc couldn’t have done. But the NDP had this, what people call the “orange crush,” because orange is the color of the NDP, had this surge continue across the rest of the country.
AMY GOODMAN: And I just want to explain to viewers and listeners that Bloc Québécois, when you talk about sovereignty movement, the idea that Quebec would become sovereign, a sovereign nation, is what they were pushing for.
JUDY REBICK: That’s right. That’s right. So, you know, you have in Quebec 40 percent of the population — which is, I think, about what voted for the NDP there — supports sovereignty still, to this day. And there’s been two referendums, both of which failed. But I think — I actually think that it’s very likely the Parti Québécois, which is the provincial sovereigntist party, could win the next provincial election, because the current government, which is a federalist government, is now popular, and could bring in a referendum. And because the Québécois hate Harper so much, you know, he could — they could vote for sovereignty this time. And so, I think the only — the real restriction on Harper is not going to be the opposition in the House of Commons; it’s going to be the fear that if he goes too far to the right, they’ll lose Quebec, and they’ll lose a referendum. I think that’s going to be the biggest discipline on the Harper majority government.
So, I agree with Stephen, there’s been a huge — basically there’s been a huge realignment of Canadian politics. The Liberal Party has been called, up until very recently, the natural governing party in Canada, and they are reduced to very, very little. I mean, it’s devastating for them, and it’s a complete shift in Canadian politics to basically an extremely right-wing party and a somewhat — I think the NDP a somewhat left-wing party. But the NDP has moved right in the last little while, in my view.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Stephen Lewis, your response?
STEPHEN LEWIS: Amy, the reason that I’m in good spirits is because I’m an ideologue. I’m a fundamentalist of the left. I get great pleasure in the fact that in the Canadian political system now, instead of having the Conservatives, minority or majority, facing a wishy-washy centerpiece called the Liberal Party, you’re going to have an actual ideological difference in Canada between people genuinely on the left and people determinately on the right. If the parliament can be demonstrably civil to each another, it will be an extremely useful and serious debate.
And, I mean, I agree with Judy Rebick on most things in life political. I don’t agree on these speculative fantasies about Quebec on the day after the election. I think we have to see what Jack Layton and his 60 Quebec members do over the course of the next four years. Because of that, of course, that will have an immense influence on the way in which people in Quebec respond to the separatist instinct.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly —
STEPHEN LEWIS: So I’m at odds on that, but I’m not at odds on the fact that we’ve got a hell of a right-wing government, which is going to make life very difficult for Canadians over the next four years. That’s why I said at the outset that we may have a very different kind of Canada four years from now.
AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, 15 seconds, Judy Rebick, what does this mean for Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Party leader?
JUDY REBICK: Oh, I think he’s finished. I mean, he didn’t resign last night. Gilles Duceppe, the leader of Bloc Québécois, resigned. I think he’s gone. The other thing I want to say is Elizabeth May, the first Green Party candidate in North America to win a seat, that’s also very significant.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. And thank you so much, Judy Rebick and Stephen Lewis, both speaking to us from Toronto.