It's time for direct federal government intervention to drive Canada's transition to a greener economy, says NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton.

After six months of campaigning, Ashton is entering the final stages of her bid to lead Canada's New Democrats against three leadership rivals: Quebec member of Parliament Guy Caron, Ontario MP Charlie Angus and Jagmeet Singh, a member of the Ontario legislature.

Online voting began Sept. 18 and the 1st ballot results are to be announced this Sunday, Oct. 1.

Ashton, who spoke to National Observer on Monday morning at Planet Coffee in Ottawa, has called for the creation of a new crown corporation called Green Canada that would direct federal funding to invest in climate change adaptation and an economic transition.

"We are where we are in terms of climate change because of the kind of economic system that we have," Ashton said, after ordering a cookie and juice at the popular coffee shop in Ottawa's ByWard Market in the middle of a late-September heat wave.

"It’s clear to me as we sit here in 30+ C weather, and given the summer we’ve had where we’ve seen extreme weather phenomena, that the time is now to act. We need to pull out all the stops, and that includes significantly upping not just federal investment, but also making a clear role for federal investment through a crown corporation."

She said that guiding a green transition was too important a job to be left to the private sector — or even an existing federal organization such as Sustainable Development Technology Canada. These "patchwork approaches to funding" aren't working, she said.

In the wide-ranging interview, Ashton also weighed in on the German election, on Singh and a recent controversy surrounding Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew, and on the issues of populism, free tuition, public ownership, tax reform, systemic racism and gender-based violence.

The following interview has been edited for length and style:

One of your key messages is talking about a bold vision, the need to reject the status quo. People describe populism as centering on big, bold claims and rejecting the establishment, too. As we saw in Germany this weekend, populism continues to be on the rise. Yet something tells me you don't identify with this movement. How do you champion a bold vision while staying away from populism?

“I come from the prairies, and there is such a thing as prairie populism. Tommy Douglas and our pioneers really adhered to that philosophy. What we’re seeing today, though, is a very dangerous, divisive kind of politics.

"We saw in the German election, the far right has gotten the most support its ever gotten since the end of the Second World War. It’s extremely troubling to see that. There is a silver lining in seeing the way in which Die Linke, the left-wing party, has received a fair bit of support.

"But still, what’s clear here is the rise of the right in a number of countries — the U.S., the U.K., Germany, elsewhere — and I think it’s something that we are apt to seeing here [in Canada]. To a certain extent, we saw the way in which the Conservative leadership race was inspired by Trump-like politics and Trump-like ideas.

"I believe that that’s all the more reason for us in the NDP to put forward a bold vision that takes on the big challenges of our time — inequality, climate change — but brings people together, rather than dividing them or scapegoating, or using the politics of hate and division, which Trump uses.

“He [Trump] will talk about economic inequality, but then he’ll blame immigrants, or Muslims, or he’ll use the politics of hate. I think that’s why it’s really critical that we speak to these issues that clearly are on the minds of people, and are clearly affecting their day-to-day lives. But that our vision is one that’s inclusive, that’s tolerant, that’s unifying."

Would you call yourself a prairie populist?

“I’m definitely inspired by prairie populism, the kind that we saw in the [Co-operative Commonwealth Federation] and the NDP. We put out an email yesterday that did a version of Mouseland for our campaign. It’s really premised on the fact that Tommy Douglas talked a lot about bold ideas. We took the language and inserted some of our messages.

"It’s safe to say that we’re the campaign that’s talked the most about getting back to our roots, reconnecting with our principles, reflecting on the past and building from there to head into the future."

An image from the version of Mouseland, the fable famously told by Tommy Douglas, that was put out by Niki Ashton's campaign. Mouseland is about mice who keep trying to solve their problems by electing two different kinds of cats to lead them, until one mouse wonders why they don't elect fellow mice instead. Image via Niki Ashton Facebook

Your plan has three big themes — economic justice, social justice, environmental justice. Starting with economic justice, let’s talk about your campaign’s support for free tuition. Ontario and New Brunswick already have policies in place for lower-income families. How is your idea different?

“What we’re proposing is universal, so not income-based. The model we’re looking at is what you have in a number of European countries.

"For us, [it’s about] two things: one is the recognition that education is a right, and secondly that the costs of education are a major contributor to the kind of inter-generational inequality we’re seeing today.

"As a millennial, I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about the rise of precarious work, but also inter-generational inequality facing millennials, and there’s no question that sky-high tuition fees and high student debt figure prominently in the kind of instability that our generation is facing.

"When two-thirds of jobs in Canada today require a post-secondary education, we shouldn’t be indebting a generation for simply doing what we’ve asked of them. So what our campaign has said is, if we’re going to tackle inter-generational inequality, a key piece is eliminating tuition fees."

Not income-based, and every province — free for everybody, then?

“Yes. We’ve said that the framework would be a post-secondary education act, like the Canada Health Act, and formalizing clear federal transfers in pursuit of free tuition. What we’re saying is, it needs to be universal.”

NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton
NDP leadership hopeful Niki Ashton on Sept. 17, 2017. Ashton wants to see a post-secondary education act similar to the Canada Health Act that would "formalize" federal transfers to fund universal tuition. Photo by Andrew Meade

You also talk about more public ownership. Could you give some examples of what you’d like to see owned by the public?

“First of all, one of the things we’ve said is if we’re going to talk about economic justice, one of the areas we need to tackle is the neo-liberal agenda, which has pushed privatization, deregulation and outsourcing. It has clearly not contributed to greater wealth redistribution.

"What we’re saying is, yes, we need to fight privatization, but that’s also not enough. We also need to propose public ownership. We’ve proposed public ownership in three key areas.

"One, in the banking sector, through the creation of a postal bank. Secondly, in the health sector, through the creation of a crown corporation that can be involved in the purchasing and distribution of pharmaceuticals, and that would be in conjunction with [a national] pharmacare program.

"The third would be in the energy sector — 20 years ago people would talk about nationalizing oil. What we’re saying is, there needs to be a public entity when it comes to investing in the green transition.

"That’s actually part of our environmental justice platform: we’ve proposed a crown corporation called Green Canada, that would direct funding towards the green transition and work with citizens’ advisory boards, to best invest in adaptation and transition.”

We'll talk more about Green Canada in a bit. First — when we talk about economic justice, we often talk about tax fairness. I’m interested in what you think of the Liberals’ tax reform agenda?

“First, I would say that our tax reform plan has been recognized as one of the most progressive in a generation. There’s no question that if we’re going to tackle inequality, we need significant tax reform.

"Working-class and middle-class Canadians are paying their fair share of tax. It’s the rich and corporations who are getting away without paying their fair share, legally or otherwise. I do believe that the Liberal proposal is a beginning at addressing tax reform. It is problematic in certain aspects.

"But what’s most problematic is that they’re not going after the big tax cheats. They’re not closing the stock-option loophole. The KPMG scandal points to the fact that they’re not going after the kind of tax-evasion that so many Canadians are enraged about.

"They’re not upping the corporate tax rate — a lower corporate tax rate as we’ve seen in Canada hasn’t actually brought the sort of wealth creation that (former prime minister) Stephen Harper promised us it would.

"Really what I’d say is, it misses the major point, and as more and more Canadians are feeling squeezed, there’s a real sense of, if we’re going to be fair, let’s make sure that those that are getting away [without] paying taxes, particularly those that are getting away in nefarious ways are being held to account.”

NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton meets with supporters
NDP leadership hopeful Niki Ashton on Sept. 17, 2017. Ashton says she wonders why Finance Minister Bill Morneau hasn't talked as much about stock-options and tax evasion as he has about tax fairness when it comes to income sprinking. Photo by Andrew Meade

You talk about the Liberals “out-lefting” the NDP. Is this an example of something where the Liberals are trying to capture left-wing votes that should belong to the NDP?

“I think that it’s definitely a more populist way of doing politics.

"But again, some of the rhetoric you hear from the Liberals, even on this proposed tax plan, there’s a fair bit of — how can we say — I mean, you hear [Finance Minister] Bill Morneau talk about it, he’s very focused on this. He feels very strongly about it. I wonder why he doesn’t feel as strongly about closing the stock-option loophole, or going after major tax evaders.

"So I do believe a fair bit of it is a feigned kind of outrage when in fact we’re leaving the wealthiest off the hook."

You brought up Green Canada. You obviously know about Sustainable Development Technology Canada, which does seem to do similar things as what you’re proposing. How will Green Canada be different?

“One of the things that we recognize is that the federal government is not pulling its weight when it comes to investment in the green transition.

"We have a government that talks a good talk on climate change, and yet goes and approves pipelines that will take us further away from meeting our climate change commitments. We’re also not seeing the kind of partnerships [we need] in the green transition.

"So what we’ve said is there needs to be a clear body that directs that funding, and it should not be left up to the private sector. We are where we are in terms of climate change because of the kind of economic system that we have.

"So instead, we ought to have a crown corporation that’s publicly controlled, but again with an advisory capacity for grassroots involvement, and that would in turn work with other entities, whether it’s provinces, municipalities, First Nations, to invest in climate change adaptation and transition.

Why the belief in crown corporations? Some people are a bit hesitant to go all in, given some past problems, but you seem to have a fundamental belief in them.

“Where I come from, in Manitoba, we have a lot of strong crown corporations. Crown corporations allow for us to provide a public good, all the while benefiting the public in their economic model. It’s not a for-profit situation.

"I think in the case of climate change, we’ve seen the way in which leaving it up to foundations, patchwork approaches to funding isn’t actually working.

"I would argue that there are many on the ground — whether it’s First Nations; I know this from my constituency, or provincial governments, like Ontario, Alberta and others — that are keen to move full-steam ahead, that require a strong federal partner, and we’re not seeing that right now.

"I believe that a crown corporation would be a way of clearly formalizing that capacity, and ultimately the goal of this entity would be to move full-steam ahead, investing in the transition."

Some say the market is functioning abnormally because of artificial factors — an example that's often raised is fossil fuel subsidies — and that if you fix those, the market itself will accelerate the low-carbon transition because it will make the most economic sense. You don’t seem to believe that.

“I definitely agree we should get rid of fossil fuel subsidies, another example of the way in which our tax and subsidization policies are not working. But I believe that we need to go a lot further.

"It’s clear to me as we sit here in 30+ C weather, and given the summer we’ve had where we’ve seen extreme weather phenomena, that the time is now to act. We need to pull out all the stops, and that includes significantly upping not just federal investment, but also making a clear role for federal investment through a crown corporation.

Finally, on social justice. Several of your policies are focused on police, like talking about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and restorative justice, having the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls investigate police​, or providing training for police for racial justice. Why such a focus?

“That’s a particular focus in our racial justice program. We do have a pretty extensive social justice platform — we were the first ones to have a gender justice, LGBTQ justice. I think we might be the only ones with a disability justice platform.

“But in terms of racial justice, we focused on three areas: one is policing, another is public safety and another is immigration. What’s clear to me is that — as I’ve worked with many racial justice activists — systemic racism is alive and well in all those three areas. That’s why we wanted to have a clearly comprehensive platform in taking on systemic racism in those three areas.

“I would say that in terms of the policing piece, there’s a lot more that we ought to be doing. I will acknowledge that the police — I’m talking about the RCMP here — that there has been an openness to dealing with sexual harassment for example, but we need to go a lot further on that front, and we also need to be giving a clear directive on the need to address systemic racism within the force.

“I find it unacceptable that the [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women] Inquiry does not include involving the police and investigating the role of the police in contributing to violence against Indigenous women. It’s also clear to me — and I’ve been an advocate for the Inquiry for a long time — but also an advocate on issues around sexual harassment and the police — the reporting mechanism needs to be far more impartial and accessible.

“We’ve made a very clear call for putting an end to carding, which is a tool to intimidate and obviously target racialized communities, Indigenous communities, and there’s a huge movement afoot to put a stop to it in city police forces, but we’ve said we should be looking at that nationally as well."

You told The National Post that you were “troubled” by a quote you read from Jagmeet Singh speaking positively of Wab Kinew’s commitment to fighting gender-based violence. Do you think Singh doesn’t believe survivors?

“I guess what me and many are saying, and I’ve been in touch with a number of young women on this issue, is it’s not enough to just say that gender-based violence matters. We need to deal with it — we need a platform.

"When an issue is in front of us, it’s absolutely essential that we make a clear statement that we believe survivors. I’ve done that; I think there’s a disconnect in celebrating, as he has done, Wab Kinew’s — well, there’s a disconnect between what he was quoted as saying in the media, where he was very positive about Wab Kinew’s approach to gender-based violence, and I found that to be a very clear statement.

"I then heard that he’d indicated that he believed survivors. There’s a disconnect between those two things. Because as we know, Wab Kinew has consistently denied Tara Hart’s experience.

"There’s a difference between using the general message of, I believe survivors, and actually in the moment, when the issue is in front of us, doing so. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, I believe Tara Hart, and I believe survivors that come forward.

"I will say that Tara Hart and her family are from my constituency, and the issue of violence against Indigenous women is something that I feel very strongly about — violence against all women.

"And I don’t believe there’s room to equivocate on these issues. I understand that he’s gone on to say a few more things — I haven’t followed all of it. But in that one instance, or that one interview, I felt, and others have felt as well, that there was a significant disconnect

What do you think about the narrative now that this has become a wedge in the leadership race?

“I don’t know about a wedge. I think, in the post-Jian Ghomeshi era, the question of believing survivors has become central to how we move forward on sexual violence and on gender-based violence, and for the NDP, a progressive party, a party that believes in feminist values, this is central to who we are.

"I’m a proud feminist, I’ve been a feminist activist for a long time, and when the issue comes up, it needs to be brought up, people need to take a stand.

"I would say that there’s a lot of other issues in this leadership [race], and I have found at times that there isn’t much focus on policy — in my case much more focused on my pregnancy than policy.

"But on something like this, like I said I think it’s important that people know where their leadership candidates are."

A promotional banner for Niki Ashton's 2011 NDP leadership bid. Her campaign used the slogan "new politics" to describe a progressive, diverse vision of the NDP that brings Canadians together. Internet Archive screenshot

You’re the campaign veteran in this race. How have you seen the campaign so far, in relation to the last campaign?

"I have found a much greater appetite, within this race, amongst members, prospective members, to talk about policy and vision. I think in the last race there was a lot of pressure to be back in Parliament, fighting Stephen Harper, winning government, as we were Official Opposition.

“This time around, it’s clear to me that many on the ground feel like the NDP lost its way, the 2015 election was very troubling, and there’s again incredible interest in getting the party back on track.

"And I’ve seen, and we’ve seen it through our campaign, by putting forward a bold and principled agenda, that people have gravitated, mobilized, been inspired, gotten involved — both members, people that left the NDP for a long time, and also young people who signed up for the first time.

“I would say that that’s something that I didn’t see in the same way in the last leadership [race], but I think has made for a very inspiring race, and very dynamic as well. The fact that we get to talk about ideas, that we get to talk about vision and a way forward, that’s what this should be all about I believe.

That’s interesting. On one hand, you’re suggesting that overall, the race has been more policy-driven, but on the other hand, you’ve found there sometimes isn’t much focus on your campaign’s policy.

“Yes. I would say the mainstream media — maybe with the exception of National Observer — but if you Google, the ratio of articles about me being pregnant, to any and all policies that we’ve put forward — I would say that there’s almost been parallel [campaigns].

"The mainstream media’s focused a fair bit on pregnancy, and I would say even like Jagmeet Singh’s outfits, some of the superficial stuff. Whereas grassroots members want to get in there and have a discussion about what we believe in, the kind of vision we want to put forward, and how we take on the two biggest challenges of our time, growing inequality and climate change.

“One of the things that I’ve also seen is, not just in terms of vision, but also movement-building. Yes, it’s important to win elections, but we have to look beyond just our work in Parliament, we have to look at building a movement for change, working with social movements, working with activists on the ground.

"That’s something that’s been really important for our campaign from the beginning. That’s a long-term commitment, and I’m seeing a lot of people that share NDP values wanting to be a part of that."

Comments

The interview covers a lot of the reasons why........I'm voting Nikki Ashton. As are a lot of young people I know....

Boldness of vision is what we all need now. We aren't going to get out of the climate corner we've painted ourselves into, by changing light bulbs....or leaders. Systemic change, and bold initiatives are needed. And we won't get there, if our politicians studiously avoid talking policy in favour of buzz words, and nebulous 'values crap'.

Nikki has vision...and the courage to articulate those visions clearly. All the candidates impress me, but as a woman, mother and grandmother...what she represents is the future.

If we have one.

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