Interview with Jack Layton
September 29, 2006
Jack Layton is the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, a position he has held since 2003. During a stopover in British Columbia, Leader Layton agreed to sit down to an interview with the Other Press.
OP: On behalf of the Other Press I'd would like to thank you for agreeing to this interview. Iíll just jump into the issues right away.
The NDP has been around a long time, almost 75 years. Youíve had nine different leaders and yet the party still struggles to win more than 20% of the vote. Why do you think that is?
LAYTON: Well, first of all we have struggled to break through into Quebec. I think thatís now changing. I think one of the reasons why the members made the choice to chose me as leader was because I was born in and grew up in Quebec. Weíre working hard to break through in Quebec because Quebec is a very progressive place. But theyíre had this debate about whether to be in or out of Canada- the "national question" as it soon became called- and theyíve had the Bloc Quebecois occupying space that really, New Democrats would most naturally fit into. And also theyíve had the Liberal Party as the other choice, if you didnít want the Bloc.
Well thatís all beginning to change now. Weíve seen the beginning of that with Stephen Harper getting some seats there, from the right of the political spectrum, and weíre seeing some growth for the NDP too. I think thatís key to opening up the level of support here.
Secondly, we had for a period of time a kind of prairie populism on the right; the Reform Party. But theyíve now merged with the Conservatives and that process is still kind of going on. Stephen Harper is still seen by some people as a populist to the right, but the longer heís in power, supporting Big Oil and gas companies for instance, and not helping out kids with their education or helping out seniors- giving the GST rebate instead of investing in seniorsí health- I think there is going to be more and more skepticism there.
OP: Itís interesting that you mention that populist dimension, because your leadership of the NDP has been characterized as moving away from the prairie-centric, western, labor, working-class, base of the NDP, and towards a more urban, liberal set. The sort of university intellectual scene. Do you feel this is creating internal tension within the NDP, with you being considered an icon of the sort of progressive, urban set, where as the old leadership has traditionally been defined more by the sort of Tommy Douglas school of prairie populism?
LAYTON: I wouldnít say itís a tension, unless we use the word "creative tension." I do think that thereís a diversity of perspectives. That has a deep and rich history in the party, and it expresses itself in different ways. Thereís certainly debate about some of our policy internally; we just had a great convention, there was debate about some policies there, and not everybody was happy with every single decision, but that's democracy.
What I really appreciated was the vote at the end of it all, with 92% of votes in favor of the leadership. What I think people were doing there was voting in favor of our collective approach together, how weíre moving forward. I think it was a vote of recognition for the staff, for the caucus, and for the engagement that was happening. Itís not necessarily just for me, for instance. The media might have portrayed it that way, but I think it was really more a statement for the kind of party we are.
We are going under some transition. It was the largest Quebec delegation since our founding at that convention. It was the largest-ever youth delegation at that convention since our founding. Largest-ever aboriginal delegation since our founding. So the party is changing in some very very good ways, really reflecting the social demographic changes of Canada.
OP: I've interviewed Svend Robinson a couple of times. Last time, I asked him if the NDP had "peaked" in terms of electoral success and political relevance, and he said "no no no". He felt very strongly that an NDP government would be elected in his lifetime.
Do you believe that's likely to happen?
OP: In the last election it sounded like youíd sort of resigned yourself to the idea of the NDP as the force of "influence" but not a force of government.
LAYTON: Well, each election has its dynamics and as you get down towards the close of an election campaign certain things become relatively clear.
What Iím asking Canadians to do- and I think itís probably the first time in a generation one of our party leaders has asked this of Canadians- is to consider an NDP-led government in the next election.
Why? Because I think we have a very positive vision of the country to offer the people that is in sync with the values of the majority of people. Secondly, I think the Conservatives are clearly taking the country in a direction that most people actually do not support. Third- the Liberals were there for 13 years, and theyíve only been out for a few months, and thereís no reason to believe that if they came back there they would suddenly start doing what they didnít do for all that period of time. Canadians actually do have a choice here.
OP: So going into the next election you believe the office of Prime Minister is within your grasp?
OP: Critics of the NDP often describe the party as being socialist, with the term intended as an insult.
I was just wondering if "socialist" is still a label that you personally are comfortable with.
LAYTON: Sure. I mean itís sometimes called democratic socialism or itís sometimes called social-democracy, there are quite lengthy debates that can be had the order of the words, and which words exactly are chosen. But Iím very comfortable with the term because what we have in mind is an approach that puts the needs of people in the forefront, and recognizes that the way to meet some of those key needs is through a collective approach, in our healthcare system, early childhood care, education, care for seniors, some of those broad-brush approaches. Thatís why weíre advocating a national pharmacare program for instance. Itís something that even all the Premiers, of all stripes, are now advocating. So itís interesting, because itís clearly a socialist idea.
On the other hand, we believe that wealth creation, the pursuit of prosperity, individual enterprise, and a strong commercial and market sector are all very important. There does need to be some regulation to deal with issues like the environment, exploitation of people, or safety for instance. But innovation and creativity absolutely should be promoted, and thatís why we support the idea of a industrial strategy that would help us there.
OP: So you would consider yourself a socialist but not a Marxist, it sounds like.
LAYTON: Well that has more to do, in my view, with sociological framework of analysis. Iím not in that world now.
OP: I bet at one time though, these kinds of things were a big pre-occupation of yours.
LAYTON: Oh sure. Well, I mean Iíve been teaching in the field of sociology and political philosophy for and so on for many, many years. So talking about different perspectives on understanding the world, on understanding historical dynamics, on understanding social transformations- this is where those kinds of issues come in. I donít see that label [Marxist] as being applicable to political dynamics, political parties, or political programs.
OP: When you look around the world today are there any world leaders you particularly admire?
LAYTON: Well, I see them all grappling and struggling with pretty major issues, and I kind of admire just about anybody who steps into public life, dramatically willing to put their minds to use in such a serious way.
I have very strong opposed views to some of the world leaders that weíre dealing with now. President Bush comes to mind, and Iíve had a chance to express those views directly to him. On the other hand, I donít tend to approach these things on the level of a person or a personality.
Itís more historical figures that I tend to admire. Iím not sure it will surprise anybody, but Iíve found Mandelaís life to be an inspiration, and thatís partially because I learned about apartheid at about the time he was being put in jail. Then I had the opportunity to meet him, as president of his country, and thatís a pretty remarkable thing. I find his biography to- which I listened to on tape-
OP: Long Walk to Freedom?
LAYTON: Long Walk to Freedom.. one of the most inspiring volumes Iíve ever had a chance to encounter. So I would really place him there.
And of course Tommy Douglas is another. Thatís no surprise. But you know, Iíve got that picture, that famous one, of him looking out over the prairie fields, with that beautiful slogan that I am inspired by every time I see it: "Courage my friends! Itís never too late to build a better world." The mayor of Toronto, David Miller, a good New Democrat, has that on his wall in his Mayorís office. As young people we were inspired by Tommy. We have to move beyond that now, but thereís many people that inspire me.
Sometimes theyíre not the high-and-mighty leader type. Meeting [Afghani politician] Malalai Joya was an inspiration, coming to our convention. The young courage of a 26-year-old woman willing to stand up against people who said they were going to take her life because sheís speaking the truth for her people. Just remarkable.
OP: What did you make of Hugo Chavezí recent speech to the United Nations?
LAYTON: Well, I wouldnít use language like that. I donít know why somebody would use that kind of language. I think that naming wrong policy, and calling those who pursue those policies "wrong" is something appropriate to do. I donít believe in his kind of labeling, myself. I donít see how it advances, ultimately, the issues that we need to be dealing with.
Some of what has happened in Venezuela, such as the fact that they have a publicly-owned oil company, are things weíve advocated. We pushed for the creation of Petro Canada and it was a great tragedy when Mulroney began to sell it off, and Chretien accelerated the sale. Where would we be now if we still owned it? We could be using the profits of an old energy regime to dramatically transform the way we produce and use energy in this country. We would have had a tool, a vitally important tool. But now that itís just another multi-national out there around the world, squeezing out as much profits as it can from the worldís resources. Weíve lost an opportunity there, where as the Venezuelans have kept their public ownership of their resources, as have the Mexicans. Theyíve been frankly smarter about it than we have.
OP: One of the big polarizing issues of the current political climate is, of course, Afghanistan. You recently wrote an editorial for the Toronto Star in which you said that Afghanistan "cannot be won militarily" and that we need to put" reconstruction, development and aid ahead of counter- insurgency"
My question is how can we even begin to reconstruct Afghanistan when the country is still full of suicide bombers and other jihadists who have proven themselves more than willing to blow up schools, government buildings, economic centers, and the rest of the country's infrastructure? Shouldn't getting rid of the people who oppose reconstruction be priority number one?
LAYTON: Well, first the approach we are recommending is already underway in most of the country. But because there is a war in the south of the country, and with the acceleration of that war we have produced more terrorist attacks in the rest of the country where headway was beginning to be made with reconstruction. So not only is the war effort in the south bad for the south, where people are being evacuated from the communities where supposedly schools are being built- instead theyíre being evacuated and not going to school at all, but rather going to refugee camps- the whole effort of war in the south is fueling the growth of counter-insurgency and producing recruits. It is emboldening people elsewhere in the country to attack because theyíre able to say that "we are fighting against an occupation of foreign forces." And what youíre finding is that care groups, including CARE itself, have had to start pulling out of Afghanistan since the war escalation in the south began. And now youíre getting less and less reconstruction.
So I think what weíve learned from that is we should not be conducting an aggressive war, but instead focusing on security issues and defense- but thatís very different than whatís happening in the south.
OP: But donít you think that the people who are attacking would oppose the presence of any foreigners at all? For terrorists, they donít see it as a matter of soldiers versus humanitarian workers, they just see it as foreigners, and foreigners have to be blown up and killed. So regardless of whether or not we are fighting or just building hospitals or whatever, the people who want to kill them will continue to attack, so long as any foreigners of any sort- no matter how well-intentioned- are in their country.
LAYTON: I donít think the facts back up that approach, that analysis. I know thatís what is being portrayed by the government, but Afghanistan is a very complex place. There are warlords, there are ancillary, there are layered political structures and military structures and economic structures and economic structures that feed into everything. Even elections- you have people who are known criminals and warlords according to Malalai Joya and many others, who are now elected into the so-called democratic government.
You've got a pattern over the last number of years, of an ebb and flow. Youíve got the Northern Alliance, an alliance of various pockets of ethnic and tribal structures, that go back many many years- decades if not centuries. Therefore, saying that those who are commiting insurgency have a kind of specific perspective on anyone who's in Afghanistan suggests that itís even possible for significant numbers of people in Afghanistan to have specific perspectives. That isnít possible. Itís a very pluralistic society from the standpoint of perspectives and points of view.
Also, thereís an underpinning of resentment in Afghanistan of occupying entities. If thereís one thing that will unify Afghanis, historically speaking, it has been the sense that "weíve got to push occupiers out." The Russians learned this perhaps more dramatically than anyone else. And what weíre doing in the war in the south is giving an illustration of that same kind of occupying force, sending tanks in is sort of the ultimate signature, and fighter jets strafing will cap it off. All it does is give a gift to those who are saying "look at your fields, you canít provide a livelihood for your family, your social structures are being completely disrupted, weíre going to stand up for you and try to help you out!" And this is what more and more analysts are identifying, including people involved in the military and people from Afghanistan. They're saying- "youíre providing fodder for those who say that insurgency is the best way to go." This is certainly happening in Iraq, and we're seeing the same kind of phenomenon in Afghanistan.
OP: On a somewhat related note, a recent poll said that over 50% of Canadians believe 9-11 was largely the result of American foreign policy. Do you agree?
LAYTON: There's certainly a deep concern that not paying attention to the rampant growth of global inequality and allowing despair to occupy the daily attention of billions on the globe rather than trying to pursue the international development goals of trying to lift people out of poverty, and allow them to begin to move to the kind of life that we have, is, at the fundamental level, a failure of American foreign policy.
As is spending half a trillion dollars a year on the military, whereas we can't muster a few million to deal with the poverty issues that could be addressed with a fraction of the investment that goes into this massive military. The Americans spend half the world's military budget even though they're what percentage of the global population? 250 million out of six billion? It's a remarkable disequilibrium that exists globally now, and the moral choices that are being made- and the choices of how you spend money faced with world circumstances amount to moral choices- those moral choices are flawed. And they allow those with alternative agendas, that they predicate on moral foundations, to have ammunition to grow.
I don't think it's a question of drawing a direct line- as one does in polling questions- between cause and effect. But I do believe we'd have a safer world if there was dramatically less poverty and it's within our grasp to do that.
OP: So do you believe then that Islamic terrorists of various stripes are more motivated by political and economic concerns rather than strictly religion?
LAYTON: Not motivated by, no. But the terrain in which they are able to work and function is made more fertile for the setting root of their extremist views within a population because of the choices that are made by developed countries to not assist and develop properly a world regime that tries to reduce poverty by half. These were all the [United Nations'] Millenium Development goals. That was a serious effort to try and establish a more peaceful world, with less need for military conflict. By not pursuing it there's a predictable result: we'll get more military or violent conflicts.
OP: Moving on to domestic issues... democratic reform has traditionally been a cause that the NDP has championed. And the Reform Party as well.
Prime Minister Harper, a former Reformer, wants the senate elected. You want the Senate abolished. Since you're both basically anti-Senate parties, isn't there any room for compromise?
LAYTON: I would have thought so, but Mr. Harper shows no interest in compromise with any other party. Certainly not ours. We were successful in getting language into the speech from the throne saying there would be continued work towards democratic reform, in particular, proportional representation. But the moment the speech was finished being read that was the last we heard of it. We've continued to press the government to take action but they've shown zero interest.
We believe that on a piecemeal basis, electing senators while leaving a whole bunch of appointed senators there for however many more years makes no sense whatsoever. In fact it gives more potential legitimacy to an illegitimate entity from two centuries ago.
What we should do is bring in proportional representation that allows every vote to count. That will also mean that the need for more representation from British Columbia- given its growth in population- can be honored, and it doesn't have to be at the expense of Prince Edward Island. Nobody's saying they have to have fewer seats.
OP: My next question was actually about the PR system- you've obviously been a big champion of it.
Yet the fact remains that the system has generally been designed for small European countries. It's never been used in a country as vast and regionally diverse as Canada. It's a system which basically turns the country into one giant electoral riding and then distributes the seats based on their percentage of the popular vote. But it seems to me that a lot of Canadians would probably dislike the idea of having to give up their locally-elected, community MPs.
Is there a way to make the PR system consistent with the parliamentary principles that we've had for so long, namely provincial representation and community representation?
LAYTON: Yes, in fact we would be opposed to taking that away. So our approach to proportional representation is what they call a "mixed member" system which would ensure that communities still had their own member. And then what you do is when the dust settles after the election and everyone's elected their member, you take a look to see whether the percentage of members from the party reflects the percentage of votes they got across the country. If it doesn't, you add a few more. You don't take any away.
That was also recommended by the Law Reform Commission of Canada, which was just abolished last week by Harper's spending cut.
OP: What do you think of the monarchy?
LAYTON: Well, I think the idea of having a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic has worked pretty well for Canada. I do believe that Canadians struggle, as the years go by, with the issue of relevancy.
On the other hand I think we've had Governor-Generals and certainly our current Governor-General would be a good example, of someone representing the Crown- I don't mean an individual but the phenomenon, the concept of our collective statehood- in kind of an interesting way.
I don't hear from Canadians the sound of a stampede to make a change. It comes up from time to time. I feel that we've got precious amount of debate time and work time in parliament and there are a lot of issues that come before reform to the constitutional monarchy.
OP: On a more personal note, there's a fact I recently learned that I don't think a lot of younger people might be aware of, and that's that your father was a cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney's government.
Do you think that's made you more understanding and sympathetic to where Conservatives are coming from when they make their arguments?
LAYTON: Well, he was part of the Progressive Conservative Party. The current party got rid of the word "progressive," and I'm not sure he would be there today. But you know, as I often say, "what can you do when a member of your family falls in with a bad crowd." (laughs)
OP: Lastly, I was reading your biography and it talked about how you were a practicing member of the United Church of Canada.
LAYTON: I don't practice as frequently as I should (laughs).
OP: I was just wondering about the role that faith plays in your politics.
LAYTON: Well our party has long had individuals, including ministers, who have been very active in our party. For example, J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas, and Bill Blakie- a current member.
We've actually started a faith and justice commission in our party because we believe that this idea that people who have values that motivate them in politics derived from whatever their faith journey might have been, this idea that this is somehow the exclusive preserve of a far-right component of the population is just simply wrong.
And also the notion that people of a wide variety of faith backgrounds, the great religions of the world, wouldn't be able to work around some common values- we think that's wrong. In fact, when we study the great religions of the world we see far more commonality than we do differences, especially when you look at the root.
Of course we also have a profound, not only understanding, but belief in the separation of church and state. That is a very very important principle in Canada. We've also chosen, however, to be a multi-cultural sort of society. So we've allowed for gray areas around the edges, and I think that's part of working things out in a complex society, and ours is a little more complex than most.
OP: Thank you very much for your time sir. Best of luck in the future.