Paul W. Dewar, 48, New Democratic Party Member of Parliament for the riding of Ottawa Centre, is running a spirited campaign for the hotly contested leadership of the NDP in the wake of the untimely death of Jack Layton in August 2011. On May 2, 2011, Layton led his party to an historic and unexpected win and onto the benches of the Official Opposition, formerly occupied by the decimated Liberal Party (once known as Canada’s Natural Governing Party). An ‘orange crush’ swept over Quebec and the NDP caucus nearly tripled in size, swelling to 103 MPs. So the conventional wisdom is that the new leader should reflect this electoral shift and hail from Quebec. But hometown boy Dewar (first elected to the House of Commons in 2006) disputes that assertion. He’s in this race to win, as he told Ottawa Life in a lively interview that took place at his office in the Confederation Building on February 3.
On October 2, 2011, Dewar announced his candidacy for the party leadership. Since then, he’s been running full throttle. Dewar is considered among the leading candidates in the leadership race. His Achilles’ heel is his halting French, but he is determined to become fluent in Canada’s second official language. Anyway, it’s no big deal: Dewar is at the same level of French Stephen Harper was at when he became Prime Minister in 2006. The NDP leadership convention will be held March 23-24 in Toronto.
OTTAWA LIFE: You’re obviously running to win. Tell us what makes you the best man for the job.
PAUL DEWAR: I think the next leader of our party has to be someone who has experience on the doorstep, on the national and international stage, and someone who can connect with people in the regions right across this country. I think I’m the best person for that, no question, in terms of my experience. I have been the party’s foreign affairs critic since 2007. The next leader of the NDP and the next Prime Minster must have those international skills. I think we also need a leader who loves people, and I think I’m best suited for that (aspect of the) job.
OTTAWA LIFE: Québec is important in this race. What does Paul Dewar have to offer Québecers?
PAUL DEWAR: If members in Québec look at what I’ve done since being elected, they’ll see that I’ve reached out to Québeckers right across the (Ottawa River), supporting NDP candidates in Gatineau and other Québec ridings. What I offer is my experience in connecting with people to build up grass roots. The leader must be out there working with the grass roots to build up our capacity on the ground. For the next election, we need a good team in place in every riding where we hold a seat, as well as making sure that those MPs are going to be household names. I understand Québec. I am very close to Québec geographically. My belief is that we need to show Québecers what we have in common. Many of our policies are very similar to the philosophy of many Québecers. The idea of the role of government and (the importance of ) foreign affairs and the environment… these are all aspects of our party platform that connected with Québeckers during our campaign with Jack Layton. We have to continue that, not take it for granted and make sure we’re not pandering. We will continue to develop a mature relationship with Québec, because let’s face it, the last federal election saw le grand changement. Québec just wanted to change what had been. They swept out the Bloc québécois and looked to us. We have to continue to earn the respect of Québec and develop that relationship.
OTTAWA LIFE: You recently announced proposals for building a more caring Canada. Tell us about your plan to help Canadian families make ends meet and lift our most vulnerable citizens out of poverty. Do you think that ordinary Canadians have never been more threatened by dire economic circumstances, job loss, poverty, loss of their homes, poor health, bankruptcy, as they are now?
PAUL DEWAR:You’d have to go back to the 1930s and the Great Depression to see such misery and financial insecurity as we now see in Canada. It’s quite extraordinary to see the lack of opportunity for many of our fellow citizens… the crushing poverty. Household debt right now is 153 per cent. In 2008, it was 123 per cent. And meanwhile, corporations have excess profits and they’re not investing. Caterpillar is leaving London, and we gave these guys $5 million in financial incentives. The priorities are out of whack here. When I talk about a more caring Canada, I fundamentally believe most Canadians want to see us take better care of each other. I believe strongly in a mixed economy but the government has a role to ensure that there’s fairness and we haven’t seen that.
We have students graduating with debts of $40,000 or $50,000. Unemployment is still stuck at 1.3 million and as many are underemployed. We are seeing a widening inequality gap in the fastest- growing economy among OECD countries. More people must decide whether to pay the rent or pay for their medicines. Many people are just a paycheck away from going bankrupt. I don’t think the Harper government fully realizes this growing income disparity. Small businesses barely got by the 2008 decline in the market; they’re trying to make ends meet and they are not getting any support from government, seemingly. They have to pay extra for credit card fees, while at the same time they are dealing with a downturn in market share. Someone asked me the other day: “Paul, are people angry out there?” I said: “Yeah, they’re a bit angry but they’re disassociated. They’ve almost given up on government. We have to deal with the question of inequality and crushing poverty. We can’t afford not to. Poverty is costing us too much.
This method we have now of downloading responsibilities on charities is simply not sustainable. Just take a look at basic needs like healthcare. Every single community I visit, there’s a crisis in homecare. Right now, the Ottawa Hospital has 15 per cent of its beds taken by people who don’t want to be there and shouldn’t be there, because we don’t have proper home care. And the Prime Minister tells the provinces: “Here’s our offer, take it or leave it.” And it’s not going to deal with homecare at all. And it’s not going to solve the crisis in our healthcare system. We’ve lost our imagination here on how to solve problems, while more and more people are falling behind. We see more and more people at the top accumulating more, while even greater numbers of people slip through the cracks.
Clearly, there’s a role here for government. There are smart things the government can do. When it comes to dealing with poverty, we must collapse all these federal and provincial programs and provide income security for larger numbers of Canadians. The savings in administrative costs would be enormous and benefit low-income Canadians. A guaranteed annual income supplement is one of our party’s main priorities. So we should collapse these programs to directly help families and seniors. We need more Homecare and Pharmacare. These are things we can do to deal with crushing poverty and growing inequality.
OTTAWA LIFE: In your opinion, are the federal Conservatives adopting policies that directly threaten ordinary Canadians, whether young or old, adding to the National Anxiety Index, so to speak?
PAUL DEWAR: I like the way that’s put. The Conservative debate is framed as: “We can’t afford this. You’re on your own. No one’s going to be able to help you.” Whether you’re a senior, a student, an unemployed worker, there isn’t anything coming from the Harper government other than: “Lower your expectations. Figure it out on your own.” There is no safety net for millions of Canadians. It bears repeating that the Conservatives have been giving inducements to the very large corporations that don’t have to pay the same level of taxes as everyday people, because prosperity was supposed to trickle down to the masses. But this didn’t happen while the safety net was being taken apart. And the bonuses and inducements are going to the people at the top and the corporations at the top, and it ain’t trickling down! I believe that most Canadians feel that government just isn’t working for them.
OTTAWA LIFE: How can Canada afford your proposed social and health programs at a time of national belt- tightening? For example, the country can no longer afford an immigration policy based on family reunification, which you advocate. The new trend is to move away from humanitarian concerns and favor “business class” immigrants who would be an asset to Canada’s economy, or skilled tradespeople who would help to fill shortages of skilled workers in Canada. What are your views on this?
PAUL DEWAR: On the family reunification issue, I would argue the following point. This could at least be neutral if not save money and here’s why. Many immigrant families are sending remittances out of this country like you wouldn’t believe. People from Sri Lanka or Central Africa or Somalia (or wherever) are sending billions of dollars out of Canada to help their families get by. Well, I’d like to repatriate that money as well as the people who are in those families.
Another thing: many business-class immigrants come here just to buy real estate. Is that really what we need strategically now? It’s a very hot market. Is that the strategy here? I don’t know. It’s just insane, the cost of real estate in some cities. Are we just going to bring in more people to invest in real estate or do we opt for strategic investment in key areas of the economy where we need capitalization and where we need to bring in more trained workers?
There are key areas in the economy where we need capitalization: we need more trained workers. On that note, we are now bringing in tens of thousands of foreign-trained workers… into places like Fort McMurray for the oilsands. At a time when we have 1.3 million unemployed Canadians, why aren’t we coordinating skills and job training across this country? We’re not. So before we open the floodgates to skilled workers, which I’m happy to do if it’s done smartly and strategically, we also need to coordinate skills and jobs training. That is a huge void right now and it’s in every province I go to. We have a skills shortage right now and it’s going to get worse, but there is no coordination. Between Employment Insurance programs, colleges and training facilities, and businesses, we need to get our act together. Training of the person must be connected to a job and to an industry.
Government, business and labor must work together towards the same end. There must be jobs associated with the training, before we open the floodgates to skilled immigrants. There is a great model in terms of immigration settlement: the Nominee Program out of Manitoba. The principle is to coordinate the immigrant’s skills with labour market needs and then connect the two. The skilled immigrants are being directed to smaller towns where a job awaits them… to help boost the local economy. It’s a very strategic approach to linking skilled immigrants with jobs, instead of dumping them in a big city and letting them fend for themselves. This directing new Canadians to small towns for employment purposes isn’t really a new approach. It’s how we settled the West! There is also disproportionate unemployment among First Nations’ youth. This is a problem that must be dealt with, as First Nations are the fastest growing demographic in the country. Fifty percent of First Nations are 26 and under. First Nations’ youth also have the highest suicide rate in Canada, so it seems to me that this is an area we should be focused on.
OTTAWA LIFE: As Leader of the Opposition, how will you handle the gathering economic storm? What would you say to entrepreneurs and business people in Canada about your ability to manage the nation’s finances as a potential future Prime Minister?
PAUL DEWAR: You have to do your homework and dig into all the facts. When I look at our economy right now, I see that household debt is not sustainable. It’s very precarious right now. We need to figure out how we can alleviate household debt in this country. We must also invest in capitalization in many of our businesses and diversify our economy. We have to alleviate the tax burden on small and medium-sized businesses. We have to be responsible in our taxation for large corporations. Ramping it down to 15 per cent when Canada already offers the lowest corporate taxes among the G-7 nations doesn’t make sense to me. We want to drive investments towards transforming our economy. Innovation and research and development are actually a matrix of failed policies, particularly when we look at R&D tax credits. Just looking at the federal government’s own report on innovation, I would completely change the way it’s being done in this country.
As Prime Minister, I would put more focus on public investment that will lead to private development and patents. This is not happening. Three quarters of our investment right now is into R&D tax credits. This leads to companies tinkering with R&D to justify receiving the credits… and we see the results. Germany doesn’t offer any of those R&D tax credits. It believes in good solid public innovation research groups connected to universities linked to companies after patents are designed. This approach has been hugely successful, spurring all sorts of development, particularly in new energy that is coming out of R&D investment dollars. Many of these ideas are patented and turned into products. So as PM, I would change the tax structure to reward the job creators, change the way we structure our investments in strategic areas and look at revamping R&D in this country so we get more innovation and job creation.
OTTAWA LIFE: What is your military policy? Should Canada have a strong military independent from the USA? Would you boost Canada’s military presence in the northern territories to give our claims to sovereignty in that area some teeth?
PAUL DEWAR: I believe in an independent foreign policy. Right now, it’s pretty scattered or just a dim echo of Washington’s. I’ll invest in our military so we get back in the game of patrolling our borders (especially in the North), invest in people and military assets in the North. As for the F-35 jet fighter, not only do we not know the cost, we’re not sure if it actually functions north of 60! We should be involved in peacekeeping again. I’ve had discussions with generals about this. I know that peacekeeping is different than it was; it’s not the same as Cyprus. But this doesn’t mean peacekeeping still is not a valid investment for us and for the world.
We’ve been asked three times in the last four years to invest in peacekeeping in the Congo and we’ve said no. The Congolese need our professionalism. They’re not asking for thousands of troops. They’re asking for our professional officer class who know how to conduct peacekeeping in a way that is going to be effective. Right now, we’re 53rd in our contributions to peacekeeping. The void is being filled by developing countries as revenue streams. I don’t believe Canada needs more militaristic muscle in the world today. What we need is smart diplomacy, effective peacekeeping and development that is going to be innovative on the ground to help people with their own economies, buttressing the adaptation to climate change, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. They have a severe drought problem there due to the effects of climate change.
OTTAWA LIFE: What do you think of (Bank of Canada Governor) Mark Carney and the Bank of Canada’s policies?
PAUL DEWAR: I’m actually a fan of Mark Carney. He’s a very bright guy. He raises questions that typically Bank of Canada Governors don’t bring up, like household debt and exposing concerns within the economy. The way he phrases it is very diplomatic and genteel, but also warning… and saying: “Here’s the state of affairs right now and where we’re heading.” Carney practices realpolitik and is very well respected among his colleagues internationally. And that’s important because we have to deal with what’s been happening in Europe and the United States. You no longer can just hunker down and look at your own economy and say: “We’re okay.” There’s a confluence like never before. I appreciate his acumen there.
I believe in balanced budgets. If you’re going to have a national debt, you’ll be paying down the debt and won’t be able to invest in people. There are times when you have to do deficit financing. People ask if the NDP can manage the store. That’s one of our biggest challenges. But we’ll follow the money and see where it goes. I can tell you… watching the Conservatives in power, everything they do – the soaring costs of the F-35s, to the download in the cost of new prisons, Tony Clement showering millions of dollars around his backyard, their lack of response and attentiveness towards the warnings of (Parliamentary Budget
Officer) Kevin Page, I would assert that they actually aren’t managing the store well. The Conservatives are simply benefiting from the policies of previous governments and our well capitalized and regulated banks. There was a time when Stephen Harper and many other conservatives were pushing for merging of the banks and deregulation of our financial system. Thankfully, we didn’t go down that path. There was a lot of pressure on the Liberal government to go that route… and there was some deregulation in allowing for banks to do some other financial investing. Some have argued concerns around that, but thankfully we didn’t go the path of the United States, which led to the 2008 financial meltdown, from which the US is still recovering.
What would the Conservatives have done if they had been in power in the 90s? I’m sure they would have merged the banks and deregulated and we would have some of the challenges they’re having south of the border because of it. We have to be strong as New Democrats and social democrats to say – look what we’ve done in the past in provinces like Manitoba, where prudent fiscal management was the order of the day. We need balanced budgets because we want to make sure that people will trust us with their money, that the money is going to be invested in people and not just debt financing, because that’s money you can’t invest in health care and education.
*photos by Paul Couvrette*