Ottawa Life Interviews NDP Candidate Niki Ashton

Editor’s Note: New Democratic Party leadership candidates Thomas Mulcair, Brian Topp, Martin Singh and Nathan Cullen did not respond to Ottawa Life Magazine’s request for an interview.

Niki Ashton (born September 9, 1982) is currently the New Democratic Member of Parliament for the electoral district of Churchill in Manitoba. She was first elected in the 2008 federal election.

A resident of Thompson, Manitoba, she is the daughter of Manitoba provincial NDP cabinet minister Steve Ashton and has been an instructor at the University College of the North. In 2005, Niki Ashton defeated incumbent NDP Member of Parliament Bev Desjarlais for the NDP nomination due, in part, to the same-sex marriage issue after Desjarlais broke party ranks to vote against the Civil Marriage Act. Desjarlais subsequently quit the party and sat as an independent for the remainder of her term; she ran against Ashton as an independent candidate in the election in Churchill in the 2006 Canadian federal election. Some of Ashton’s major themes in her campaign were obtaining federal funding for the University College of the North, as well as a federal government northern development agreement.

Although the labour unions in Thompson endorsed Ashton, the NDP vote nevertheless split between Ashton and Desjarlais, and the riding was won by Liberal Party candidate Tina Keeper. Ashton defeated Keeper in the 2008 election to regain the riding for the NDP.

On November 7, 2011, in Montreal, Niki Ashton launched her campaign as the ninth person to join the NDP leadership race.

OTTAWA LIFE: Do you think that balancing the federal budget is important? If so, why… and if not, why not?

NIKI ASHTON: Balancing the budget is definitely important. Every penny spent on servicing debt is a penny taken out of the pockets of hard-working Canadian families and funnelled into the pockets of bondholders, bankers and speculators. It is a transfer of wealth and a transfer of power from poor and middle-income families to the rich who then get to dictate terms to governments and the citizens who elect those governments.

I come from a region of the country – the Prairies – where NDP governments have a long and proud history of balancing budgets and protecting the capacity of government to respond to the needs of their citizens. I would bring that same approach to the federal level.

This does not mean that I support austerity measures that inflict the greatest pain on those who can least afford it. I have said throughout my campaign for Leader that growing inequality is the greatest challenge confronting us as a country, and we cannot afford to make that worse in the name of fiscal restraint. Too often in Canada and around the world, governments have cut taxes for banks and oil companies and then used that reduced fiscal capacity as an excuse to cut services and supports for the rest of us. Fiscal discipline should begin with fair taxation, starting by closing the tax loopholes that don’t create new jobs or provide any tangible social benefit. We also need to look at creative ways to use monetary policy to finance needed improvements in infrastructure.

OTTAWA LIFE: What are your views on Old Age Pension reform by the Harper government?

NIKI ASHTON: I oppose plans to raise the qualifying age for Old Age Security benefits. It’s true that there will be a demographic bulge in the system, but cutting benefits for future retirees is not the way to address it. A better way to address it is to improve the Canada Pension Plan for all Canadians, as New Democrats have proposed.

I also have to comment on efforts by the Harper government to try to turn Old Age Security into a generational issue. This is typical of the old kind of politics practiced by Stephen Harper – pitting groups of Canadians against one another so he can cut benefits to everyone. The biggest losers for what the Conservatives are proposing are people from my generation and future generations who will have to work longer and will receive fewer benefits. To paraphrase an American general from the Vietnam War, the Conservatives are proposing to destroy the pension system in order to save it.

Moreover, the Conservatives’ attack on the public pension system is part of a broader erosion of pensions. More and more corporations are targeting defined benefit pensions by making young workers ineligible for the type of benefits other workers have enjoyed. There is increasing evidence that my generation and future generations will be worse off than our parents’ generation. It was not supposed to be this way. It does not have to be this way. People from all generations need to come together to defend our pension system.

OTTAWA LIFE: What are your views on reducing Canada’s national debt, now at about $583 billion?

NIKI ASHTON: I believe in reducing Canada’s national debt as a share of GDP over time. I also subscribe to the view that governments should spend to stimulate the economy during times of recession and run surpluses and reduce debt during times of prosperity. Canada’s economy is still fragile. This is the wrong time to be making major spending cuts as the Harper government is proposing to do in the upcoming budget.

Even in times of prosperity, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about cutting spending. There is a direct link between greater economic inclusion and equality and lasting economic prosperity. Too often, governments have sown the seeds for a future economic downturn by making cuts and pursuing policies that increase inequality and exclude large numbers of people from the benefits of our economy.

If we want to reduce the national debt, we need to start by cutting tax expenditures that don’t create jobs—just ask the workers at the Caterpillar plant in London how well that works—or provide tangible social or environmental benefits. Do we really need to go on subsidizing the extraction and export of raw resources?

We need to cut military spending. And we need to look at ways we can use monetary policy to finance investments in transportation infrastructure.

OTTAWA LIFE: Should a percentage of GDP be spent on Canada’s military each year? If not, then do you believe American armed forces should protect the security of our Arctic regions?

NIKI ASHTON: New Democrats have an honourable history in terms of peace. We opposed the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan. Jack Layton and the NDP fought for years to support Canadian troops by bringing them back home from Afghanistan. We must keep them home, and give them the respect and new opportunities they deserve. We owe our veterans and their families ongoing support to deal with all injuries incurred overseas, including and especially PTSD.

But we can’t just talk about peace and we can’t just provide a slightly different approach: there is too much at stake.

In government, the NDP should conduct a public defence policy review… then redefine the Forces’ roles and needs accordingly.

I believe the Forces should focus on defending Canada and providing humanitarian assistance to people facing catastrophic emergencies – from earthquakes to floods to forest fires – throughout Canada and internationally.

I do not believe that the militarization of the Arctic is the priority of Canadians living in the Arctic, nor does it reflect Canada’s interest in international cooperation and the rule of law.

OTTAWA LIFE: Should Canada purchase F-35 fighter jets – 65 of them for $9 billion?

NIKI ASHTON: I am opposed to the purchase of the F-35 fighter jets—whether they cost $9 billion or, as has been suggested, a much higher figure.

OTTAWA LIFE: Would you do anything different than the Tories with regard to a National Agricultural Policy?

NIKI ASHTON: I’ve outlined a clear vision to ensure rural Canadians share in the benefits of the wealth they create. The decline of rural communities is another indication of the growing inequality in Stephen Harper’s Canada.

As the only Opposition MP representing a rural riding on the Prairies, I’ve seen first-hand how Stephen Harper takes farm families for granted. He encourages divisions between rural and urban Canadians, between Westerners and people in other parts of the country. But he’s done nothing to address the decline of rural communities, or the growing inequality between rural and urban Canada. He’s done nothing to fight the dominance of big Canadian grain companies and shippers who will benefit from the Wheat Board’s demise.

We need an approach that ensures all communities and regions are included in Canada’s economic growth. A new politics that sees primary producers and rural communities as part of our future, not our past, as full players in our economy and as a vital part of greater Canadian society.

My plan to build an economy that includes rural Canadians includes directing more federal funds for regional economic development to community-based organizations so  communities can decide for themselves how to rebuild their local economies; allowing producers to vote on the future of producer marketing boards, rather than letting such decisions be made in Ottawa or at international trade talks; strengthening and enforcing regulations on foreign investment to protect Canadian jobs; encouraging New Generation Co-ops to give producers a chance to get a bigger share of the profits that are made off their crops (New Generation Co-operatives in other places have given farmers a guaranteed market for some of their primary production and a share of the profit that comes from adding value to their production.); supporting shortline rail and other producer-driven solutions that reduce the cost of transporting their goods to market; ensuring rural communities have access to clean, safe, affordable drinking water, health care providers including family doctors and nurse practitioners, mail service through Canada Post, and relevant news and information by maintaining CBC bureaus in northern and rural communities.

OTTAWA LIFE: Do you believe in national health standards for all provinces? Should Quebec be given special treatment, allowing it to be the only province that can impose health care user fees in violation of the National Health Act?

NIKI ASHTON: I do not believe that Quebec needs to opt out of the Canada Health Act in order to protect its jurisdiction over health care. Our party has always opposed user fees for health care, or anything that creates barriers that might prevent some people from being able to access health care when they need it. That is my position, as well.