Interview with Svend Robinson:

Examining Canada’s Left

Friday 4 October 2002, by Meera KARUNANANTHAN

In over 20 years of involvement in Canadian politics, Svend Robinson, New Democratic Party Member of Parliament has not been afraid of controversy.

In 1988, he was the first Canadian MP to publicly declare himself gay. In the early 90’s he questioned Canada’s law against doctor-assisted suicide. After the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April 2001, he locked horns with Jean Chretien over the government’s heavy-handed measures against protestors.

But his brand of activism has not always been reflected in the party he represents. Earlier this year, he was demoted from his position of NDP international affairs critic when he strongly criticised the Israeli government, stating that "we must not condone responding to the terror of the suicide bombers with the terrorism of the Israeli government." NDP leader Alexa McDonough preferred to take a more neutral stance.

Over the past decade, social activists have criticised the party for being ambiguous about its policy. Union activists and social justice groups, its traditional base of support have failed to see in the NDP, a viable alternative to the Liberal party. Originally Canada’s third largest federal party, it lost official party status in the 1993 elections when it failed to win the necessary 12 seats in Parliament. A major reason for its failure was the disenchantment of left-winged voters with the Ontario NDP government’s cuts in social spending and public sector wage as well as job cuts.

Today, the NDP might be at a turning point. The results of the leadership campaign to replace Alexa McDonough who has led the party for the past 7 years might be the key to saving the 40-year-old party from extinction.

Alternatives recently caught up with Svend Robinson to get his thoughts on the NDP and where it is headed.

Over the past years the Liberal government has shifted more and more to the right, embracing the neoliberal policies it criticised as Canada’s official opposition. Why did the NDP fail to fill the void on the left?

In an attempt to appease their largest opposition party in the House of Commons [the Canadian Alliance/Reform Party], the Liberals have ignored their own left wing. Sadly, the right wing parties have controlled the agenda of our government for too long. Although many Canadians want to vote for a socialist alternative, we have not been seen as a credible alternative for progressive voters in the last few elections. The lack of New Democrats and progressive voices in Parliament and the control of the mass media by right-wing monopolies have made it so that people no longer think it’s possible to change a political system that is dominated by the corporate agenda. As New Democrats, we must speak more clearly and show people that, as the first leader of the NDP once said, it is not too late to make a better world.

How can the NDP take advantage of the Liberal’s current problems

The NDP is at a real turning point. The polarised voting patterns we have seen in Canada, and particularly in Québec, are starting to change - people are looking for alternatives. People who have voted Liberal across the country in the last few elections are starting to have a distaste for the Liberals. As people look around, we must be seen as a credible alternative. For the last ten years in Québec, people have voted provincially, Federally and in some cases municipally based on the question of sovereignty, Bloc vs. Liberal, PQ vs. Liberal, etc. This did not leave much room for the NDP, which finds itself with a policy of asymmetrical federalism. The rise of the popularity of the ADQ shows that people are looking for some middle ground on that issue, and this is where the NDP can take its place. Although I’m certain that the people of Québec do not support the right-wing policies of the ADQ, their search for options will put the NDP in a good position to reestablish itself as a credible voice again.

Some critics attribute the NDP’s poor performance in provincial and federal elections across the country in the past few years to the party’s abandonment of socialist principles. What are your thoughts on the issue?

The NDP should not move to the centre/right of the political spectrum. A transformation into a "Liberal-lite" party will lead to disaster. If voters are given the choice between fake Liberals and real Liberals, they will likely choose the real ones. If we ignore our socialist values, we alienate our allies without gaining any new ones at the centre/right. We would effectively be squeezed out of any role on the Canadian political scene.

Over the past decade, the NDP has lost the support of the social movements, working class militants and union activists. Last November, the New Politics Initiative was created to reconnect the party with its left-wing roots. Will the NPI eventually replace the NDP?

The New Politics Initiative was created to make the NDP more open and broaden the tent to make sure that social movements and activists are included and feel at home in our party. Although the motion to create a new party was defeated at the November NDP convention last year, NPI activists continue to work, both inside the party and outside of it, to make sure that our party does not ignore its traditional base. The objective of the NPI remains to build a broad new progressive party including the New Democratic Party and other activists. Naturally at this time many NPI activists are involved in the federal NDP leadership campaign. What shape the NPI will take over the next months and years is yet to be determined, but many of these discussions will take place at a special meeting for the NPI in Ottawa the weekend of October 18-20 where delegates from all across Canada will be present to make these important decisions.

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