Interview: The New Democrat
Bad Boss: The Ugly Australian
Unions: Free Spirits and Slaves
Industrial: National Focus
History: A Class Act
International: Across the Ditch
Economics: Home Truths
Review: No Time Like Tomorrow
Poetry: Silent Note
The Locker Room
Last Year’s Model
The New Democrat
You've come to Australia to talk t about some of your work in Canada. Give us an overview of your work within the labour movement
Well the reason I was invited here was cause of something that I've been involved in called 'the New Politics Initiative'. This was a created in 2001 because we found the New Democratic Party (which is our Labor Party) had been reduced down to just eight seats at the Federal level and the new anti-globalisation movement didn't have the effect of renewing it at all. Young activists didn't want anything to do with it or any political party for that matter.
We were worried because while we had a very strong and vibrant social movement in the anti-globalisation movement, the political Left was virtually dead. So Jim Standford who's with the Canada Autoworkers and I put out a call for a meeting of some key leaders of the Left to talk about what to do and the idea was to put out a kind of manifesto for a new party. We got together a group of people who were partly older generation sort of 60's radicalization along with and the young generation including Naomi Klein.
The idea was to put out a manifesto but the young people didn't think it was a very good idea. They thought that was elitist so what we wanted to do was put out a discussion paper. So that was the first step - posting it on the web. Because the Canadian Autoworkers were involved the right wing of the NDP got worried and they leaked it to the media the day we put the web site up it was front page news in the major newspapers in the country.
This backfired on our opponents because it ramped up public attention! It let a lot of people know really fast that we were around. We had some of the most respected leaders on the Left involved so people were immediately interested. However, in the course of discussion we decided that we didn't want to create a new political entity because - as we have first past the post electoral system - it didn't make any sense to split the Left vote.
So with a lot of gall we decided to organize in the NDP to ask the NDP to initiate the new party from within, by adopting our platform and our issues. We organized this and there were people inside and outside the NDP, we went to external social groups and we argued that a political party on the Left was important and that they couldn't ignore electoral politics. So we worked externally and internally to shift the party's direction.
To make a long story short what we wound up with was a focus on two things, one was a focus on an idea that he NDP or any social democratic had to work more closely with social movement and had to relate to them as equals not as merely supporters of the party. And secondly that we were in favour of participatory democracy within the party and the country.
We went to the NDP convention a few months later and we got 40 per cent of the vote on this position. What the party hierarchy had to do to win the vote was to take all our ideas first and win a unanimous vote, Then our resolution which had the idea to end the call for the new party which got defeated. But it was a successful manouevre in terms of shifting policy.
The key shift in this process was the relationship between the political and industrial wings of the party. One of the problems with Labor parties is they tend to see themselves as the be all and end all. All that's important is that they get elected by any means necessary. In Canada, although things have improved we've always had a situation where the unions would say, the party is the political arm and we're the economic arm. Which is why the party was virtually dead until the NPI came around.
The second idea was the Democratic idea that the political parties in general become more and more professionalized, run by spin doctors and pollsters and less and less by members. This was something that in our social democratic party people feel very deeply about. There used to be genuine discussions in the party before they started to stage manage the convention for the media they didn't want to have any real debate. So the idea of democracy in the party was very appealing and the idea of bringing some of the ideas from Brazil like the participatory budget, which is a way in which citizens not only get consulted but make decisions about budgets began to take hold.
I'll tell you about that. The Workers Party in Brazil that is now in power at the Federal level started to get elected at the municipal level in the late 80's. one of their big policies was a new process of working with community groups and it was called the participatory budget. In short the ask the community where they should spend the budget.
They started at eight per cent of the budget now they're up to 15 per cent. The Mayor reports to various assemblies, they divide up the city into about 16 different communities and those communities elect delegates. The delegates organize in whatever way they see fit and all the different institutions in the community have meetings to decide what they want out of the budget. Then that neighborhood gets together decides on their priority then they get together in regions of the city and then across the city. Then the delegates who are ordinary people elected from their neighbourhood basically decide on what the priorities will be for the budget.
The Mayor and the Councilors have the ability to try and persuade them but the decision is with the citizens. This has had a transformative impact in Brazil. Not only on people involved in politics but also on the fact that the Workers Party got elected even though the Right wing moved Heaven and earth to try and defeat them. In 2000 I wrote a book based on taking some of those ideas and bringing them to Canada and the NTI reflected some of the ideas in that book.
What barriers has there been in putting something that working in a new democracy into a more established political system?
Well we haven't done it yet. But there has been some experiments and all the experiments have worked very well. In Toronto we had an initial experiment, which was called 'Listening to Toronto' where the Mayor basically organized meetings in all the different suburbs of Toronto and asked people what their priorities for the budget and promised to listen to those priorities and he actually went to the meetings and listened. He made an introduction, 10 minutes and actually listened.
So it is small steps, but the idea of participatory democracy is starting to gain ground in Canada. In Ontario we just got rid of a very Right wing Government and elected a Liberal Government. They get in they say "oh the deficit is way bigger than we thought we can't do everything we said we would do". There was a lot of popular outrage about this.
So the new Premier said "OK, I'm going to do a consultation, I'm going to hire this group of consultants to consult people all around the province". What the happened was they basically the consultants want out and asked should we sell asset X or asset Y? Should we cut this program or cut that program? People rejected all that. They rejected selling any Government assets and they rejected cutting programs and they rejected any tax cuts and they rejected the Government's questions they came up with their own solutions. They came up with the position that basically they were willing for there to be deficit for programs not be cut and they were willing to even have tax increases if they were assured that tax increases were going to program maintenance. So it's very powerful that you actually get quote unquote ordinary citizens involved in the process. So far it's been very positive in Canada. It's been very, very limited but it's been quite positive.
Finally, just a take out message to unions trying to engage young people based on your experience
Well I think that in Canada we have a long history of coalition building. I think that's the key. I think unions should be supporting what young people are trying to do whether it's in the student movement or anti-poverty groups or environmental movement. The should be working with them in coalition so that they can see all there is to benefit from the union movement. A lot of times people see what the media writes about the labor movement they don't understand the positive things about labor movement.
One of the most exciting things that I'm involved in now a major project is an activist's school. Its an activists school where the labor and the social movement is sharing resources to do political education and training together so that we have actually education programs where unionists and social movement activists will be together, learning together and we have the support of a lot of unions for that. It's really, really exciting, right across the country.
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