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  May 4, 2011

What Now for the NDP?

Joanne St Lewis: New Quebec MP's and others not happy with policy, will challenge direction of the party
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Joanne St. Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, Common Law Section. She currently teaches civil liberties, social justice, comparative South African and Canadian constitutional law and first year legislation. She has also taught courses in critical race theory, history of legal thought and criminal justice administration. She was the co-chair of the Canadian Bar Association Working Group on Racial Equality and author of Virtual Justice: Systemic Racism and the Canadian Legal Profession.

NOTE: This is a rebroadcast of a live transmission. Please do not try to phone in to the show.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay. We're covering Canadian elections live on The Real News Network. And now joining us from Ottawa to give us her take on what has become a massive Conservative majority government--166 Conservative seats, NDP 104, Libs 34, Bloc 3--Joanne St. Lewis, who teaches law at the University of Ottawa. What do you make of all this?

JOANNE ST. LEWIS, FACULTY OF LAW, UNIV. OF OTTAWA: Well, to say that I'm disappointed in terms of the Conservative majority would be an understatement. But I still think that there are a number of things that have made me really, really happy. I think that what we have is a reengagement in democracy by a lot of Canadians. I think we saw that with the advance polling. And I'm anticipating that when we look at the actual participation rates, they'll have shot way up. And that's important. I think that the other people [crosstalk]

JAY: Hold on for a second. Why is that important?

ST. LEWIS: Because I think the youth engagement--they're the next generation of voters. We've been talking about youth apathy. We've been actually looking at it as who's going to inherit this mantle of democracy. Well, I think they've shown that they're engaged--the vote mobs, the viral videos. They're coming out and voting. I think that was critically important. I think people are saying, well, you know, we needed a particular result. But part of what we needed was for them to even think voting was important, to get to the polls, to actually see this as something meaningful. How we conduct ourselves and how we engage over the next four years, we should be able to hold their attention. And I think this was the first election of the new social media. And I think the next election will show an even greater engagement and an even greater possibility to deliver the results that they would like.

JAY: What else?

ST. LEWIS: Well, I think the other thing that's really important is actually what happened with the NDP, that the surge wasn't soft. And I'll be the first to admit that I was actually quite nervous when I was looking at it. I was one of those people thinking: could the Bloc really collapse in Quebec? And I couldn't necessarily see that possibility. And certainly I realized what the pollsters and experts greater than myself were saying. And I think that's really important, in large part because now I think we do have a genuine opposition. For the longest while, in my view, it was very hard at times to distinguish between some of the Liberal positions and some of the Conservative positions, not in terms of the manner of their governing, but the corporate interests and the extent to which it would dominate at times, and the kinds of mechanisms they'd use to develop their revenues, this constant reliance on, for example, tax credits, which really reinforces a certain understanding of the middle class and the economy, which always leaves the poor and others completely out of the picture in terms of remedying the situation. And so now it says that Canadians don't see themselves in that way. I do take the caller's point that we also--and I see it as opportunity--a problem, but an opportunity, because this is going to be the starkest demonstration of what's wrong with our present system. I think people are going to be even more enraged than they were before about having a government that doesn't reflect them. And I think it's going to be a signal to the Conservatives, in all honesty, because so many people are so distinctly seeing themselves differently by voting for the NDP, if they proceed to run roughshod over all of us, I honestly think it is very realistic to say in the next election they would pay the price.

JAY: Well, the other thing that might be interesting here is: does this now lead to a big battle for just what is the NDP? The NDP program, if you look at it, is--it's not a radical or even in many cases left-wing program. It's--if you look at their position on climate change and cap-and-trade, they say they want the same cap-and-trade and they want to integrate it with the Obama cap-and-trade plan.

ST. LEWIS: Yeah. Mistake. That's absolutely a mistake.

JAY: So I--but just let me just finish the point. But this group of NDP MPs that are coming from Quebec, they're quite progressive. They're of a different character of traditional NDP. So do you think we're going to see a battle for what the NDP is going to be?

ST. LEWIS: Well, I don't even know how much--I don't even know if I'd go as far as to say a battle. I think there has been--and I'm speaking quite honestly--that there's been a tension within the NDP without this collapse in--the collapse of the Bloc in Quebec, where there has been a high level of discomfort by people with the rapprochement and some of the positions that were taken by the federal NDP instead of standing firm on core positions. Now, I'm going to be the first to say I understand realpolitik and I get the issue of some of the rapprochement. But I think now the thing for the NDP is going to be to return to those roots, to actually define itself, its policies, and to put those on the public agenda in the analysis of what the government does. I think it's time to return to that kind of--not radical, but the true roots of the NDP. And I think the Quebec group represents that. But I don't think they're actually unique, and I don't actually think they're necessarily going to be leading the charge. There are very well-established members of the NDP party that have been quite unhappy for some time.

JAY: Right. Now, you're a lawyer. Tell us, what can a minority government actually--I shouldn't say that--a minority opposition party, what can they do in the face a big majority government? Can they actually stop anything, either at committee level or otherwise? Or is it really just a platform they can speak from?

ST. LEWIS: Well, I guess it depends on what the government attempts to do. Do you see what I mean? In some ways, [incompr.] what the government is doing is appropriately being done, and they have the votes to carry it out, and it's consistent with our constitutional democracy, then guess what? You get no--you know, there's a limit to what you can do, because that's the way it's going to fall out. But this government, if we look at their conduct over the last five years, has not simply exercised the authority that it is legitimately entitled to. There have been a number of things that have been done that are actually, I would go so far as to say, outright breaches. A minority government, in other words, somebody who is inside, who takes seriously that role not only of bringing a different policy viewpoint but a heightened vigilance and attention to the actual decision-making process of the government, might actually stand itself in good stead to actually challenge the government, so to be very rigorous around all of these issues, because we know that there have been a number of things [incompr.] a first and only instance of misleading Parliament. There are actually certain things that simply are not on [sic]. And I think that kind of thing is possible. The other piece that has always been interesting to me is the reluctance that this government has had to actually embrace its responsibilities with regards to the Charter and the constitution. It's--there's this continual slippage where they--if they have their way, it strikes me that they'd actually rewrite the constitution and rewrite the Charter of Rights and eliminate some rights. And I think that's a critically important role for an opposition party to take to actually uphold those principles [crosstalk]

JAY: But how do they--do they actually have any power to uphold those principles? Like, what can the opposition really do other than make speeches?

ST. LEWIS: Some of it is going to have to happen because we challenge certain things in the courts if they step over the line. But part of the problem we have from the outside--I think with the NDP party, the NDP is used to working coalition with civil society and with activists and people on the outside. That is a strength that has not always been appreciated by other opposition, other leaders of the opposition. In doing that and in going forward, there is a possibility to be strategic, to think through how we're going to address these issues. Do we go to court? Do we not go to court? Do we use public policy? Do we actually leverage because some things carry over into the provincial domain, and we can be strategic in terms of how we leverage access that we have that may be coming from a provincial level or from a territorial level? So there are a number of ways to put the government in check. But at the end of the day, you're absolutely right: it's not like an opposition party can overrule something that's legitimately being done by a party that has the authority of the government [crosstalk]

JAY: So the real question's going to become: does the NDP try to actually create some kind of mass mobilization in support of its policies and opposition to certain austerity measures and other things? Or does it play by the parliamentary business-as-usual rules, which in the past is mostly what it's done? But now it has a lot more clout. If nothing else, at least the media's going to have to pay some attention to what the NDP said.

ST. LEWIS: Well, I think this is where it goes back to your earlier question, right, because at the end of the day, I think this is an opportunity for the NDP to shine, because one of the issues, I think, if you think of some of the rhetoric that came out towards the end about the danger of the NDP, etc., which clearly the voters didn't accept, is that the NDP is in a position to critically analyze and rigorously push the government on its economic policies and its analysis. The idea that the Conservatives are better at managing our finances is simply not true. The idea that the policies that they advance are in the best interests of all Canadians is again not true.

JAY: Well, I think we're going to have to find out whether the NDP is more interested in telling Bay Street not to be too worried about us. Or are they going to try to mobilize people for, you know, some kind of real incremental change that might piss off Bay Street? And I don't--I'm not sure myself how the NDP will come down on that. But, anyway, thanks very much for joining us, Joanne, and we'll come back to you once we see how this Parliament actually unfolds.

End of Transcript

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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