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Canadian MP Niki Ashton tells Paul Jay both the NDP and the Liberals have been guilty of making progressive promises during election campaigns and legislating from the center-right once in power

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re in Burlington, Vermont at the Sanders Institute Gathering. There’s a couple of Canadians here; Naomi Klein. And also at the Gathering is MP Niki Ashton. She’s one of the longest-serving members of the New Democratic Party.

NIki has been a key member of the NDP caucus, having served as an NDP critic for Aboriginal Affairs, Status of Women, Post-Secondary Education and Youth, and is currently the critic for Jobs, Employment, and Workforce Development, and the deputy critic for Reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous Peoples. For our American audience, NDP, the New Democratic Party, is the Canadian social democratic party. It’s the third party in the system. It’s a little different than, perhaps, some of the social democratic movements in the United States, because the NDP has actually taken power in various provinces over the years. But it’s kind of controversial. What have they actually done when they had that power? And just what does, what does it mean when you get the kind of social democratic campaigning, and then you actually have to govern? And so we’re going to talk about that, and the implications for that in terms of U.S. politics, but also Canada.

Now joining us Niki Ashton. Thanks for joining us.

NIKI ASHTON: Great to be here.

PAUL JAY: So you made a comment on the panel yesterday where you said, just sort of as an aside, that there’s people in Canada who have campaigned and run from the left, but have done things that sometimes are from the right, that even the right might not have been able to do. What were we talking about?

NIKI ASHTON: Well, I was talking about, first of all, the conversation is in the context of how do we–Yanis Varoufakis asked me, how do we build the kind of structures we need to achieve justice and dignity for people? And one of the comments I made beyond sort of, you know, the fact that we need leaders like Bernie Sanders, we need ideas like the ones that he and we in Canada have put forward, as we also need to hold our own movements accountable, our own progressive movements accountable. And you know, I have–you know, obviously I’m staunchly supportive of the movement I’m a part of, but I have seen ways in which, whether it’s provincial wings of the party or people within my own party have lost sight of the key principles we have. We’ve seen examples of when the NDP has won power it hasn’t lived up to its commitments. I mean, in Ontario that was that public auto insurance. In my own-

PAUL JAY: Bob Rae.

NIKI ASHTON: Yeah. And in my own province, you know, a highly problematic criminal justice agenda, which, not unlike some of the things we heard have happened here under Democrats. And you know, we’re certainly in disagreement with, for example, the provincial wing–the federal wing is in disagreement with the provincial wing of the NDP in Alberta around pipelines. So it’s, you know, so part of the work is what are we doing to engage people in our communities and in our country to build a progressive movement, but what, also, are the conversations we’re having as progressives? And the need to really stand up for principle.

And that’s, that’s something I really admire in Bernie Sanders, in a lot of the leaders that have come out here this weekend, is that they’re very clear in their messaging. They’re very clear in the principles they stand for. And I think, ultimately, that brings electoral success. People want that clarity. They want that authenticity. And they want to know that you are going to stick by what you’ve said you stand for.

PAUL JAY: The Canadian system’s a little weird. As much as people complain about a two-party system in the United States, the three-party system–which is essentially what it is in Canada. A little bit–there’s Bloc Quebecois, there’s been some Green Party, but it’s mostly a three-party system at the national level–has often split the vote on the center and the left vote. And the Harper government for years, and the Mulroney Conservative government. Very right-wing governments. How do you deal with this dynamic of NDP wants to win–on the other hand, sometimes wanting to win has meant Conservatives wind up winning.

NIKI ASHTON: Well, I would disagree with the premise that somehow we’re … that the NDP is pulling votes away from a potentially progressive alternative to the Conservatives, because I think we have seen, certainly, successive Liberal governments, we’re living it right now, put forward very similar policies as Conservatives, but with a different sort of public relations agenda. So you know, we have a prime minister who is very supportive of pipelines despite the fact that he says that he cares about climate change. In fact, not only is he very supportive, he’s investing $4.5 billion, Canadian taxpayers’ dollars, to purchase the existing pipeline, the Trans Mountain pipeline, to do that, which is outrageous. And you know, his climate change plan is essentially the same as Stephen Harper’s plan. The kind of tax breaks we’re seeing, certainly for the rich and for corporations, that we saw under Stephen Harper, the right-wing government, are continuing under Trudeau. So inequality continues to grow in our country, now overseen by the Liberals and encouraged by the Liberals.

So on a lot of fronts, whether it’s climate change or inequality, we’re seeing the same kind of politics from Liberals and Conservatives. And it’s not surprising. I mean, they have very many of the same friends.

PAUL JAY: But you see no distinction between the Trudeau government and the Harper government?

NIKI ASHTON: Policy-wise, very little. Public relations-wise, it’s night and day. Right? I mean, we have a prime minister who goes around the world telling us he’s feminist, and he’s an ally, and he cares about immigrants, and you know, all of that stuff. But in fact on the ground, you know, he’s not moving forward on critical legislation on pay equity for women. Certainly there’s been no actual tangible changes to make our country more open to immigration and refugees. Now they’re talking about doing some of that because he has been put on the hot seat, that he’s using the rhetoric to distinguish himself from Trump on immigration but not actually doing anything about it. And so, you know, so we’re in an interesting time where we have a prime minister who’s, especially on the international level, telling us that he’s all these great things, but in our own country he’s not–well, not only is he not living up to them, he’s actually working against them. Especially on climate change.

PAUL JAY: A lot of Americans point to the Canadian healthcare model as the model. But you pointed out on the panel that the Canadian model actually is far from what Medicare for All would be. Explain.

NIKI ASHTON: Yeah. First of all, there’s no question that–I mean, in the stories we’ve heard this weekend, the situation in the U.S. is heartbreaking when it comes to healthcare. And you know, and I appreciate that many people look at and speak of what Canada has. And it’s important we do that. But Canada, you know, yes, we should be proud of the work that’s gone into the healthcare system. But we also have to push further. Our healthcare system does not include pharmacare. So you have Canadians that are paying out of pocket money they don’t have to afford the drugs they need to just survive. We also don’t have dental care, which is also under the Medicare for All vision.

PAUL JAY: I’m Canadian, and it’s never–as if teeth have nothing to do with your health.

NIKI ASHTON: Exactly. And what you’re seeing is an increasing number of people–and we’re hearing this a lot amongst young people–that because of the shifts in the job market, an increasing number of folks working in jobs that don’t have things like dental coverage, is that they are ending up in our hospitals, that they are getting sick because of things like a simple toothache that ends up, you know, becoming something worse.

So we’re saying we need to learn from the U.S. in expanding the vision for healthcare, and we also need to fight back against privatization. That is a reality that that we’re up against. Austerity has impacted our healthcare system. Deep cuts started under Stephen Harper, continuing under Justin Trudeau. We have a number of right-wing provincial premiers that are coming after our healthcare systems. And so the fight is still ongoing and has to be ongoing even in our own country to push back against those that want to take our healthcare away, and also to push for expanding healthcare.

PAUL JAY: The NDP in its beginnings in the CCF used to have a program that much more included nationalization. Public ownership. So while there’s a push back on privatization, there’s very little talk about expanding the public sector. And Bernie Sanders spoke yesterday on a panel, and he talked–concentrated wealth isn’t just about wealth. It’s about power. But I don’t hear from him, either, how do you actually confront the power? Because to my mind if you don’t build out economic public sector alternatives–for example, banking. Some people have suggested banking as a public utility. But we don’t challenge that power at its root, which is ownership. And I don’t hear that from the NDP. And honestly, I don’t hear it much in this country, either. The Mayor of Barcelona spoke on a panel yesterday. And she said, you know, it’s not enough, some of the reforms. And I believe she said they started a publicly-owned energy company.

NIKI ASHTON: Yeah. So I, in fact, I ran for leader in 2017 of the NDP nationally. And we advocated for public ownership, and we really put it in the frame of, you know, we’re constantly fighting privatization. We need to go further and propose public ownership. We talked about an example in my own constituency where we privatized a strategic asset, the only deepwater Arctic seaport which is in Churchill. Actually got a fair bit of American coverage. And it was privatized a year ago, put in the hands of an American billionaire who basically ran it into disrepair, put our communities in a very difficult situation, ended up shutting it down. And you know, unemployment, desperation. Just an awful, awful situation.

So we said, why doesn’t the federal government step in and nationalize the port and the railway? And you know, there was tremendous support for that position. Finally, our pressure contributed to it to getting rid of the American billionaire. But sadly, it is under corporate ownership once again. Fortunately, there are communities that are involved in managing the future of the port. But all to say that we are seeing a growing momentum around the idea of public ownership. We’ve talked about the need for a postal bank. You know, Canada is a country where many of our communities have no banking services. Smaller, rural, indigenous communities. You know, why don’t we look at bringing postal banking-

PAUL JAY: Turning post offices into banks, as well.

NIKI ASHTON: Yeah. Yeah. To offer that service.

PAUL JAY: Which is fairly common in many countries [crosstalk].

NIKI ASHTON: Many countries. Yeah, absolutely. You know, we are also very–you know, I’m very interested in looking at public ownership in the telecom field, especially with, with Wi-Fi, and understanding that especially access to the Internet is not negotiable in this day and age. And many people, because of where they live or how much money they make, don’t have the same access as others. So we ought to be looking at that that option. And like I said, you know, we traveled across the country, and I would say that that was one of the three main areas that garnered the most support, was the desire to propose public ownership, to be proud of proposing it, and really make it clear that that is a way of getting at corporate greed and a way of, obviously, providing quality services.

PAUL JAY: Well, we’re going to do a Part 2 of this interview. And we’re going to talk about Canada’s policies towards Indigenous people. So please join us for the continuation of our interview with New Democratic Party MP Niki Ashton.

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Paul Jay was the founder, CEO and senior editor of The Real News Network, where he oversaw the production of over 7,000 news stories. Previously, he was executive producer of CBC Newsworld's independent flagship debate show CounterSpin for its 10 years on air. He is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with over 20 films under his belt, including Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows; Return to Kandahar; and Never-Endum-Referendum. He was the founding chair of Hot Docs!, the Canadian International Documentary Film Festival and now the largest such festival in North America.