Skip to main content

NDP Leader Jack Layton goes over his speaking notes with Ed Broadbent aboard the campaign plane in Toronto on Oct. 10, 2008.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

After Ed Broadbent resigned as leader of the national New Democratic Party in 1989, he said no to invitations to speak at party conventions. The leaders who replaced him, he said, did not need him hanging around.

He set aside that rule yesterday. He accepted NDP Leader Jack Layton's invitation to address the party's federal convention in Halifax. He agreed to speak, he said in a conversation this week, because he had something important to say.

The imagery he possibly won't like, but he arrived in Halifax like a gruff, Holy Land prophet, an Isaiah in goatskin robe and sandals, to declare how the NDP should behave as a social democratic party - he used that name, which many of his fellow New Democrats are tiptoeing away from - in the next election campaign.

Story continues below advertisement

In his speech, he proclaimed the arrival of "a social democratic moment" in Canadian politics.

He reached back into history and talked about the reasons why Canadians once embraced the mythology of themselves as a sharing, caring society, a society that extolled equality and the dignity of its members, and how those labels became the glue of social cohesion.

He baldly used the T-word: taxation. That sharing, caring society of government pensions, universal health care, comprehensive employment insurance, the expectation that every boy and girl with ability could go to university all was paid for "by adequate levels of progressive taxation."

He brought with him scriptural text: the findings of British social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson that life expectancy, physical and mental illness, obesity, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, youth suicide, impaired social participation and a host of other social ills are outcomes not primarily of poverty but of inequality - the gap between the rich and everyone else.

(He could have used Canadian data. James Dunn of the University of Calgary published research in 2003 showing that afflictions such as cancer and heart disease have more to do with job status and income disparity than lifestyle and genetics.)

And he said that because of social-policy slashing and irresponsible and unfair tax cuts in Canada, a recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development - the international body of 30 major free-market economies - shows that inequality in Canada is now growing faster than in the majority of OECD countries.

Richard Wilkinson's inequality research has been around for 30 years, although there are academic critics who still think that the central issue is poverty, not income disparity. The NDP, for its part, has individual policies aimed at social equality - child tax benefits, national preschool child care and so forth.

Story continues below advertisement

"But to have an all-out attack on inequality?" Mr. Broadbent asked in the interview. "No, it hasn't had that."

That is his social democratic moment.

"The time is ripe for the party to really look at it," he said. "Both the Democrats in the States and even New Labour - Gordon Brown, whom I have a very low regard for as practical politician - have advocated a tax increase on the rich, which New Labour has always backed away from and so have the Democrats."

Ekos Research president Frank Graves, one of Canada's most astute pollsters, said Mr. Broadbent's language may well have traction with voters. "These concerns have been historically strong with Canadians, but have weakened over the past decade. Current circumstances [the deep recession]may be increasing receptivity."

Historically strong - as in the past mythologies Canadians applied to themselves that Mr. Broadbent talked about in his speech.

"Achieving more equality in our everyday lives," he said, "we became a nation of greater social cohesion, made up of citizens who for the first time began to describe themselves as 'sharing and caring.'

Story continues below advertisement

"Having achieved greater social cohesion and equality, we became more tolerant and reached out to provide new freedoms, to women, to first nations, to gays, to ethnic minorities and to the artistic community. These freedoms were best symbolized in the provisions of our new Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

Mr. Broadbent would tax the rich.

As he said in the interview: "If they've made all the gains from broadly defined globalization in recent years - and we have shortages of money for public housing, for postsecondary education, for everything - why shouldn't they pay more? I say they should.

"I say that as somebody in that category. We ought to be paying more. That's where the ethics and practicality come together and why I'm so impressed with the Wilkinson stuff. This not only helps middle-income people and the poor, it helps everyone: in health outcomes, levels of participation, reductions in crime, you name it. Maybe we can make that persuasive argument."

Asked if his party is ready to embrace tax increases for the well-off, he replied: "I don't know, frankly. I don't know that yet. I know there are a lot of people who are apprehensive about it. All the clich├ęs, from Harper and the Liberals too - you know, there's that tax-and-spend party.

"The Liberals in the fall [election campaign]I'm sure will do some variation with varying degrees of sincerity

[of a]centre-left kind of program as far as they dare go. The only place where they can make gains are from us."

It's what kind of "us" Mr. Broadbent is talking about - what kind of NDP - that's interesting.

Political parties sometimes have internal discussions masked by proxy language. New Democrats have arrived at their convention debating a party name change, one suggestion being to drop the "New" and simply call themselves the Democratic Party. It's morphed into a debate over what the party stands for.

Here's Mr. Broadbent: "One of the things that's irked me about this silly talk about changing the name of the party is we're not a democratic party, we're a social democratic party, the core value of which is equality."

He said the issue has become "deeply important" to all north Atlantic democracies. He noted that European Union finance ministers, with the exception of Britain's, have agree to report on growing inequality at their next meeting.

"I don't think it's there yet in Canada, but I think it should be. And if there's one party that ought to be talking about it, it's us."

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to