On a personal level, the NDP offers a fine group of leadership candidates. They're committed politicians, dedicated to the public interest as they perceive it. In one form or another, all are bilingual, most of them impressively so. Parties should be so lucky to have such a choice. Frankly, it's doubtful the Liberals or Conservatives could field a group of eight such intelligent candidates.
Listening to them and reading their policy papers (such as they are) reminds Canadians of what to like about the NDP, and what to fear. What to like is the emphasis on inclusion in politics and greater equality of opportunity for the marginalized and dispossessed.
At a time of growing inequality, it's imperative that political actors put the issue front and centre on the national agenda. It's also important that some party keep hammering away on the environment, especially climate change. So, kudos to the NDP for supporting a cap-and-trade system for Canada.
What's not to like, however, is the old NDP bugbear: The party is much better at thinking about how to redistribute wealth than create it. Running through the party's leadership discourse is continuing skepticism about the free market, free trade and the globalized economy. About the only idea that candidates offer for wealth creation is a kind of public investment fund, or a public infrastructure fund. For those of an entrepreneurial bent in Canada or those trying to get ahead on their investments, the party offers nothing.
Instead, the candidates prefer industrial policies to freer markets, clearly distrust large businesses, whose tax rates they wish to raise sharply, and prefer something called "fair trade" to free trade, which invariably means the party winds up opposing free-trade deals. For a deeply trade-dependent economy such as Canada, that systematic hostility is utterly counterproductive – especially given the importance of diversifying Canada's excessive dependence on the U.S. market.
Latent protectionism lies deep in the NDP's soul. So does the belief that government is there not just to provide public services and to regulate private activity, but to direct private investment, inject public money into enterprises, and generally try to steer the economy with public funds, public regulations and trade protection. It's a very old recipe.
It's not surprising that NDP candidates should take this view of the world, since some of the prominent ones (Peggy Nash and Brian Topp, for example) come from the trade union world. But that world, numerically speaking, is a dwindling one. It has also been changing, as public-sector unions become ever-more prominent within the labour movement.
Naturally, therefore, the NDP is locked into the belief that public services can only be delivered in the traditional public-sector union manner, meaning that the interests of providers, and not necessarily those of taxpayers, are at the heart of the way these public services are structured and delivered.
The NDP candidates are certainly not alone in making promises for which no money is easily available. Their campaign documents are full of such pledges, with the only revenue source apparently being a rollback of corporate tax cuts. Alas, the money recaptured from that rollback couldn't possibly finance all their commitments.
Mr. Topp moved out from the pack by proposing very big tax increases not just on corporations but on individuals being paid more than $250,000 and making money from capital gains and stock options. Mr. Topps figures his tax hikes would raise $18-billion, but his number assumes (wrongly) that people and companies wouldn't rearrange their affairs to minimize the tax hit. Nor is there any assumption these higher taxes might dampen economic activity, when it's shown that changes to tax rates, up or down, affect personal and corporate decisions.
At least Mr. Topp has explained where he'd try to find the billions he'd require for all the new spending on public services and programs. His is the classic social democratic model, largely abandoned in Europe and in provinces where the NDP governs or has governed, but one that apparently remains dear to the hearts of some federal New Democrats.