Canada: Interview with NDP left candidate Niki Ashton

The below interview with the left-wing candidate in the NDP leadership race was originally published by the Canadian Marxist journal, Fightback.

On Friday June 23rd, the day after Niki Ashton gave what was generally considered a commanding performance at the Toronto NDP leadership debate, Fightback’s editorial board sat down with her for an interview at our Toronto offices. It was a wide-ranging discussion spanning everything from Palestine to free education, nationalization to Islamophobia, Quebec solidaire to Jeremy Corbyn. We even asked Niki her position on the Queen. This interview has informed the discussion in our movement about how socialists should approach the NDP leadership campaign. Read Fightback’s position here and the interview below:

Fightback: Thanks Niki for meeting with us for this interview, let’s dive right in. There’s been a wave of movements against capitalist inequality, expressed by such figures as Sanders, Corbyn and Melenchon. How do you situate yourself in relation to these movements?

Niki Ashton: I find all of those three leaders and the movements they helped create incredibly inspiring. It strikes me that they were able to engage folks by putting forward a bold, left platform. They also worked with social movements in their respective countries, as well as with communities. While it ultimately was about these individuals, and I myself “felt the Bern,” it was also so much more than that. It was really about a collective experience. I would say our campaign has drawn inspiration from this work, in terms of their platforms and working with social movements. One of the quotes that really inspired me when I went to a Bernie Sanders rally over a year ago in Michigan was when he said that change was going to come from the grassroots, and how it wasn’t going to come from just one figure. He also said he believes in the statement that when the people lead, the leaders follow. I’ve always subscribed to that approach to doing politics. That’s what’s driven me to political activism. It’s also a key driving principle in our campaign.

Fightback: One thing a lot of people have said is that socialism appears to be making a comeback. How do you think that can be expressed in Canada, and through the NDP in particular?

Ashton: I think it’s incumbent on us to take the word back into the movement. I was one of the MP’s at the time who opposed removing the word socialism from the NDP constitution. We need to take it back, not only in word, but in principle. The NDP ought to be a party that is open to those that identify as socialist, social-democrats, progressives, etc. The recent attempts to exclude those with a socialist vision for the world was ill-timed and wrong. We have a fair bit of work to do. But I’m proud of the campaign we’ve put forward, which has made clear that the market-based, neoliberal approach is the problem, and has led us to where we are in terms of rampant inequality and catastrophic climate change. We are the only campaign that has even used the word “neoliberalism,” or that has called out the systemic nature of the crisis we’re in. So we’ve put forward a bold, progressive platform. We’ve called for things like free education. We’ve called for things like public ownership and nationalization. That means not only opposing privatization, but proposing public ownership. In terms of the environmental front, we’ve talked about the need to stand up to big oil and oppose pipelines. We’ve talked about indigenous justice and moving towards a carbon free economy.

niki ashton fightbackNiki Ashton at the Fightback offices

Yesterday at the debate I spent a fair time talking about tax reform, and the need to make the millionaire and billionaire class pay their fair share as working people on the margin are being squeezed more and more. We’ve also placed focus on working with grassroots movements that are involved in taking on the political and economic systems of our times, whether it’s Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous solidarity movements, etc. It’s a sign of the times that so many people are calling for systemic change. That’s something our campaign believes in.

Fightback: We’re really glad you brought up the removal of the word “socialism” from the NDP constitution. Fightback was there at the convention fighting against that change. At the time we were saying that this would hurt the NDP electorally. We saw this during the 2015 election. You’ve said the NDP were “out-lefted” by the Liberals in that election. Could you expand on your analysis of that election, and how things could have been done differently?

Ashton: I do think we were heading in that direction before 2015. I don’t think the decision to chart a “middle of the road” course came out of nowhere. I think a very clear example of how we wandered from our principles was the commitment to balance budgets at any cost. That sent a signal that we were not willing to spend to address the needs Canadians have, and that we were hamstrung to a fiscally conservative position. I’ll never forget a First Nations leader I met with a day after that decision was made. He said he had voted for the NDP since he was 18. But he said that when he heard statements like the one about balanced budgets, he thought about how it was balanced on the backs of his people. I’m almost sure he voted Liberal. He didn’t feel we were a party on his side.

We did have some progressive policies around childcare, $15 minimum wage, etc. But I do feel we need to be much stronger on issues such as public ownership. CUPW has for some time been putting forward the idea of postal banking, which was not something that was taken on by the NDP at the time. We also weren’t clear on pipelines, and people were wondering where we stood. While our program had some good pieces, I do believe it was lacking overall, and sent a signal that we weren’t on the side of those who believed the NDP was a party for them. The goal of winning is critical, but in making that our major goal, we distanced ourselves from social movements fighting for political change.

Take the student strike in Quebec. The NDP wasn’t there in solidarity. In regards to environmental movements, some of us have been engaged while others have not. These are the kinds of things we need to learn from.

Fightback: There were some good things in the NDP platform, childcare and pharmacare for example, but most of it was to be phased in over 8 years or longer. We think it’s important for the NDP to make a commitment, but then have it introduced in the first budget.

Ashton: Yes. The question is, how do you commit when you’re not demanding revenue from other sources? And that’s why our campaign is calling for tax reform. That’s why we’re calling for public ownership. That’s why we’re opposed to the ramping up in the military budget, and having that money used for things like pharmacare and free education.

Fightback: Our next question was actually on free education. It’s fantastic that someone as prominent as yourself has made this a key platform point. It’s also been a key point for Sanders and Corbyn. Fightback has also been calling for this for twenty years - so why do you think free education is such an important issue?

Ashton:  Well, first of all, because education is a right. We absolutely have to recognize that. We also need to recognize  the state of education in terms of cost is a major barrier for young people across the country. We are forcing a whole generation of young people into debt for merely doing what we asked of them-- Which is to get an education.  70% of jobs in our country require a higher education, so it's untenable to continue with this policy. Free education is an investment that would make a huge difference in the economic opportunities that young people have, but it would also kick-start and help the economy in other ways too. Seventeen countries across the world have free education, and many of them are not as wealthy as Canada is. We don't have an excuse to not move in that direction. Our campaign is very inspired by groups like the CFS, CCPA, Labour orginization and Fightback as well  who have been calling for this. Free education is a must now.

Fightback: A lot of young people are very encouraged to hear a candidate actually call for free education, though some people have raised the point that it leaves out people who have already enrolled or have already graduated. They are, as you pointed out, drowning in student debt. Some of them have raised the demand for the cancellation of debt, or living grants to help them pay for the daily costs of being a student.  How would you respond to them?

Ashton: We've talked about the need to act on this student debt crisis. We've called for the cancellation of the interest on federal student loans. We also want to look into the cancellation of unpayable student debt, and we want to look into that further. To the larger point, we really need to expand the social safety net. Things like social housing, which can help young people in getting affordable housing, needs to be invested in. Things like pharmacare, which many young people need and can't get since they are more and more working in jobs with no benefits, is also important for young people and needs to be invested in. We've also put forward universal dental care, which many young people have stated is needed by many. In the next few days, we'll also be putting forward our platform regarding mental health. And on top of that we've raised the need to deal with the crisis of precarious work. I met a young woman in Oshawa who was telling me how she has such a huge amount of debt, yet access to no jobs that would help pay it off. We need a national program for good jobs to stop this rise in precarious work. This is a huge part of the inequality young people are facing.

Fightback: You've been criticized from the other candidates for not having a plan to pay for free education as well as not being 'pragmatic'. How would you pay for it?

Ashton: It's a question of priorities. We need to re-open old revenue streams and find new revenue streams. One thing we need to do is tax reform. The millionaire and billionaire class must pay its fair share of taxes. We need to close tax loopholes, and double the capital gains tax.  Those who are engaging in speculation should pay from the profits they are making. We also need an inheritance tax and to increase the corporate tax rate to 21%-- This was the tax rate before Stephen Harper got into power.  Beyond taxes, we need to stand up for public ownership. Particularly, we've called for public ownership in the banking sector, health sector in terms of pharmacare, and the energy sector in terms of green energy. Those are all avenues to produce goods and services but also to produce revenue for public programs.

It is a reorganization of priorities. For example, we've opposed the increased military spending Trudeau wants to do. We've talked about the need to cancel fossil fuel subsidies which is at about $1.3 billion. This money can be used instead for green energy and green transition. Those are some of the key points, so obviously there's no shortage of ways to pay for what's important.

However, it's clear to me not everyone wants to have that discussion. If we're going to go forward as the NDP with a bold platform and a party of the left, then we need to have some bold policies on taxation, ownership, and other areas.

Fightback: Do you see Public Ownership as a solution to Capital flight?

Ashton: I do. I see an increased role of the federal government in a national jobs program while also saying no to bad trade deals, no to increased foreign ownership. This would be a regaining of sovereignty, and a stand that says here in Canada, we can create wealth and create opportunities that benefit all of us.

Fightback: On the issue of Public ownership, you've advanced the slogan of 'They Privatize, We Nationalize.' and we think that's an excellent slogan. Of course you're still in the process of rolling out your full platform, but we definitely think you should put more meat on the bones of that slogan. For example, Corbyn in Britain promised to nationalize rail, mail, and energy which really enthused people. An example we have in Canada is Bombardier, where we've seen a terrible scandal.  They've received billions in hand-outs, yet they've laid off thousands of people, and they get massive corporate bonuses. And they can't even deliver Toronto’s streetcars. Maybe it's time to take over Bombardier considering the executives can't run it very well?

Ashton:  This issue really hits home for me because back home, the big fight is against the nationalization of the ports.  Canada's only deep water arctic port. That's a textbook example of what happens when you privatize a strategic resource. In this case, putting it in the hands of an American billionaire who is basically now holding our area hostage. People on the ground have stated that the only way to move forward is to take it back, and I agree. I do believe in the need to get public ownership within key sectors-- including banking. We support the creation of a postal banking system. In terms of healthcare, we've called for the need of a public entity that would be involved in the bulk buying of pharmaceuticals.  That tackles an industry where there's a fair bit of corporate concentration. Also in the energy sector-- Twenty years ago we talked about nationalization of oil, but I think we need to looking at the future in terms of sources of energy. Overall, the federal government isn't there when it comes to green investment, so creating a crown corporation to do that on the federal level should be a priority.  

I also think we have an opportunity right now to call out Trudeau on his plan to privatize the infrastructure bank. I do think if we go down this path we should be nationalizing our airports and ports which are being targeted for privatization. More and more people are becoming concerned over this infrastructure bank-- I would call it a privatization bank. We need some bold language in taking back what they want to take away from us.

Fightback: Let's switch track slightly. This is both a foreign policy question and an NDP question. During the last election there were a number of Pro Palestinian NDP candidates that had their nominations overruled. The results in those ridings were very poor afterwards. What do you think about justice for Palestine? People have been very enthused in your campaign on the stances you've taken on this issue. But also what do you think about the right of rank and file party members to choose their own candidate for their riding association?

Ashton: I am the only candidate in the leadership race that has identified what our party did to those that ran for us but then were treated so poorly because of their stance on Palestine. It's totally unacceptable. We obviously, of course, shouldn't have people who don't share our values running for our party-- However, justice for Palestine and all oppressed people IS one of our values. It took place in my own province, and we've heard terrible stories of how those candidates were treated from across the country. It not only took a personal toll on people-- both those in the riding and the candidates-- but it also hurt us electorally. For me, justice for Palestine is a key issue. I've been involved in the struggle for a number of years, including working with the Canadians for Justice and Peace in the middle east. A couple of weeks ago I was proud to stand with so many Palestinian activists and allies in Montreal in commemorating the Nakba. I also was showing support during that time for the hunger strikers in Palestine. We were attacked vociferously for it both in the social media and the main stream media. For me, it's a clear indication of how the narrative surrounding the middle-east has moved so far to the right. Particularly under Harper  but also under Trudeau. Only the NDP can pull back-- we've been silent for too long. We need to fight back and stand in support of those who are fighting back. We've lost those connections, and we need to get them back.

I also cannot agree with you more on grassroots nominations that are not interfered with by the central party. I am somebody who ran in a grassroots nomination, and challenged an incumbent in 2006 who was opposing gay marriage. There were a number of establishment figures who wanted us to not rock the boat. I was shocked at the time that she was against gay marriage - but I was more shocked and disgusted that establishment figures rallied around her position. They were actively trying to discourage us to get involved. Initially, I just wanted to help organize. But a number of key feminists told me they wanted me to run, and they helped me. We won BECAUSE of our grassroots campaign. If the central party had interfered in the nomination, then I would not be here today.

I'm proud the NDP has a history of supporting open nominations. It's clear, however, we need democratic reform in our party that prioritizes that.

Fightback: We're seeing a certain layer of frustrated people with racist and xenophobic views emboldened since the election of Trump. There has been a reflection here in Canada with the rise of hate crimes. The mosque attack in Quebec, for example. We're not just seeing a rise to the right though, there have been movements to the left around Corbyn, Sanders, and Melenchon for example. It's more of a polarization. I'm wondering what you think about the fact that layers of workers and youth are attracted to xenophobic and racist ideas and how can we combat them?

Ashton: I'm very concerned. There's been a 60% rise in Islamophobic attacks in our country. I did have the opportunity to visit the mosque in Quebec City two weeks ago and I spoke with one of the leaders of the community, who plainly said how people are only now beginning to feel safe going to the mosque. He was hoping that because it was Ramadan people would come back and be together during that important time. But he also said they continue to fight Islamophobia in their community. He spoke about how people keep telling him he has to integrate when he’s been here for over forty years. He spoke about how his kids were born here, and how they're raising their own children now. This is their country, so what do they mean they have to integrate?

We have to call out hate, and we have to be on the front line of that struggle, working with communities that have been impacted. We also need to push forward in terms of addressing the structural barriers that many face in our society. Whether its the economic barriers racialized, Muslim, or other minorities face.  Or in terms of dealing with interactions with the police or authorities for minorities.  Or in terms of strengthening our laws in respect to hate speech. But I also believe we need to engage in coalition and solidarity building. It's clear to me there are very brave people out there calling out anti-black racism in Toronto and elsewhere.  There's also very fierce indigenous activists out west doing the same. We need to be building bridges to these movements.

In the debate yesterday, there was a question about how I would rep Toronto on its issues when I might get blow back from rural communities on infrastructure for example. I said, very clearly, it's not one region against the other or one community against the other. It's about taking on the rich and powerful who have brought us to this point. What we're seeing out of the UK in relation to Islamophobia for example is tremendous leadership from British Labour and Jeremy Corbyn. He has called out hate and Islamophobia and is working together with the communities to challenge it. 

I will say that Trump style politics are a threat in our country. The conservative leadership race embodied that. You had candidates coming out talking about testing for Canadian values with xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric.  When you have a leader like Andrew Sheer, who is on the record as being Anti-choice, Anti-trans, Anti-same sex marriage, and frankly anti-muslim. I would argue he's worse than Harper in how clearly he's putting these ideas out there, on top of coming out of a race deeply shaped by these ideas. So I do think we're seeing that rise here in our own country in an electoral sense. However, we do risk seeing Trudeau find himself an even great feminist or social justice advocate. When in fact he's doing nothing to change the lives of women or marginalized communities - it's just a lot of rhetoric.

It's up to the NDP to be the party that calls out the hate and discrimination we're seeing. We need to be the party that takes on the structural barriers and that builds  coalitions and solidarity to achieve justice for everyone.

Fightback: You gave a shout out to Quebec Solidaire during the Toronto leadership debate. How do you think these dynamics play out in Quebec?

Ashton: I will say I am very proud our campaign has the support of members of the Muslim community. As well as allies who are fighting Islamophobia and divisive politics in Quebec. There are a number of people who are also involved with Quebec Solidaire - A movement that attempts to tackle the hate and fight for justice for everyone. I would also say that while there may be some elements unique to Quebec, Islamophobia is on the rise everywhere.

Fightback: Yes, we don't want to give the impression that Islamophobia is just a Quebec phenomenon.

Ashton: Yes, and there are people that do. They say, 'Oh we're okay, but I don't know about Quebec...' and so I do believe there is incredible work happening on the ground that we need to support. That's why I gave a shout-out to Quebec Solidaire. I'm tremendously inspired by all the work that they do and their connections to social movements. Connections like the election of GND and their connections to the student strike is an example of that and I think the NDP has a lot to learn from that.

Fightback: To bring it back to the leadership campaign, some former establishment figures within the NDP have written editorials in the Star and Sun - One tried to downplay the impact of Corbyn and Sanders, others stated raising clear political positions is divisive. I think the subtext is an attack on your candidacy. What is your response?

Ashton: Well, there's no better indication of being a threat than when you see these editorials out there. I welcome healthy debate on the issues. Unfortunately, it's clear some of what's thrown out there is misrepresentation. For example, there's been insinuations that I've been critical of Alberta. I've said very clearly that even if we disagree on pipelines, there are very good things that the Alberta government is doing with things like $15 minimum wage, or childcare etc. I believe some of those attacks are the worst kind. It's stuff you'd hear from a right-wing talk show, not an NDP member. The prairies are where I come from, and I've worked in Alberta extensively to support the left there. I find it rich that folks that are not from there are saying I'm against one part of the country.

It's also clear there's a centrist agenda that continues to be alive and well in sectors of the NDP who happen to have platforms in the media. But it's clear those positions are disconnected from reality on the ground. Increasingly, many New Democrats of all ages and progressives of all ages but particularly young people want a party that's more on the left, and bold in its principled agenda and more connected to social movements. Anyone that says Bernie or Corbyn lost doesn't get the wins they scored or the way the political ground is shifting in their countries but also in ours.

Fightback: So, to start bringing things to a close. What message do you have for socialists inside and outside the party? And to young radicals that are sick of Capitalist inequality or injustice - Are you their candidate?

Ashton: Yes!

And I would invite them to take a stand at a critical time for our country. And that would mean getting involved in this leadership. We've seen a record number of people come back to the party, and many people sign up for the first time. A number of folks who have pointed out electoral politics is not their preferred way to make change but they see an opportunity right now to be a part of that. I've been very honoured to gain the support of many political figures on the left whether it's in terms of leaders like Sid Ryan or Cheri DiNovo or municipal leaders or community leaders or activists on the ground - it's clear to me people are excited about the campaign and message we're putting forward. The debate in Toronto indicated that.

I really do believe that there is hope and that we can change the course of the NDP and the country, but it can't be done unless we come together and get involved at this stage. It's why I invite everyone who shares our priorities and the sense of urgency to get involved and sign up, vote, and spread the word! Be a part of the movement for social and environmental justice for all of us.

Fightback: Okay, one last question. A bit of change of pace actually. Jeremy Corbyn recently made headlines for refusing to bow to the Queen.  The Queen is our head of state here in Canada. Would you support removing the Queen as the head of state?

Ashton: I'm certainly open to a referendum. I'm quite happy I don't need to bow in front of the Queen. The last time I was required to take an oath after being elected, we actually asked for an edit of the oath to include recognition of first nations and indigenous territories and sovereignty.

On a serious front, I do believe there is a lot of work we need to do to decolonize our country at all levels. I'm keen to be a part of that.

Fightback: Anything else to add?

Ashton: I wanted to share that the Fightback crowd have been super solid coming to my campaign events across the country, and it is really great because the questions asked by Fightback are much needed, focussing on ideas and policies that matter and are especially connected to the thoughts and aspirations of young people.

One thing I wanted to add is that there is clearly an appetite among young people for system change. Fightback, and other social movements, are clearly a reflection of that. It's not lost on me that the next election, the largest voting block will be the millennial generation at 37%-- for the first time surpassing boomers. It is incumbent of those of us on the left to put forward a platform that speaks to the very stark inequality that young people are facing, but also to the hopes and vision that young people are expecting from their political leaders. I'm very excited about that. Obviously I'm the youngest candidate and an older millennial myself. It touches me on a personal level because it is the future of my generation too.

It's an honour to see so much excitement and support from fellow millennials based on the platform we're putting forward. I believe the NDP can carve a much stronger path forward by taking this approach and as a result, we'll be engaging what will be the largest voting bloc in the next election.

Fightback: Excellent. Thank you so much for your time Niki.

Ashton: And thank you for having me.


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