A Conversation with Les Campbell

Frontier Centre, Interview, Public Sector, Uncategorized

Frontier Centre: What was your connection to public policy in Canadian government?

Les Campbell: I worked for the Pawley government in the 80’s, went on to work for Gary Doer and finally found myself in Ottawa working for the leader of the federal NDP Audrey McLaughlin. I also have a political science background and public policy has always been an interest of mine.

FC: What is the National Democratic Institute?

LC: The organization is an international wing of the Democratic Party. It exists to promote democracy and good governance abroad. We also think about things like “how do you run elections?” and what are good international standards for elections.

FC: Why do you believe that the market economy can deliver the goods?

LC: Working internationally has changed my mind — having spent the last seven, almost eight years, working almost exclusively abroad – it seems the countries that embrace and adopt market solutions do well. I have worked in countries that are still labouring in the old way of the command and control economy, five-year economic plans, and state run enterprises and so on. Without exception, they don’t work.

FC: What is the role of government in this new paradigm?

LC: I’ll probably sound like I am parroting Tony Blair or some of the new Social Democrats, but I think the government should be a facilitator and an enabler – those are two jargon words that you hear a lot. It is true that there is a role for government and that there is something called the “public good.” For example, the corporations in the private sector cannot and will not provide everything people need. But, on the other hand, it is probably just as true to say that government cannot and should not provide or attempt to provide every service that people need. Government should enable — should allow things to happen and should make things happen in a reasonable fashion that keeps in mind the public good. But they don’t have to deliver every service.

FC: What is it that you see, for example, in the Social Democratic parties of Europe – How is the Tony Blair government different from the federal NDP in Canada?

LC: There are so many differences – but the main difference is the focus on ends rather than means. The Blair government and now Schroeder’s government and certainly the Scandinavian governments, mostly Social Democratic – and left-wing – are much less concerned about how things get done, whether something is delivered by a public agency, for example. They are much more concerned about delivering what they say they are going to deliver. In other words, the quality of public services, the accessibility, the client-centeredness of public services are as important to them as who delivers them. That is one of the main differences.

FC: The New Democratic Party seems to be caught in a tug-of-war between the old-style socialist philosophy of the labour union movement and the “new labour” philosophy that recognizes the value of markets and capitalism. Why is there an argument in the NDP?

LC: There are two reasons. One is that, for good reason, people are reluctant to give up the struggle in a cause which they fought for much of their lives. There are many people who have been working within the NDP for what they believe to be a better future for the working class and for the poor – for the people who have been left out. It is hard to abandon that although I would argue that they don’t have to abandon that. The second thing is that a lot of people are convinced that the notion of a “third way” between conservatism and socialism is a liberal trap – big “L” liberal. It is the feeling that somehow the Canadian Liberal Party is an amorphous beast that has taken up all this ground and that the third way is oblivion for the NDP. So that is where the resistance comes from.

FC: What will the NDP look like in ten years? Who is going to win the battle for its soul?

LC: That’s a good question. I think that is partly being decided in Winnipeg at the NDP Convention – the jury is out right now.

FC: Why would “one member – one vote” make a difference to the NDP’s future?

LC: It would do two things: One, it would bring new blood into the Party because people would actually be able to cast a vote, say for the next Leader, and that’s a big deal. In other words they wouldn’t have to go through some convoluted backroom process to send delegates. And, number two, the NDP has traditionally given union leaders, I won’t even say union members, but union leaders a disproportionate say in its affairs. “One member – one vote” wouldn’t change that entirely, it would go a long way toward breaking the domination of union leaders who, frankly, seem to be out-of-touch with the rank and file of the NDP.

FC: Why don’t most union members vote for the NDP?

LC: It’s simple – the unions are the victims of their own success. Most members of organized labour in Canada have a standard of living and life style which has taken them out of the working class. Union members are as concerned about taxation, quality of life issues as anyone else and so they look at the NDP as a party that doesn’t represent their interests anymore.

FC: You have suggested putting a premium on new ideas and on “think tanks”. Why is that?

LC: In the NDP, and Canadian politics in general, we hear nothing but the same tired old clichés. In the end, politics is about ideas. Political parties are about putting forward ideas which then clash, hopefully in – another cliché I guess – the marketplace of ideas. The most successful parties, for example, Tony Blair’s Labour Party have gone through a renewal process which included the formation of a related think tank that was thinking “out-of-the box.” This was crucial to its success.

FC: In a weird way, some people have suggested that only the NDP has the moral authority to save Medicare. Do you see any real reforms on the horizon in Canada? For example, a Swedish health system of competing public and private providers within a public framework?

LC: Hard to second-guess where Medicare reform will go in Canada. I think that limited competition and privatization is probably in the cards because there is almost no doubt that it will drive down the costs of certain parts of the system. The other thing, and people have been talking about this for years, and not doing anything is the emphasis on preventive health or well care to catch expensive diseases before they become a huge burden.

FC: How about user fees?

LC: It’s one of those Canadian – you know sacrosanct issues in Canada. I don’t know, I think that Canada’s health care system has been built on some core values. It is my inclination to say “let’s see if there is a way of fixing it” before we start knocking on the door of what people will see as one level for the rich and one level for the poor.

FC: Public ownership is still a big thing for some Canadians though most Social Democrats in Europe have eased back on this – again, Tony Blair. Do governments have to own power companies, hospitals, and schools?

LC: I don’t think they have to. In fact, I would be in favor of taking the ideology out of this question. In other words, I don’t think the left has to be for public ownership and the right has to be against public ownership. You can often make a case for public ownership. You know, the Canadian West and the Canadian prairies with sparse population have had good reasons in the historical past for public ownership, for example, the telephone system because a private system may not have given everyone a telephone. But, on the other hand, the government absolutely need not deliver a service to have it delivered properly. Good examples, and simple examples, might be motor vehicle insurance and liquor stores. There is no reason for the government to own liquor stores. Other services that the government provides could be delivered by private concerns. As for crown corporations – there is no law that says that certain corporations must be government-owned.

FC: Management guru Peter Drucker recently discussed the future workplace, predicting that we will see a much more fluid work environment where knowledge workers switch jobs frequently. This suggests the end of the one big bargaining unit model for labour. How do you think unions should adjust to this – should they oppose it or should they adapt?

LC: They will oppose it — but they should adapt. One of the most interesting things that Drucker pointed out recently is that soon almost everyone will be a knowledge worker of one sort or another. Workers that traditionally fell under the realm of organized labour and the working class will become known as knowledge technologists. These jobs require training and a certain level of expertise and will have their own market power. No longer can unions bargain in the way that they did. In my opinion the unions should get out ahead of this or be left behind.

FC: Water exports have been a contentious issue for many Canadians. We freely export non-renewable oil and gas but there is opposition to selling water – a renewable resource. Do you have any thoughts on this?

LC: It is an emotional issue and I guess nobody wants to gore too many oxen at the same time. But, it doesn’t really make sense.

Number one, we don’t put enough value on our water – we seem to want to waste our own water and yet selling water and pricing water and actually putting a value to water would help us all by encouraging conservation. We should probably pay the price that water really should get. But, on the other hand, if we put a proper price to water – what it’s really worth — why not consider selling it? It would be a huge source of income. It is renewable and it makes a lot more sense than cutting down every tree standing, for example, which we tend to do in some parts of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario. So, I don’t know all the ramifications of water exports but a knee jerk that we will never sell bulk water is a little shortsighted.

FC: What about genetically modified foods?

LC: I have similar thoughts on genetically modified food as on water. It is not automatically the case that if a scientist finds a way of making food better through genetic modification – that it’s automatically a case of evil or bad. In fact, it may be good – it may be nutritionally good, it may be good in terms of yields which helps make poor people less poor. It is kind of funny that we seem to succumb to conspiracy theories that there is some mad scientist out there that is trying to poison us – this is simply not the case.

What advice would you have for the NDP in Manitoba around the new politics in the world today?

LC: There are two parts to this answer: First, this Manitoba government is a careful, practical government that is making incremental steps towards making things better for Manitobans. It is a popular government so I guess it is doing some things well and it is probably what people want – they like and appreciate that cautious, moderate approach. Although the government can argue that they have made a positive difference in people’s lives – the government should start thinking about legacy issues. I am not sure in the long run that they will get credit for an incremental approach that has made some people’s lives better. My advice would be – look for those one or two issues where you can make a really bold statement -take on something new. Look at the latest thinking in those areas that fit with your social democratic thinking.

FC: For example?

LC: Stewardship of water resources would be one – you know, pricing water properly, water conservation and looking at ways of extracting value from Manitoba’s unbelievable water resources. Hydro resources – every Manitoban knows The province is sitting on a treasure trove of renewable energy. Amazing renewable energy and some real thinking has got to go into how to make that work for all Manitobans. So water and water-related hydro are two things that jump out.

FC: What about taxes?

LC: Taxes are an interesting one because as we speak right now the governments that moved quickly on tax reform in Ontario and British Columbia may soon regret it as revenue flows have dropped dramatically. A more “steady as she goes” approach to taxes may, in fact, look prudent right now. The jury is out on taxes. But my view on taxes is similar to my view on a lot of these things. High taxes are not inherently social democratic although low taxes are not either because Social Democrats believe that there is a role for government – but taxes are not in themselves good. They are only good if they are being used in a way that people think is beneficial. So, as long as the government can justify its taxation level, and is providing services at a level that people find appropriate and they keep a kind of “steady as she goes” attitude then I think that is the best way to go.