Irene's Speech to the Kiwanis Clubs of London: "Who is Canada's NDP?"

On February 22nd, I had the privilege of addressing the Forest City London Kiwanis Club during their monthly luncheon. I truly appreciate the warm welcome the Kiwanis members extended to me. I hope to have the opportunity to join them for future discussions, and to work with them on local priorities. For those who were not able to attend, the text of my speech follows:

Irene & George

Good afternoon. I want to thank President George, Past President Jim, Lieutenant Governor Jim and the members of the Forest City London Kiwanis Club for this lunchtime invitation. I was told I have about 10 minutes, but you are a captive audience. Your invitation indicated that you are interested in hearing more about Canada’s NDP; who we are and what we stand for. I am delighted to have the chance to provide at least some of the answers.

I think that there are a number of misconceptions about who New Democrats are and what we are working to achieve. In part, it’s because we’ve allowed others to define us, using their own spin. Unfortunately, New Democrats haven’t always been effective in our response to some of the distortions. I know when I was the MPP between 1990 and 1995, I found it very difficult to talk about what I was doing for the community; it felt cheeky, like bragging. I felt much better simply doing my work quietly. Since then I’ve learned a politician has to be a lot less humble. I’m sure you have noted that humility is not usually a recognizable political attribute.

So we New Democrats need to accept that part of our perception problem has been of our own making and I think it’s also fair to say that we have in the past stayed in our “comfort zone” and not done enough to come out and talk to the many and varied groups in our communities.

In the 2000 federal election the NDP received only 8% of the popular vote, and elected 13 MPs. In 2008 our popular vote exceeded 18% and we elected 37 MPs, 17 of them in Ontario. We are a presence in Ontario. In Manitoba and Nova Scotia, the NDP has majority provincial governments and in Saskatchewan and British Columbia the NDP is the official opposition. New Democrats and the social democratic values we stand for are gaining renewed public support from coast-to-coast-to-coast. In my view it’s because people are looking for something they can vote for, instead of just voting against what they don’t want. And I think people are seeing New Democrats as a party that reflects Canadian values and is taking a balanced approach in developing both sound fiscal and social policies.

In deciding what I would talk about specifically, I took a look at your webpage to have a better sense of your interests and objectives. Of course I knew about Kiwanis Park and the Kiwanis Music Festival. As a student, I participated in the festival for a number of years- at least long enough to be sure I had absolutely no musical talent.

But what is most striking about your webpage is that it tells the story of who you are; it makes clear that you are volunteers changing the world through service to children and communities. You work to help the homeless, feed the hungry, mentor the disadvantaged, develop youth leaders; you build playgrounds, raise money for children’s hospital- more than a million dollars, not to mention the millions of hours of your time for the new Children’s Hospital of Western Ontario. You work hard and you are dedicated.

So we have some common ground. New Democrats believe absolutely in people, in communities and the ability of this nation to be a global leader when it comes to social justice and human rights, economic justice, environmental responsibility and a balanced, fiscally responsible approach to what we hope to achieve. Because without a solid and do-able fiscal plan- we cannot succeed.

I suspect this may come as a surprise to some, but it is the NDP which has the best record of producing balanced budgets when in government. This is not rhetoric; this is based on the federal department of finance’s own findings in a review of government performances conducted in 2005.
The review looked at the last twenty- two years of governments across Canada—and found that NDP governments have the best record, balancing budgets 46% of the time, while Liberals balanced 21% of the time and Conservatives 35% of the time. What isn’t included in the numbers are the twelve consecutive balanced budgets of Tommy Douglas, premier of Saskatchewan.

Tommy Douglas knew a government had to have sound fiscal management. He waited more than 20 years before he introduced medicare to Saskatchewan; he made sure Saskatchewan could afford to support this programme, and his good sense made universal health care not just a success, but part of what we value as Canadians. And he knew that once universal health care was in place, it would add to the well being of the nation, help us to build families, neighbourhoods and a strong economy – in short, he knew it was a wise investment. Because an investment in people is always wise. It gives us strength because people are our greatest resource.

The things we value as Canadians brings me back to the Kiwanis webpage. I took a look at the service providers that you had supported by the fiscal year ending on September 30th, 2008. There were 30 organizations that you had helped, so that these organizations could in turn help people in London and the London region, as well as people in the international community. They included the London Coffee House, Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Doctors without Borders, Child Reach, Habitat for Humanity , Crouch Neighbourhood Resource centre, Merrymount, UNICEF, Orchestra London, Women’s Community House and SARI. The theme that runs through the support for these 30 agencies is help for families, kids, the homeless, the disadvantaged, the hungry and those who are ill. It speaks loudly and clearly to a belief in people, in communities and the obligation of this nation to be a global leader when it comes to social justice, economic justice, environmental responsibility and human rights. It also speaks of the common ground you and I already share in the community. Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Women’s Community House, Child Reach—these are organizations with which I too have worked and supported.

The question now remains, what is the role of political leaders and government in achieving these community goals?
How can government reflect these values and make them part of the social structure? What plan does The New Democratic Party have for Canada?

If we look at the contributions Kiwanians have made towards the goals of the many organizations they have supported, those contributions can probably be summed up as a belief in the need for decent, safe housing; child care; an end to poverty; income security; protection from violence and abuse; the need for children and youth services and a commitment to investing in the physical, mental and spiritual health of the community. New Democrats are no different. We believe that we can create a society where there is social and economic justice; and that Canada, in all is abundance, can secure such a reality.

So, that is what we work to achieve with our policies, our role as a motivator of government and as a party hoping someday to have the levers of government to move forward on this agenda.

So our platform includes a programme for decent affordable housing as part of a national housing strategy. Between 1971 and 1996, there was a national housing programme in Canada. In 1971, former NDP leader David Lewis made his support for the minority Liberal government conditional on the initiation of a national housing programme. The programme was defunded in 1993 and finally cancelled in 1996. In light of the homeless crisis and its horrendous impact on families, New Democrats want affordable housing back on the national agenda. Our policy supports what we call the “Bring Canada Home” strategy with a combination of new revenues and partial reinvestment of the net income from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, excluding contributions from provinces and territories in cost-shared initiatives.

To help ensure Canadians will have adequate and affordable housing, New Democrats have consistently brought forward a private member’s bill that establishes a right to housing. I introduced such a bill in the 39th parliament and my colleague Libby Davies re-introduced it in the current parliament. Safe and affordable housing should not be out of reach for anyone in Canada, but in reality older women, women living alone, and single mothers are the most likely to have to choose between food, heat or housing in Canada today. Nearly two million Canadians do not have access to affordable housing; and more than 250,000, including families with children are homeless. We’ve once again called on the federal government to begin work with the provinces to make affordable housing a key priority this session, with a particular focus on addressing rural, remote and on-reserve housing needs.

A decent, safe place to live is the important and essential foundation for families and kids to thrive. For women trying to escape abuse and protect their children, a secure and affordable home is critical. We need real action on violence against women. Half of all Canadian women will experience at least one incidence of physical or sexual violence after the age of 16, with Aboriginal women facing an even greater risk of abuse. In the last election, the NDP committed to restoring funds cut by the current and previous governments because organizations and agencies like women’s community house must be able to count on core federal support for shelters and transition houses.

We also need to be serious about ending poverty in Canada. Whether it’s the poverty faced by seniors, the disabled, low and minimum wage earners or the unemployed, poverty in Canada takes a dreadful toll. It is estimated that the cost to our GDP is in excess of $20 billion a year. Women and their children are the face of poverty in Canada. The Conference Board of Canada says one in seven children , nearly 1.2 million, live in poverty; these children are inadequately housed, often hungry and unable to access the opportunities that other kids have. Eliminating poverty and thereby eliminating child poverty remains the most pressing moral issue in Canada today. With its claw backs and hidden rules, the Canada Child Tax Benefit is neither as effective, nor as big as it needs to be. New Democrats have proposed raising that benefit as well as calling for a national public childcare program and improved nutrition programmes. Our children deserve the best start we can give them. Compared to the other OECD countries, we are light years behind in the nurturing of our children. In fact, successive reports from the OECD and UNICEF rank Canada last of all industrialized countries in early child education and care investment.

This month at the G8 meeting in Iqaluit, the Prime Minister pledged to make maternal and child health a priority at the G8 summit in Canada this June. He went on to say it would take remarkably little to make a difference to women and children in developing countries. The NDP response was to take Mr. Harper at his word; but before we can preach to the world about responsibility, we need to show leadership at home and start filling the gaping holes in our own backyard. Jack Layton’s proposal at our February 8th news conference was to make this next session of Parliament the Women and Children First session.

According to the Global Gender Gap Index, Canada now ranks behind Mongolia, Latvia and Sri Lanka on gender equality. And just three weeks ago, Northern leaders reminded reporters that mortality rates among Inuit babies are three times the national average.
New Democrats have a series of concrete proposals that, if embraced by the other parties in the House of Commons, would mean real progress for women and children. Those proposals include:
*fixing Employment Insurance rules that deny eligibility to six in ten women and four in ten men; These are people who have paid into the Employment insurance programme but are unable to access benefits.

*adopting key recommendations of the 2004 Pay Equity Task Force; women still earn 71 cents for every dollar a man earns
*increasing support for women’s groups working to prevent violence and re-introducing an affordable housing strategy
*launching a coordinated action plan to address the crime of 520 missing or murdered Aboriginal women;
*launching a federal initiative to ensure every child has daily access to healthy food, registered affordable child care and
*boosting the Guaranteed Income Supplement to end poverty among seniors (overwhelmingly women).

Poverty and inequity denies us freedom and hope, and it’s the biggest single factor in ill health. Confronting poverty means recognizing the human dignity in everyone—and our responsibility to help those neighbours who fall through the cracks. The members of the Kiwanis club know that and live that. We do indeed have a great deal in common.