Good to be here in Nova Scotia-home of the blue nose, home of Sydney Crosbie, home of Canada's navy-and I say with great pleasure and congratulations to Darrell Dexter and the NDP, Nova Scotia is now the home of the first social democratic government in Atlantic Canada!
You have come to Halifax from every region and every province in Canada, on the probable eve of the next federal election. In the midst of an economic crisis we are at a crossroads in our history. As a people, we Canadians can use the occasion to move decisively forward. Or we can stand still or even take two steps backwards. The choice will be ours to make. Today I want to show why, as a social democratic party, the NDP has never been more relevant to the hopes and desires of all those millions of Canadians who want both practical answers and social justice.
Before doing so I want to say a few words about our leader and my friend, Jack Layton. When elected as leader six years ago, Jack brought to the federal party not only a commitment to social democratic values and immense energy but also a record of leadership in driving health, housing and environmental agendas in Canada's largest city. He brought that energy and experience to national politics. And since then there have been three federal elections. During this time the NDP has been the only party to increase its standing in percentages and MPs in all three elections. Jack began with 13 MPS and brought us up to 37. When I left, we had a record 44. I want to say today that I have no doubt that either in the fall or the coming spring, under Jack's leadership we will break that record and elect the largest number of MPs in our history.
I now want to talk about ideology and practical politics, and I want to start by saying that for us, there's never been a time when our social democratic values have been more practical. This is a social democratic moment. It's a moment when governments of all stripes in advanced economies around the world have been forced by the economic crisis to acknowledge things we have always known, what we've always known about how the economy works and the important role of government. Even governments of the right, who created the current mess in the first place, have now had to adopt the kinds of policies we social democrats have advocated all along. So if ever there was a time for discussing the relevance of our values to practical politics and the daily lives of Canadians, it's now, when the whole world has experienced the disastrous consequences of three decades of an ideologically based attack on equality of citizenship and social programs, complemented by a general denigration of government and the virtual worship of markets.
I graduated from university 50 years ago this summer. For the first half of the period since then we Canadians created one of the most productive and equitable societies in the world. We ensured high economic growth rates were accompanied by a wide-ranging set of social entitlements. Under prodding by both the CCF and the NDP, it came to be understood that, left to its own devices, the market would be inherently unstable and produce a distribution of goods and services that was profoundly unfair. If most Canadians were to have half a chance at a good life of dignity, then governments had to act.
What emerged from this thinking was a Canada characterized by government pensions, universal health care, trade union rights, comprehensive unemployment insurance, the expectation that every boy and girl with ability could go to university-and all were paid for by adequate levels of progressive taxation. Achieving more equality in our everyday lives, 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". 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.
Before last fall's crash in the global economy, Canada and many other Western democracies had undergone an ideological and material reversal of the society I've just described. Writing in the New Yorker magazine, David Frum, the Canadian born ideologue of the American right, asserted that the conservative (small "c") revolution launched by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had as its purpose the rolling back of social democracy. Joined at the federal level not only by the Reform Party and the Conservatives but also the Liberal party with Paul Martin as Minister of Finance in the 1990s, this narrow market-driven brand of politics was brought to Canada. This became apparent in the middle of that decade, after the deficit had been overcome. Paul Martin actually boasted that government spending had been reduced to the level of 1951. Under the Liberals governmental programs were not fixed. They were abolished. Budgets were not reduced. They were slashed. Artists and the CBC were cut loose and encouraged to rely on the market. Needed taxes were cut and made less progressive. The numbers of poor children have increased and the rich have got richer. I say to you that in the 21st century this kind of inequality should not be, it need not be, and with an NDP government it would not be.
Yes, there has been a straight line from Paul Martin to Stephen Harper. And don't let Liberals pretend otherwise. In the last decade virtually all the real income growth has gone to the top 10% of Canadians. Instead of increasing taxes on the rich to compensate for this-as even in the US Bill Clinton did-the Liberals dropped taxes by 9 percentage points on the wealthiest and eliminated federal environmental, housing and student programs.
Stephen Harper simply continued this onslaught on equality. As a consequence of social policy slashing and irresponsible and unfair tax cuts, last year's OECD report showed that inequality in Canada is now growing faster than in the majority of OECD countries.
This then is the legacy of Liberal and Conservative governments leading to last fall's economic crisis. My point is that quite apart from the crisis in financial institutions, we Canadians now have the other, deeper problem of the alarming increase in inequality. What modern Conservatives and Liberals have done is not only to reject the political legacy of the CCF and NDP but also that of Lester Pearson, John Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau and Bob Stanfield-all of whom came to see the importance of social programs and the use of government as a stabilizing and equalizing force in the economy.
My friends, under the leadership of the NDP we Canadians had transformed ourselves in the 20th century, and part of this transformation became reflected in all of our parties. As a nation we had embarked on the social democratic journey which combines a regulated and efficient market-based economy with strong social and fiscal policies aimed at achieving greater equality. It is this journey that has been dangerously undermined by today's Liberal and Conservative parties.
I mentioned earlier what I have long believed and written about, namely that, as a consequence of becoming more equal in economic terms, we Canadians had also become more tolerant and more cohesive. Sharing and caring was not merely a slogan but characteristic Canadian behaviour.
We now know that our Canadian experience is by no means unique. The evidence is in from 50 different countries: more equal societies are not simply more just, they are also healthier in virtually every respect for everyone in them. Bringing together data from a large number of international studies (UN, World Bank, US Census, Statistics Canada) two leading epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book, The Spirit Level, published in January, show that equality always works better. With equality ethics and practical benefits come together.
Their research has shown that more equal nations like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, are better off in almost every way. Their citizens are healthier, live longer, have fewer teenage pregnancies, are more law abiding, participate more in civic projects and are more trusting of their neighbours. There is, in short, a greater flourishing of individual liberty. Transcending any differences in religion, language and culture, it is the higher degree of equality that makes those nations so much better off than the US or the UK, which are the most unequal. I repeat and emphasize that once a certain minimum level of wealth is reached, it is not more growth but more equality that leads to a better quality of life for everyone.
Wilkinson and Pickett's evidence shows that unequal societies are not only unfair, they are dysfunctional. They promote isolation and social estrangement, and they foster higher levels of consumerism that depletes the planet's resources. Not just the poor but everyone is worse off. Rich and highly educated British and Americans do worse than their equivalents in more equal societies, even in basic things like health.
As a country we're somewhere in the middle, but we're going backwards. We're becoming more unequal more rapidly than most of the 50 countries studied. The implications for Canada are clear. By promoting only more growth and not more equality we will foster only more negatives in health and social behaviour. Such a policy could hardly be more dysfunctional. Low wages, low social benefits, low spending on health care and education are not only bad for the average and the poor whose human potential to flourish they deny. But because they also maintain or increase inequality and exacerbate social tensions and anxiety in general, they are bad for everyone.
Child poverty here in Halifax, or in Montreal or Vancouver is as bad as its was 20 years ago, when I moved a motion for its abolition; thousands of unemployed men and women are being denied EI benefits; all across Canada middle income families are re-mortgaging their homes so their kids can go to university; in every community seniors are being forced back to work because their pensions have been wiped out and our OAS and CPP are inadequate. The policy implications are clear. More growth alone won't fix Canada, but sharing our money can make a huge difference.
I say to you unemployed men and women denied benefits is unacceptable; anxious seniors without pensions is unacceptable; poor kids is unacceptable; unaffordable universities is unacceptable. I also say to you and the people of Canada, there is one party and one party alone that will fight this inequality, and that is the New Democratic Party of Canada.
The first leader of our party, my friend and mentor Tommy Douglas, was a political genius. About Tommy and about no one else can it be said "Without him universal medicare would still be a dream in North America." Tommy's genius lay not in his arguing that health care should be a right and not a privilege. Others too had made this claim. His political genius, which laid the foundation for fundamental change, was that he showed why universal public medicare was a practical answer to the health problems of Canadians. He understood in every bone in his body that idealism only works in democratic politics when the idea is seen to be real. In politics people like to be inspired, but they need to be persuaded. Then, to get the job done, they need a reforming government that manages the economy with competence.
As we move beyond the current crisis we now know from the evidence that inequality is bad. It is not only bad for those directly affected by it-the unemployed, poor kids, anxious seniors, over-burdened families. As I have said, inequality harms us all.
At the federal level it is the Liberals and Conservatives who mismanaged the economy and created the crisis of inequality by slashing programs and imposing regressive taxation. Their policies will perpetuate the status quo. Our task, once again, is to lead the struggle. We must restore the dream for social justice. But this isn't just a dream. We now know it is both ideal and possible to create a Canada that is healthier in every respect; a Canada with more involvement by our citizens; a Canada where neighbours are seen as friends, not as competitors; a Canada in which babies born the same day in Cape Breton and Calgary will have equal opportunities in life. Our task as New Democrats is to demonstrate, show and persuade Canadians that with more equality this kind of Canada is possible. Let's get on with the job.