Interview with Ed Broadbent


On September 27, 2004, I had the opportunity to sit down with the former leader of the New Democratic Party and current Member of Parliament representing Ottawa Centre, the Honorable Mr. Ed Broadbent. We met in his office for a half an hour and the following is a transcript of our discussion, edited only for style – no content was removed.

Mr. Lopoukhine:
Today, looking back, whose influence contributed the most to your desire to run for office, the left-leaning Macpherson at UofT or the right-wing Oakeshott at LSE?

Mr. Broadbent:
That’s a very good question. Absolutely no disserve to either of them, when it comes to actually running for office, neither of them did, that is to say, neither actually encouraged direct active political participation. Although both of them had respect for political activity, neither of them knew much of it in detail. As for ideas of politics, as opposed to action as such, formation of values – Brough Macpherson was more influential because of his deep commitment to socialism. But, what he did in a remarkable way was to combine, in his own thinking, the classical political values of liberalism, with socialist egalitarianism, which meant of course rejecting the market as a mechanism for many aspects of human life. Unlike many Marxists, he had a deep respect and knowledge of liberalism. Knowledge in general, respect for liberalism of people like John Stuart Mill and T.H. Green.
Oakeshott on the other hand, caused me to think more deeply about the conservative nature of human institutions and human beings. He also made me more aware of the difficulty of bringing about social change and of the necessity of being tolerant towards those that are less committed to social change. Oakeshott was the kind of conservative that the US government should have been paying attention too before they invaded Iraq. He believed that no nation could create whole new patterns of behaviour and institutions in another country. His famous lecture in education stated that it was useful to study other political culture, but for him it was not as a means of changing them, but as a means to understanding and improving your own. He was a true conservative.

On of your idols is Bertrand Russell? Do you see the path that you have taken in your life mirrored in his – his academic thinking and activism?

First of all, with regards to activism, he was one of the true few geniuses, especially with his work in mathematics, logic and philosophy. Influence my path? Well indirectly, who knows? I did read Russell before I read Macpherson or Oakeshott. His willingness to engage in debate in public on issues impressed me immensely. He was very much in a sense of what would call now a public intellectual. He tried to engage in the issues of the day in plain language from a thought-out position. Sometimes he was wildly absurd, in retrospect, I don’t know if you know, that he advocated a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons.

I understood him to have an anti-nuclear stance?

I know, he was, but just after the war, because he was so apprehensive about the spread of nuclear weapons, he actually briefly advocated considering a pre-emptive strike.

To stop it dead?

To stop it from developing in the Soviet Union, he was quite erratic, that’s the downside. One should be more skeptical about public intellectuals than intellectuals in general, I think. Precisely because they are engaged and they will too often whip off an essay with out thinking through all the consequences. So I say that about Russell, he was kind of wingy, but in general, I was inspired by him. There was a man who at least thought that if you’re given some intellectual gifts and passion about the fate of humanity, you should engage in public debates about those things and of course he became one of the leading activists against nuclear weapons. He was also very witty.

Oh, a strong wit? I think that is one of the most important qualities to have.

Absolutely, it’s normally under valued on the left.

It’s hard to put that one into your resume?


It’s true, a lot of my favourite writers were people like H.L. Melkin, Shaw, Voltaire and the author of Gulliver’s Travels?


Jonathan Swift, yes.

Does that the come from your prankster side?

Yah, yah

Are you still a prankster?


No pails on top of doors?

No, no [Mr. Broadbent said in a reflective tone]

The staff doesn’t like that as much?

I do have three nuns that I purchased recently. [Mr. Broadbent points to three nun dolls standing on his side table.]  I have three women that work for me.

Is there any connection there?

 Yes, I asked them to choose between being the Witches of Eastwick or these three nuns, which would they opt for?

It’s quite the extreme


Did they give you an answer?

No, they refused to engage in the discussion.

[More laughter]

In terms of Canadian history, the work that Tommy Douglas did in Saskatchewan has it been ignored?

No I don’t think its been ignored. I don’t know, I mean, I have no idea what’s in high school textbooks. I don’t know if it has been ignored? I would be surprised if it was ignored. This is something Tommy would have appreciated, the longer he has been dead the more people are prepared to say something positive about him. That is the kind of crack he would have made about himself. So now he is universally seen as the father of Medicare in Canada.

By all political parties?

Yah, no one would seriously dispute that. And speaking of humour, he was my major political influence. I remember listening to him speak in Oshawa, either I was in high school or early university and he was a master…

Of oratory?

 Yah and of humour in politics and in fact, people used to leave listening to Tommy and they would remember the jokes he told more than the political point he made.. A master of humour and self-deppracating humour, which ought to be the essence of all politicians’ humour – to make fun of themselves. But he was a great and inspiring hope. He once told me personally that as a politician a major function was to convince people that there is was hope for the future.

Can conveying a sense of hope can shadow issues, real day-to-day struggles that people face?

No, quite the contrary, he would mean to give reasons for hope too. For example, I would make a distinction, as I am sure he would too, between optimism and hope. Optimism is not always justified, but one hopes that hope is always a possibility. To live with a sense of hope, is to live with a sense of possibility for change. In conveying a senses of hope, he would be the last to say that this should be based on inaccurate understanding of what’s going on, quite the contrary. An obligation of a politician is to yes, convey a sense of hope, but to ground it on reasons on why that hope is justified. That is one reason why I support Jack Layton for leader of my party. He goes around burbling a sense of hope all the time, sorry, not burbling – it isn’t the right word, but bubbling, you know. Hope is essential in politics, but it is hope that should be well grounded in the possibilities of action. If you don’t have any answers then you should stay out of politics

If that was a prerequisite, then many politicians wouldn’t be allowed in.

And if you have too many answers then you should stay out of politics.


Your political and family history is deeply connected to the Motors in Oshawa. How do you reconcile your party’s environmental platform with your personal connection to the auto industry?

Jack Layton, one of the reasons I supported him for leader of my party is because he was ahead of the curve, politically, on environmental concerns. And to his credit, he worked with Buzz Hargrove of the Canadian Auto Workers Union to formulate a plan for a so-called “green car” – not to abolish the automobile industry, but to start making more automobiles that are environmentally friendly. I think much more can be done; I welcome Canadian legislation on this matter. Whatever improvement we have now in cars, in fuel consumption and safety is as a result of good activists, such as Ralph Nader, especially on safety issues. But then the state of California legislated on both, on environment issues and on safety. The state of California, which I think is still roughly the size of Canada, gave the industry five years or so to comply with the legislation. The point I am making is that you don’t wait for the market to settle these things out. It was not in the interest of any of these companies to do it on their own, but that is changing a bit. The one company now that seems to understand, from a market point of view, is Toyota, with their new Prius. They can’t sell enough in the States or in Canada this year and the other companies are playing catch up. It was legislation that set major improvements in standards. So there is no inconsistency in supporting jobs for the men and women I grew up with in my hometown Oshawa. I am sure as we are sitting here that the regional benefits of an automobile, which gives a high degree of personal freedom, cannot be contested. With an automobile, you can travel outside your village/city shaping your own time schedule, but I don’t think they should dominate our cities the way they have. What we do need are green cars and to get away from the dependence on fossil fuels.

Tell which date you think is the worst in Canadian political history?

  1. February 24, 1942 – orders issued to evacuate all persons of Japanese origin to “protective areas.”
  2. October 17, 1970 – the War Measures Act was enacted.
  3. November 5, 1981 – the “night of the long knives.”
  4. May 7, 2004 – royal assent given to Public Safety Act.

There is no comparison between the first two; they are in a league by themselves. The Japanese internment was more enduring and deeper than the enactment of the War Measures Act. The property of the interned, in many cases, was taken away. As well, terrible harm was done to families and especially on a culture that deals with shame on a much different level than western culture. It was a horrible and barbarous act. I worked hard to bring this issue to the forefront of the House of Commons and I give credit to Prime Minister Mulroney for the redress he extended to the victims and their families. As well, second and third-generation Japanese Canadians struggled and really fought for it as an issue. It was a terrible injustice to Japanese Canadians.

The War Measures Act was also an injustice and I don’t think anyone was every convicted, I am not sure, but I think that is the case. There were hundreds of arrests, without a single justification; there was no evidence. It was bad day for human rights in Canada. In fact, when Laporte was murdered, there were very interesting psychological games occurring. I suspect more Canadians believe that Laporte was murdered before the War Measures Act was brought in, but in fact, he was murdered after. The War Measures Act, itself may well have contributed to the abominable killing. Terrorism is awful, that point must be made. But my point is that we had enough provisions in the Criminal Code to handle the October Crisis.

The night of the long knives, well that was a different kind of thing. No one was physically assaulted, no one had their property taken away and I ultimately believe that no rights were violated. It was unfortunate and had long lasting repercussions. The majority of the participants there had no premeditated intention of reaching an agreement in those circumstances. It eventually became clear that Mr. Lévesque was not interested in making a deal. I felt terrible that Quebec was excluded which has resulted in consequences that we are still living with. But, it was a political process, I got involved, my party got involved, and committed to the details even before we knew that René Lévesque was going to opt out of the whole thing. It is not always something, when your involved in those processes, you can see what else is going to unfold even in the immediate circumstances, let alone the long-term consequences. I firmly believe that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the amending formula and, I have even come to agree that the notwithstanding clause, which I saw as something expedient at the time, same with the way Trudeau did, is a good idea. It was a very unhappy moment in Canadian history that Quebec was not a part of it, but when you look at the substance of the deal, the elements themselves are sound.

The current minister of justice has said that it [The Public Safety Act] is currently under review and it should be. Although I am not a lawyer, a number of technical rights people have when they are charged with something are limited by this Act and it needs to be re-examined.

The NDP is a party based on principles rooted in a socialist tradition, which in the eyes of many requires it to be held to higher standards then perhaps some of the other major parties. Judy Steed’s book, a biography about you, is called The Pursuit of Power, which states that your argument for the pursuit of power is as follows:

“In politics, you have a moral obligation to pursue power. Only if you have power can you make the changes you believe in. In order to get power, you have to make compromises.”

That’s the Oakeshott in me.

How have you balanced these three Ps: Power, politics and principles? Any regrets?

No I don’t. Democratic socialist politics is about persuading your neighbours to go with you one step at a time. You always have to meet people half way and respect their human dignity. You can assume the rightness of your own arguments because you have thought them through, but you can’t assume that you have any more commitment to the common good than they do. In persuading them, you have to break them away from some of their old convictions or ideas to introduce them to a new set and that means meeting them half way. I believe in a much more egalitarian structure of Income tax then we have now. But, it would be suicidal if I stood out on the corner of Sparks on a soapbox preaching about redistributing our resources to a degree that I would like to. It is the key reason why I came back into politics, our society has become much too unequal and we are relying much more then we ought to on the market. So we pursue people to move more closely in a communitarian and egalitarian direction.

What about in 1980 when Trudeau asked you to come into cabinet for the specific purpose of orchestrating the creation of a national energy program?

No regret at all, it would have torn the party apart. He had a majority in parliament. It wasn’t a minority government. Trudeau and I agreed on a lot of things but there were a number of things we didn’t agree on. It was not a matter of bad faith, if we had had a decisions six months later in cabinet and we disagreed on something, he still had his majority in the government and if we voted the other way, we were out and he retains his government without any problem. We didn’t really have much bargaining strength, that’s the key thing. The other thing, the party itself at that point in history was not prepared to join a coalition, even if it had been a genuine coalition, which it wasn’t. It would have been disastrous for the party, because Trudeau was personally unpopular in western Canada at that time. To get back to the policy, I told him then that he should bring in his national energy program, bring on your charter and the constitutional renewal package and those elements we agree with, we will support you. Indeed, there was quite an exchange of letters between him and myself on the constitutional package. Our agreement was formalized and he agreed to make more changes to the package. It was tough going at times.

You sat as Caucus Chair for David Lewis during the 72 –74 Liberal minority government. You witnessed first hand the effort made by the NDP to push progressive legislation, which did culminate in the creation of Petro-Canada and reform to Canada’s pension system. Then as a result of the party’s pursuit of principles, the NDP lost fifty percent of its seats in the next election, including its passionate leader. Did this set a precedent for the NDP’s rules of engagement for future minority governments? Is life after a minority what counts?

Very good question, we might well be going through the same process now. If Mr. Martin is sensible in response the democratic votes in the country, he should bring in, through the next few years, progressive legislation. Not only on the progressive policies that he campaigned on – health care, education and the environment, but also on what the Bloc and the NDP said on those measures. Then he would have majority support and following the ‘74 example, have a very good chance of getting the political benefits of it. While, the NDP has to do everything in can to ensure that its role is recognized.

 Corporate Social Responsibility, this is a topic you immersed yourself in as a co-chair of the Canadian Democracy and Corporate Accountability commission.
In the Commission’s report, The new balance sheet, recommendation 17 suggests that the Canadian government should advocate for the creation of a social clause in international trade agreements that recognized basic human rights and environmental standards and recommendation 18 advocates for a multinational convention through the UN making it a violation not to meet basic labour standards.

While, recommendation 20 argues that if this is not done after three years, Canada should move unilaterally to introduce legislation making it a violation for companies incorporated or legally operating as foreign corporations in Canada not to meet, in their over-seas operations, at least minimum human-rights standards.

Do you think that Canada, as a middle power, has the capability to implement such a unilateral action without serious economic repercussions?

I think so, we are taking about serious human-rights violations. We talked a lot about this, including the three of the five Commissioners who are former CEOs of companies. We are not talking about ninety percent of activities overseas.  We are talking about very isolated cases like Talisman in the Sudan. A way of doing this is to internationalize the Westray Bill, it was passed by parliament last year and it states that managers are subject to the Criminal Code provisions for violation of the health and safety requirements of workers in Canada. It is a very important precedent. Well, if we can do it for companies in Canada, it is good enough to do overseas. As well, we already have a law on the books for protecting children from sex predators, where Canadians who violate children abroad face penalties in Canada. So the point is, if we can protect children abroad, why can’t we protect the parents of these kids from Canadian corporations that violate human rights?