Exclusive Interview: The Line chats with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh
On C-10, CRB, coalition governments, and what the hell is happening with the Green Party.
This week, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh opened a Zoom with Line columnist Jen Gerson to discuss a range of issues, from C-10, to Canada Day and post-pandemic recovery. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jen Gerson: Let's talk about C-10. Where do you guys stand on that right now?
Jagmeet Singh: For me, there's no question that foreign companies should not be given an advantage over local companies. We campaigned on taking on the web giants; Netflix, Google, Amazon Prime, and Disney+. There's no way they should be given a free ride where they can make money off Canadians and not contribute while local Canadian distributors have to contribute. There's no way we would ever let that happen so we are absolutely in favour of taking on the web giants and taking on foreign companies that have preferential treatment. And for us there's no question that we would never compromise freedom of expression. Those are our two principles; freedom of expression has to be protected, and we have to take on the web giants.
JG: That element is the least contentious; the idea that you would tax Netflix or require Netflix to provide more funding or influence for Canadian content is not a particularly controversial position. I think where (C-10) starts to become controversial is where, as people like Michael Geist point out, you're applying the Broadcasting Act potentially to people who have popular YouTube channels. How does that justify regulation? For example, how does this bill apply to things like Jordan Peterson's YouTube channel, or Gad Saad's channel? Are they going to be down-played in YouTube's algorithm, or held to Canada's Broadcasting Act standards under this new bill? I think that is where the crux of the concerns with this bill lies. Where do you stand on this?
JS: Right now there is an algorithm run by YouTube, by Google. They get to choose what gets brought up or downplayed. It's not like a truly independent, objective, merit-based system. There is an algorithm. The question is: do we give that algorithm to a foreign company or do Canadians have a say. I would way rather Canadians have a say. Why trust Mark Zuckerberg to run that algorithm? He's not any sort of moral leader who makes good decisions for people. I don't trust him, why would I trust private enterprise? Right now the algorithm is chosen by the interests of a foreign company and there is no Canadian say. I would rather we have a say. That we encourage Canadian content to get some advantage in Canada. Of course we should.
JG: Wouldn't a better approach for this problem, then, to say rather than take this through the Broadcasting Act, just say, look, we want these major tech companies to crack open their algorithms and make them more transparent and thus more open to observation and criticism and potential changing them in an open and obvious way. Wouldn't that be better than to impose massively outdated standard analogue Broadcasting Act approaches onto something that is new to what that act was intended to regulate in the first place?
JS: The contrast is do you trust the foreign, private corporation that's a multi-billion dollar corporation? Or, what I choose — having Canadian input. Having Canadians have a say. I would rather Canadians have a say.
JG: It's a false dichotomy. What if I trust neither the foreign companies, nor the CRTC to regulate this effectively?
JS: With Canadians, we've got some input. We can criticize it, we can improve it, we can tweak it. With the foreign companies, we've got no power over that.
JG: But we have astonishingly little input over what the CRTC regulates and how it regulates it. I think even a great deal of what happens with the CRTC happens behind closed doors. The CRTC, the board is appointed by political appointees. So why would I trust the CRTC more than I trust Facebook?
JS: We have way more control over that. I would 100% rather there is Canadian input in terms of giving Canadians an advantage rather than Mark Zuckerberg's control over who gets to see what. For sure Canadians should get a say, that's a non-issue to me, no debate.
JG: To me, this is setting up a false dichotomy. It's the assumption that the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world are evil and yet the Canadian input is going to be unbiased, or not prone to the same kinds of political incentives.
JS: In the same way that we ensure that Canadian content is promoted on our radios, on our TVs, we should have that same impact on our digital platforms absolutely. I believe in that.
JG: If you wanted Canadians to have more impact on this, would you support, for example, making the CRTC board an elected position as opposed to an appointed position.
JS: Yeah, that would be great. Bringing in more accountability for the way we run our own institutions is awesome. I think we should go beyond that and look at the way our commissioners are appointed.
JG: This is a very, very wonky issue so I don't want to spend too much time on it just because I care about it. C-10 is not the clickbait driver. I do want to talk about the election. Lots of talk now about a late summer, early fall election. It looks like the NDP is doing reasonably well in the polls. What do you anticipate? Do you think we're going to be at the polls by the end of the year?
JS: I think that yes, the Liberals are going to call an election and I think they're going to call it sometime late this summer or early fall, for an October election date. The reason is they're interested in what's in their party's interest and what is going to help them get a majority. I am also going to benefit — we are in a good position, better than we were in 2019 in terms of polling numbers and money, but I think we should always be focusing on what is in the best interests of Canadians and I don't think it's the right thing to do. The pandemic is not going to be over by then.
JG: It seems to me that the late summer, early fall timing is most ideal for the Liberals because at that point almost everyone will have been vaccinated who wants to be vaccinated, so they'll be able to do victory laps on the vaccine file; and chances are if there is some kind massive post-pandemic economic crash or meltdown, they're going to be getting that vote in before that crash happens. A lot of people are talking about inflation, we don't know if that's going to happen. There's a lot of concern about what's happening in the housing market — it's exceptionally frothy, so there's big fears around that. And we also just don't know what the long term impact of sitting on so much borrowed money is going to be. It might be nothing! It might be catastrophic. We've taken some big gambles to manage COVID-19. So if shit is going to hit the fan, it's probably going to hit the fan fall-to-December or later. Is that what you think is the rationale for the timing here?
JS: I think the rationale comes down to something as crass as the Liberals want to be in power with the majority and don't like the fact that we have been fighting to get more out for people. We have used our position to push and fight and get big victories to make peoples' lives better. They're thinking about what's in their own personal interests, and they're not assessing what is in the interests of Canadians.
JG: Is there any significant divergence between you and the Liberals in terms of how you want to manage a post-pandemic recovery?
JS: Yeah, huge. A couple of immediate examples. Liberals are cutting the help that people who cannot go back to work receive. They're cutting that help by $800 per month. People are using the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), the updated version of CERB. There are just under 2 million Canadians that still use it because their sectors are not able to return, they can't go back to work — the tourism sector, the service sector, any festival related sector. Those folks rely on CRB. The Liberals are cutting that by $800 a month.
We wouldn't cut that, we would restore that. What we would do is go after all those wealthy corporations in Canada that took public money but then paid out dividends to their shareholders — if you pay your dividends, you're claiming that you're making profits. If you're making profits, why did they need public help? Claw back that money. What about all those companies that paid out not just dividends, but also increased bonuses to the executives, or laid off workers instead of hiring workers? I would go after all those wealthy corporations, go after their money. I would stop the banks who took public money and are increasing banking fees in a pandemic. We have powers at the federal level to stop that; the Liberals are allowing them to take public money and they gouge Canadians at a time when they need to use their bank services more than usual.
We would take an entirely different approach. We would go after the corporations, and continue to help the people. We would tax the ultra rich; the Liberals voted against the wealth tax and the pandemic profiteering tax. We said we needed to bring in pharmacare, the Liberals voted against pharmacare. We would take profit out of long-term care, they voted against that. These are very fundamental, key beliefs that we differ on.
JG: Two points to that; firstly, going after wealthy corporations that have taken public money — this is always a people pleaser. Right across the board, I think the support from conservative to progressive is going to be fairly even for a policy like that; but, realistically, Canada is sitting on, what, a $100 billion deficit. It's very unlikely you're going to be able to claw back the benefits of these corporations to the extent that we're going to be able to continue to fund CRB and other similar programs as aggressively as we have indefinitely. I think the PBO has even stated that we can continue spending at this rate for two years, and then we're 'effed. So I would challenge you a bit on that front.
And then the key question I have for you; do you think the divergence between your post-pandemic recovery strategy and the Liberals' is significant enough that you would not be able to form a coalition government with them should they form another minority?
JS: Our divergence is fundamental. They have chosen, it's a choice, there is lots of money that is on the table that we can claw back from corporations that should not have taken (pandemic relief). Instead of going after that, they're choosing to claw back from people who need it the most. That is a choice. I said we should tax the ultra rich, which the PBO has said would be a significant increase in raising revenue. We're the only party talking about raising revenue off the ones who have benefitted from this pandemic. The wealthiest billionaires have increased their wealth. There are some corporations that have made record profits during the pandemic; we want to tax them. We talked about taxing the web giants that aren't being taxed right now. … We were able to get things done despite the fact that the Liberals don't share the same values as us. I am confident that New Democrats would continue to do that whatever parliament looks like. We are always going to fight to get help to people.
JG: So even if the Liberals wound up in a minority position, you would still see yourself as, basically, being partners with them in a coalition?
JS: We were less partners — because it wasn't like we were consulted, we fought — we would continue to fight to get help to people and continue to raise concerns that the Liberals completely ignore … I'm looking forward to forming a New Democrat government, where we can lead the charge. But whatever Canadians choose, we're going to find ways to fight to get help to people.
JG: Obviously, the revelation of the unmarked burial site at a former residential school in Kamloops, and the apparent terror attack in London, have shifted a lot of peoples' perceptions about Canada; racism and hate in Canada. It's very interesting that it has prompted a set of dialogues around Canada as a country. Some people in the country are not celebrating Canada Day. Do you have any particular thoughts on what's going on on that front?
JS: I've always taken this position that there are certain things that we're really proud of that we've done as a country, and there are certain things that are really unique. Canada has a strong health-care system; it has been welcoming to people from around the world. But that doesn't deny the reality that Indigenous people have faced a genocide, and continue to face injustice and that has to be something we fix. While we have shown the world the strength of immigration and multiculturalism, there is still racism and real threats to peoples' safety and security that we can't ignore. There is systemic racism that exists even though Canada has a lot of things going for it, there are a lot of problems.
Days like Canada Day, for me, are an opportunity to think of some of the victories, some of the positive things, but also a time to recommit to fixing the problems and building the Canada that we want to see, where there is justice for the first peoples of this land, where we tackle systemic racism. I take the position that celebration doesn't mean ignoring the problems. It means acknowledging things that are victories, the things that are positive, and then also acknowledging the problems and fixing them.
JG: If we're talking about systemic racism, is it time for a more wholehearted condemnation of Quebec’s Bill 21?
JS: Pretty much every day of the 2019 election, every single day I went to Quebec, I condemned it, I fought it, I opposed it. My sheer existence is an opposition to the bill, and I continue to express that. I think it's powerful that people in Quebec are fighting that bill, and I've spoken with those people. They are opposing it at every step.
JG: Would you like to see more from the Liberals on that particular front?
JS: I think everybody should come together and be united on this. There is no doubt that discriminatory laws make our society worse off. A young woman who wears a hijab and dreams of being a teacher can't do that not because of her talent or her skill or her passion, her commitment to education, but simply because of the way she dresses. That hurts all of us. Everybody should be condemning a bill that limits people just because of the way they dress.
JG: Can I finish up by throwing you a curve ball?
JS: Go for it.
JG: What's going on with the Greens, man?
JS: Yeah … that's … I've never been focused on, I've always been focused on who is in government. I don't care about the opposition party beyond saying it is clear that in this pandemic, we are the only party that can show a track record of pushed forward, fought, and won, victories that have made peoples' lives better.
JG: Is the (potential) collapse of the Greens an opportunity for you guys, though? Is there an opportunity for you to scoop up votes, or votes in parliament there?
JS: The polls show that everyone is open to voting for us because they see the New Democrats are committed to fighting for them. There's a lot more that people need, and we are the ones that are in their corner.
JG: Jenica Atwin crossed the floor to the Liberals. Was there ever an opportunity for her to cross the floor to the NDP?
JS: We don't have a policy that allows for it. It's just not an option. What we have instead is that you can become an Independent, and in the next election run as an NDP. So that was not on the table as an option.
JG: Now you have to go vote, but this was a great conversation.
JS: Yeah, I appreciate it, thank you.
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