iNTERVIEW: Audrey McLaughlin

(February 1995) I last interviewed Audrey McLaughlin for The Wire in March of 1992. At that time the Federal N.D.P. were considered by many to be in a position to seriously challenge for power in Ottawa. That, of course, changed after the 1993 election when they lost 35 seats, and their official party status in the House of Commons. McLaughlin, however, retained her seat in that election as the member for the Yukon by capturing 43 percent of the vote. She is currently the interim-leader of the N.D.P. after deciding last year, to step aside when the party chooses a new leader in October of this year. McLaughlin was first elected to the House of Commons in a July 1987 by-election. In 1989, she became the first woman in to be elected leader of a national political party in Canada. Prior to entering politics, McLaughlin was executive director of the Toronto branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, a teacher in Ghana, a mink-farmer, and a social worker. She has travelled widely in Europe, Africa, and South America. She called me from Whitehorse one Friday afternoon recently…

By Gerry McCarthy

Audrey McLaughLin: Is this Gerry?
Gerry McCarthy: Yes.
AM: This is Audry McLaughlin.
GM: Hi. Thank you for calling… let me start by asking you about the Federal Budget. What was your general reaction to it?
AM: Well, first of all, I think it’s short-term yet, but we’re going to pay in the long run in terms of the re-structuring of the country. I guess some of the aspects of it that I see most concerning are one: it doesn’t do anything to address tax unfairness, In other words, if you made 100,000 dollars, and had subsidized meals in restaurants, and a box at the Skydome… you were a pretty happy person the day of the budget. Because you weren’t touched at all. It didn’t do anything significantly on family trusts. Very little on the corporate side, and nothing that most corporations wont get around. So, again the individuals are still hit disproportionately on the tax end. So that was one part of it I think they really missed on. As I said recently in an article I wrote, in terms of the structuring of our country… in terms of regional fairness… and in terms of the kind of programming that we’ve come to expect, like a national health care system, this certainly was not a budget straight from the heart. It was straight through the heart. I think there is no doubt that we are seeing through this budget, unless we’re all successful in changing this, certainly an end to a national health care system. I don’t think that’s an over estimation. As you know, the Canadian Medical Association has expressed their concerns as well.
GM: Just to pick up on the imbalance in our tax system. I’ve almost grown weary of pointing out how unfair the system is… last summer Maude Barlow in an interview said to me that she thinks many Canadians realize the underlying unfairness of it, but they fear that if corporations are taxed in an equitable manner they’ll either pass it on to consumer, or leave the country. What are your thoughts on that?
AM: Well, I think right at the moment people are beginning to take a second look at exactly what’s actually being done. Initially, as you know, the reaction to the budget was sort of: “Gee, they didn’t hit me too badly. I guess it’s OK”. That’s what I meant about then very short-term aspect of it. On reflection, I’m certainly hearing more and more from people (and we’re getting letters) who are concerned about the health care system, concerned about the fact that the commitment to child care was abandoned. The concern that many of the things which are being treated almost as frills are fundamental to our economic system. I mean there are many studies that indicate that our kind of national health care system is one of the biggest subsidies to business. Now, it’s one that I think happens to be a good idea. But it is a subsidy. Because in the United States, for example, where businesses have to contribute much more it is, of course, the cost of the business.
GM: On the cuts in the actual budget… many people fear that if Martin cut too deeply he could give the recession a second wind. Were you surprised at the depth of the cuts?
AM: I think there are two things. One is the cuts on the expenditure side which were anticipated. What I am concerned about is that I don’t think people recognize what this means in terms of public services. For example, when your grandmother, or mother, try to go to a nursing home what is that going to mean in the average life of the individual. Also, the spin off effect from an increase in unemployment? If the minister had some targets to reduce unemployment by one percent. That is a significant contributor to the tax revenue, and also less social spending. The other thing that is quite a concern is: the Minister is fond, as was the previous Minister of Finance with the Tories, about getting the fundamentals right. Well, if we don’t get the fundamentals right in terms of the role of the Bank of Canada, a one or two percent increase in the interest rate wipes out an awful lot of expenditure saving in the bling of an eye. I think that’s not addressed in the budget at all. To some extent we are held hostage to international markets and rates, so it’s not just a simple snap of the finger. But there are many economists now who are looking at the role of the Bank of Canada and saying “Why aren’t we holding more of our foreign debt as we did in the past.” Inflation is well under one percent, the Bank of Canada said that’s what we want, and we want to make that a priority. But nothing much has changed. We have an interest rate level that is at the level is was at in the two previous recessions. So we have to be concerned about that, and that’s not really addressed in the budget at all.
GM: Before I move away from the budget, I want to ask you about something that Professor John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out in his recent book. He makes the case that a highly unequal distribution of income can be dysfunctional as regards the performance of an economic system. Do you think that’s something that could resonate more with people.
AM: I think there are many examples of when determinants are ignored that effect, and make a dysfunctional economy. I’m a great fan of Galbraith.” I agree with the comment that you made. But let me give you a couple of examples. Take the environment, and we’ve seen again cutbacks in this budget to the environment, and we’ve seen again cutbacks in this budget to the environment including environmental cleanup. The principle many of us support about sustainable communities and sustainable development does seem to have been abandoned by the government in this budget. Now, if we look to Eastern Europe, for example, where the environment was sacrificed for economic development. We see that they are in a disastrous situation economically and health wise. You can’t ignore that. Similarly if you look at ignoring issues of equality and human rights and injustice. Look at South Africa. These do effect economies. Similarly as Professor Galbraith points out, the inequities are not without their own effects on the economy. For example, we seem to have accepted some kind of mythology that unemployment is free. Well, the cost of unemployment in direct costs to the Canadian economy, for payments and so on, is about 42 billion dollars. That’s more now than the deficit. That’s not talking about social cost, and costs to communities and families and so on. Which are just as important, but more difficulty to quantify. So there are those of us who keep trying to get these points across, and we’ll continue to do so. I think we have to have some kind of vision. I mean there doesn’t seem to be a vision of where we’re going. It would be naïve to say that we wouldn’t expect some response to international markets. We are in that position. There is a serious debt and deficit problem. Can’t deny that. The question is… if we have destroyed all the infrastructure of the country to achieve a short-term goal what will we have left? There were three words that were not used in this budget at all: one was youth, one was poverty, and the other was job-creation. When we look at youth unemployment we’ve never really undertaken a dedicated program, and policy to deal with that.
GM: I want to talk to you about public life- from your experience what is the greatest challenge of public life, and how have you met that challenge?
AM: Well I guess the greatest challenge is, interestingly enough, not intellectual. Because you can learn things and develop, and so on. It’s really for me, managing time. I find that, and I’m not complaining at all because I chose this work and fortunately the electors helped me to do that, but you look at your life in terms of balance. Family, spiritual life, looking after your health, learning French, doing the things you have to do. Going between the riding and Ottawa. I just find that time is probably the most difficult thing. I know that sounds fairly weird, but there are responsibilities in the riding that you have to do, and responsibilities in Ottawa that you have to do.
GM: Can it be all consuming?
AM: I think it can, and one of the real challenges to people like myself who are single, and who’s family is grown up, is you don’t have someone saying: “Hey, wait a minute you better do some other things here”. For me, it probably is all consuming. Now in my life, and given at my age and stage, I don’t find that’s something that’s negative for me. I’m very concentrated on the work I enjoy, and this is my life. Other than to try and work in some exercise, and trying to see my family from time-to-time. That’s OK with me right now. But I know how difficult it is for people who have young families. But it can be done.
GM: From your perspective what’s the most acute social problem in Canada?
AM: Wow. (laughs) There’s certainly a range. It really is hard to talk about one thing, because if you talk about child poverty of families, and that’s a very serious problem, because of what that means for the future. So if you want to approach it from what we are building as a society I would look to issues like child poverty as being extremely serious. That, of course, reflects the economy and jobs and unemployment and all those other issues. I’ve been spending a lot of time this week on issues of violence. There’s been some workshops here, and a recent study came out on woman in the Yukon. Where violence against women is a very major issue is that it really cuts across all race, income-levels, and geography. It’s one issue that no one, or no one family or community, is immune from. That is a very serious problem in our society, because of what again it’s saying to young people and children (who may be living in an abusive family) about the priorities in our own society. So I guess, there are many social problems, but those are two that I think are quite serious that we haven’t yet addressed in a really serious way.
GM: OK… that’s great Audrey…
AM: Nice to talk to you.
GM: Thanks.
AM: Anytime.