The movement builder
‘You can either choose the faux progressive or real progressive’
Niki Ashton is a political animal.
Her father, Steve, is a former cabinet minister in their home province, and right now is running for the provincial NDP leadership.
But Ashton also entered politics at a young age — she was 23 when she won the NDP nomination in her northern Manitoba riding, spurred on to challenge an incumbent who opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage. Ashton broke through to the House of Commons in the next federal election in 2008 and has been a prominent New Democrat on the Hill ever since.
In the current race to replace Thomas Mulcair as federal leader, Ashton has taken on the mantle as the champion of a new generation — her generation — which she predicts will become the most influential voting bloc in the coming years.
Her prescription for winning their support involves steering the NDP to the left of the political spectrum. Ashton heaps scorn on the “corporate greed” she blames for causing climate change, creating economic inequality and leaving too many people to work in contract jobs without benefits or pensions. When she launched her bid for the leadership in March, she took dead aim at “the power of Canada’s elites, the rich and powerful who are benefitting from growing inequality in our country.”
She argues the NDP lost its way in 2015 under Mulcair when it allowed the Liberals to appeal to young and left-leaning voters that yearn for true progressive government.
Her campaign is about bringing them home to her party and pointing out that the Liberal government — which approved the Trans Mountain pipeline from the Alberta oilsands to the B.C. coast and broke its promise to change the electoral system — isn’t as progressive as some voters were led to believe.
“Trudeau has broken his key promises,” she told the Star during the final week before members started voting for a new leader. “The battle for engaging our demographic is one that is on progressive terms, and you can either choose the faux progressive or the real progressive.”
Karl Bélanger, a longtime NDP insider, said Ashton is the candidate in the race who has most tried to channel America’s Bernie Sanders and Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn — social democrats who sprang to prominence on unabashed leftist campaigns that appealed to voters’ discontent.
“She’s been more radical — (appealing to the) left spectrum of the NDP,” he said.
As such, Ashton said she was “surprised” when Peter Julian, a British Columbia MP who was the first person to jump into the leadership race, went on to endorse her opponent Jagmeet Singh after Julian dropped out in July. They shared key policies, such as their joint promise to make post-secondary education free and block three major pipeline projects (Energy East, Trans Mountain and Keystone XL).
Once he left the race, she added, “there was this clear sense that we were the campaign taking the bold positions.” For instance, she said she is the only candidate with a “gender justice platform,” and was the first to put out policies catered to the equality of LGBTQ communities.
She argues that her campaign has actually drawn other candidates to the left, for example, when she got each of them to explicitly oppose the Trans Mountain pipeline with her call for a united stance (even though Alberta’s NDP government wants the project to go through).
With just days left before a new leader is chosen, Ashton said she feels the race is still wide open — especially if there are several rounds of voting.
“I think anything can happen.”