Saturday, April 7, 2012

Howard Pawley Reviewed

Pawley, Howard. 2011. Keep True: A Life In Politics. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Reviewed by Errol Black
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives - Manitoba
Socialist Studies / √Čtudes socialistes 8 (1) Winter 2012

Howard Pawley, the premier of Manitoba from 1981 to 1988, has written an interesting and important book documenting his life as a politician of the left during an era which saw the rise of the New Right and neoconservatism in Canada. Along with the insights we get into Pawley’s character, we learn much about the New Democratic Party (NDP) as Manitoba’s dominant political party. 285

Pawley joined the Manitoba Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1954, and in 1957, at the age of 22, became both organizer and party president. Early on, he characterized himself as a democratic socialist and activist. Notably, he challenged changes in party policy and direction that he thought detrimental to the party’s development and future. He opposed the Winnipeg Declaration of 1956 on the grounds that it was “a watering-down of the anti-capitalist principles of the Regina Manifesto” (13) and the formation of a new party because he feared domination by organized labour would compromise the movement.

The NDP’s 1969 election victory was a watershed in Manitoba politics. For two terms, Ed Schreyer and the NDP provided a competent, progressive, social democratic government for the people of Manitoba. As a rookie Member of the Legislative Assembly, Pawley became the Minister of Municipal Affairs and was given the task of establishing public auto insurance. In the face of strong opposition, Pawley and the government stood fast and prevailed: “It was our belief that the NDP, a populist Left movement, often operates best when from time to time it confronts those among the most wealthy and powerful in society” (32).

During its second term, however, the government’s acceptance of federal wage and price controls and its failure to deal decisively with a bitter and protracted strike at Griffin Steel Industries in Transcona in 1976-77 cooled labour’s enthusiasm for the government. The NDP lost the 1977 election to a Progressive Conservative (PC) Party led by Sterling Lyon that campaigned on a platform of fiscal and social conservatism – a harbinger of the neoconservative onslaught to come.

Pawley with striking CUPE members 1982
Elected NDP leader in 1979, Pawley reached out to the party’s grassroots, insisted that economic issues be front and centre in the campaign and worked to repair the damaged relationship with organized labour. He also became more sensitive, he observes, to achieving a balance between principles and pragmatism. He learned “that I would have to choose between a socialist party leading public opinion and being more pragmatic. Not everything we seek can be achieved in the short term....This does not mean, however, betraying one’s ultimate objective - a more equitable society” (103).

In the 1981 election, the NDP returned to power. As Canada sunk into a serious recession, the NDP responded with a multi-faceted counter-recessionary program based on a social contract with the Manitoba Government Employees Association, a Jobs Fund and an acceleration of capital projects (especially Hydro projects). Pawley explains that these “programs reflected a social democratic philosophy whose objective was to gradually reduce sharp disparities in income distribution” (136). The favourable performance of the Manitoba economy relative to other provinces reflected, in large part, the impact of this program.

The government faced other significant challenges. The most serious was the language controversy which had its roots in the overturning by the Supreme Court of a law passed in 1890 that denied French language rights in Manitoba. The Pawley government rectified this situation in the face of bitter opposition from the PCs and other conservative forces. Pawley understandably refers to this battle as “a political nightmare” (chapter 6).

Despite these challenges, the government pushed for improvements in labour legislation and employment standards, including First Contract legislation, pay equity legislation, increases to minimum wage and social assistance, and changes to the Workplace Health and Safety Act to ensure workers “the right to know, the right to refuse, and the right to participate” (170).

After the 1986 election, the NDP was reduced to a slim majority. The Pawley government continued to bring forward progressive reforms, including the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Human Rights Code, new environmental legislation and Final Offer Selection as an option to settle labour disputes involving small bargaining units with little power.

Federal-provincial relations were difficult. This was particularly true of Brian Mulroney’s treachery involving the CF-18 aircraft maintenance contract; the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, which was opposed by Pawley and his government; and the Meech Lake Accord, which was endorsed by Pawley, but was rejected by the party and ultimately met its demise in Manitoba because of the actions of NDP members in the legislature under a PC government. In summing up his experience of intergovernmental relations, Pawley admits that he was the “‘odd guy out,’ perceived by [Mulroney and] many of my colleagues as too left-wing and confrontational” (205).

The government’s popular support was undermined by growing opposition to the Meech Lake Accord, big increases in auto insurance rates and – following Keynesian principles – rising taxes with a more robust economy to reduce deficits and debt. Pawley’s government was done in when Jim Walding, previously passed over for a cabinet position, voted on 8 March 1988 with the opposition against the government’s budget. As a result, Pawley resigned as premier and party leader. In the ensuing election, the NDP, led by Gary Doer, was reduced to 12 seats.

There is much to be learned from this book about Pawley, the NDP and political life in Manitoba during his time in politics. From 1969 on, the NDP was, for all intents and purposes, the left in Manitoba, with most party members identifying themselves as democratic socialists committed to using the powers of an activist state to reduce inequalities in income and power. This commitment was reflected in policy agendas that resulted in significant improvements in the material conditions of individuals and families at the bottom of the income distribution, greater rights for women and minorities, and labour law reforms that strengthened the labour movement and improved the lot of all workers. There was, within the party, an appreciation of both the need to build the party on an ongoing basis and the importance of annual conventions to bring together party activists to debate principles and policy. Along with this, there was also an appreciation of the vital relationship between the party and labour. 287

The NDP regained power in 1999. The NDP government, re-elected to a fourth consecutive term in October 2011, continues to lead the country with new policies and programs of a progressive nature. At the same time, however, there is a recognition that the party has moved to the right on fiscal and social issues in the 23 years since Pawley retired. There is, moreover, greater emphasis on winning elections as opposed to building the party and the movement. The vision has dimmed. As a consequence, the local constituency associations have become more subdued.

The question that is left after reading this book is: can the NDP rediscover its democratic socialist vision of equality and rejuvenate its politics? It is important to continue to win elections; but can the NDP do that while maintaining the democratic socialist vision that characterized Pawley’s political practice?

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