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Sunday, May 19, 2024


Ed Broadbent: Why We Must Move Beyond the Welfare State

Ed Broadbent gives a speech in the early 1980s. (Jeff Goode / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Ed Broadbent, a lifelong champion of social democratic politics, passed away on January 11 at the age of eighty-seven, leaving a significant void in Canada’s political landscape and marking a tragic loss for the country’s left.

Broadbent, who served as a member of parliament and was a staunch labor advocate, led Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) from 1975 to 1989. In 2011, he established the Broadbent Institute, a progressive policy research and educational organization.

A state funeral will honor Broadbent this Sunday, January 28.

On September 20th, 1968, Broadbent gave his first speech, republished below, in the House of Commons, during the first session of Canada’s 28th Parliament. At that time, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin Trudeau’s father, had just been voted into office as prime minister. The nation was captivated by “Trudeaumania,” a wave of excitement for Trudeau’s vision of a more liberal and socially progressive Canada, buoyed by recent achievements such as Medicare and the Canadian Pension Plan.

Presciently, Broadbent’s inaugural speech punched holes in this exhilaration, asserting the need for a shift towards a more participatory democracy. Broadbent’s vision laid out a path for Canada to progress beyond basic welfare initiatives toward a society that is truly just and egalitarian — a vision that remains deeply relevant today.

Now, in my short but, I hope, not completely irrelevant speech, I wish to address myself to the two issues raised by the prime minister (Mr. Trudeau). In his speech on Monday of this week, the right hon. gentleman suggested that in our discussions during the present debate we should concern ourselves with questions which relate to “the kind of country in which we want to be living and the directions in which we should be moving to build such a country.”

Earlier this year the prime minister suggested, if I understood him correctly, that in Canada we had gone about as far as we could in our efforts to construct a welfare state. Once we have Medicare established on a national basis, he implied, the structure would be almost complete.

As a member of the opposition and, more particularly perhaps, as a New Democrat, I am in the unfortunate position of having to agree with the prime minister on both issues. In short, it seems to me that the social philosophical objectives of Canada should be discussed; and second, it is true that we now have in Canada the basic structural components of a modern welfare state.

The Welfare State as Ground Floor

Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin my contribution by saying something about the second issue. The one hundred years since confederation can be divided roughly into two socioeconomic periods. Up to the 1930s Canadians were concerned with laying the foundations of a viable capitalist democracy in which our two principal cultural groups could at least coexist peacefully within the framework of a liberal constitution. The central components of a liberal democratic society were firmly established throughout the land: universal franchise; freedoms of speech, religion, press, and assembly; competing political parties; and a national banking system.

Since the 1930s we have experienced important modifications of the classical liberal structure. The more important of these include: (1) the right of trade unions to exist and to strike; (2) the gradual implementation of old age pensions; (3) some form of progressive taxation; (4) comprehensive medical and health programs; and (5) an unemployment insurance scheme. We have the core. It would, however, be both false and irresponsible for me to suggest that we have the whole apple.

No sensible Canadian would deny that these measures have made a very significant change in the kind of life the majority of our people can now experience. They have provided the quantitative basis for a qualitatively enriched life for millions of adults and children. These five changes have provided the structural core of our modern welfare state.

I emphasize the point that we have the core. It would, however, be both false and irresponsible for me to suggest that we have the whole apple. Previous speakers in this debate have ably indicated serious deficiencies which still remain and about which the government gives almost no indication of seriously concerning itself. The most glaring of these are: (1) the abysmal lack of adequate housing; (2) severe economic inequality between both individuals and regions; (3) the absence of a guaranteed annual income; and (4) an outmoded and inequitable system of taxation — a shock to the western world, I might add.

The Need for Deeper Change

Mr. Speaker, these four areas of concern should not in any way be dismissed as being of minor significance. They are the major evils of the day. They can be and should be remedied. Previous speakers from the New Democratic Party have indicated their existence and have suggested solutions in this house. Earlier in the year our leader — soon to be returned to this house — and candidates across the land discussed them directly with the Canadian people. There is little need for me, at least in this debate, to add to what has already been said.

Instead, what I wish to stress is that every one of these evils can be substantially dealt with within the existing socioeconomic structure. We do have the core of the welfare state. We need only the will to complete it. Houses can be built, taxation can be significantly modified. All this can be done without making any further significant changes in the distribution of power within Canadian society.

It is in this sense that the prime minister is almost right when he suggests that in terms of welfare we have gone about as far as we can go. It is also his implied suggestion, that it is as far as we should go, that makes me believe that the prime minister is a profoundly conservative man. His vision extends to the welfare state, but not one step beyond. His vision of the just society is what we almost have. To defend what we have and to refuse to go beyond is to cease to lead. And to cease to lead beyond the welfare state is to leave Canadians with a kind of society which is inherently inegalitarian, inherently acquisitive, and inherently unjust.

Having indicated substantial agreement with the prime minister on the nature of the welfare state I want now to proceed to suggest why we New Democrats, unlike the prime minister and the Liberal Party, cannot accept it as being an adequate kind of society. Perhaps the major objection to the welfare state is that for all its advantages, it rests on a grossly inadequate understanding of democracy. In Canada today, children are taught in schools throughout the land that our country is democratic primarily because there is more than one political party and because citizens have both the right to criticize and the right to change their rulers every few years.

This view of democracy, Mr. Speaker, is a distinctly modern phenomenon, and is in marked contrast with the understanding of democracy of both the early Greeks and nineteenth-century Europeans. Prior to our century democracy was seen by its defenders and critics alike as a kind of society in which all adults played an active, participatory role not only in the formal institutions of government but also in all the institutions which crucially affected their daily lives. Similarly, a democratic society had been seen previously as one in which all its members had an equal opportunity to develop their capacities and talents; it was not seen as one in which citizens had an equal opportunity to earn more money or advance up the class ladder. What Canadians require is a leadership deeply dedicated to the democratization of the whole of society and thoroughly committed to changing by means of law the existing power relations needed to bring this about.

It is this old view of democracy that we must once again take up. We must use its standards and apply them to Canadian society. We must once again talk about equality. We must see justice and equality as going together. Of course, Mr. Speaker, if we do this we know we will find our society grossly inadequate and significantly unjust. Every sociological study done in European and North American welfare states in recent years has revealed their inherently inegalitarian nature. One of the most important of these, Professor John Porter’s “The Vertical Mosaic,” documents in chapter after chapter the inequalities of Canada’s social system. The recent report of the Economic Council of Canada provides additional concrete information on the existence of economic inequality.

Democratizing Power

It might well be granted that this is the case. But what, asks the defender of the status quo, can be done about it? The answer, Mr. Speaker, is a lot. We must begin by insisting that in a democratic society — in, if you would, a just society — all adults should have equal rights in all those institutions which directly affect them. Where authority is delegated, then those to whom it is delegated must be responsible to those over whom they exercise their authority.

In concrete examples, Mr. Speaker, this means that in our factories, in our offices, and in our large commercial and financial institutions, legal power must shift from the few on the top to the many below. We can of course have no illusions about completely dispensing with authority. In a complex industrial society, this is impossible. But we can democratize authority in our nonpolitical institutions just as we have in the political. Management can and must be made responsible to the workers, just as we are responsible to our constituents. More than this, however, is required. Not only must legal control pass from the few to the many, but also the many must be given the right to make more of the decisions themselves. Responsible university students around the world in recent months have initiated this process on their campuses.

I urge the Canadian government to promote this development, to lead the way, not only because such democratic institutions would be more just, but also because they would be infinitely more conducive to the development of responsible and creative men and women. Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill realized this one hundred years ago. Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and many others have stressed the same truth in our own day. We as the political leaders of the country have a duty to initiate this battle for a truly democratic society. We have a duty, Mr. Speaker, not simply to praise our past and celebrate our present, but also to create the future. We must reject the sterile view of both the government and the official opposition. Both the Liberal and Conservative parties are bound not by bad intentions but by an outmoded and unjust ideology. They have their heads as well as their feet firmly embedded in the ideas and practices of the past.

No amount of parliamentary reform, social razmataz, or fiscal responsibility can lead to a just society. At the very most they can remove little pockets of inefficiency. The basic unjust and unequal structure will remain. What Canadians require is a leadership deeply dedicated to the democratization of the whole of society and thoroughly committed to changing by means of law the existing power relations needed to bring this about. In recent decades we have built a welfare state. It is now time to go beyond it.

Mr. Speaker, in these brief remarks I have attempted to follow the prime minister’s suggestion and discuss in a general way what I think the future of Canada should be. In so doing, I have also tried to indicate the inadequacies of the present. In addition, a serious approach to politics also requires proposals for specific legislation intended to bring about the desired future. In the past the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the New Democratic party have accepted this important responsibility, and have led the way in providing ideas for the welfare state. In the days and months ahead, we shall continue to provide programs intended to take us beyond the welfare state. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Ed Broadbent
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Ed Broadbent was a Canadian social democratic politician, political scientist, and chair of the Broadbent Institute, a policy think tank. He was leader of the New Democratic Party from 1975 to 1989.

Ed Broadbent
Ed Broadbent
  Ed Broadbent was a Canadian social democratic politician, political scientist, and chair of the Broadbent Institute, a policy think tank. He was leader of the New Democratic Party from 1975 to 1989.
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