When NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton launched her campaign in early November, she made her theme very clear — "new politics" was mentioned at least 15 times in her opening speech.
The MP from northern Manitoba says Prime Minister Stephen Harper represents "old politics" and she is the person who can bring a fresh approach that will unite Canadians, create more equality, tackle climate change, fight global poverty and strengthen democracy.
Ashton says her tagline also means a 29-year-old woman can run for leader of the Official Opposition, and, she hopes, for prime minister in a few years time.
"New politics is definitely about saying that a 33-year-old woman can be elected prime minister of Canada," a confident Ashton said in a recent interview.
Ashton tried to get her political career off to an early start, running for a seat in the House of Commons in 2006 when she was 23. She would wait two more years, until the 2008 election, to claim victory as the elected MP for Churchill.
Her youth and inexperience didn't get in her way once she arrived on Parliament Hill. She was assigned critic roles and given opportunities to ask questions in question period, often speaking out on issues affecting aboriginal Canadians and Western Canadians. In 2011, she was elected chair of the status of women committee, a role she had to give up when she entered the leadership contest.
Ashton is up against seven other candidates in the race to replace Jack Layton, who died of cancer in August, and many of them have long ties with the NDP. So does Ashton, however, having literally been born into the party. Her father Steve is the long-time MLA for Thompson and currently a cabinet minister in Manitoba's NDP government.
Aiming to be a 'multicultural prime minister'
Ashton grew up in a politically active home, speaking Greek (from her mother, who immigrated to Canada) and English while being educated in a French immersion program.
She left home at 16 to study in Hong Kong for two years — which Ashton says helped shape her view of Canada's role in the world — and then returned home and studied global political economy at the University of Manitoba. She also went on to get a master's degree in international affairs. Ashton worked at Canadian embassies in Greece and Vietnam and also had a short stint with the United Nations in Slovakia.
She says she wants to be "Canada's multicultural prime minister," but to get there, she's not only going to have to claim the leadership title but boot the Conservatives from power.
For the NDP to win, Ashton says her party needs to dig deeper into ethnocultural communities, convince more Western Canadians to vote NDP and must reinforce the support it won in Quebec last May.
The Official Opposition also needs to secure more votes from young Canadians.
"So many people are turned off by the politics of Stephen Harper, the politics of division, the politics of polarization," she said in the interview. "Not only is it not inspiring, it turns people off completely. That's the generation that I come from."
Ashton says her generation — the "Jack Layton generation" — needs to be heard, and she promises to listen. As part of her policy platform she advocates lower tuition fees. The number of debt-burdened graduates is an important issue for all Canadians, she says, because it's a "real economic question."
"That's not the way to invest in an economy when we're holding back our next generation," she said.
Speaking of the economy, Ashton says she has a 10-point plan that involves a re-orientation of priorities. She wants more support for the manufacturing and forestry industries rather than oil and gas, for example, and she's pushing for money to be spent on programs such as child care instead of F-35 fighter jets.
There should be more "tax fairness" in Canada, the leadership contender says, calling for a review of the entire tax system.
On one of the more controversial policy issues that Ashton has navigated — the long-gun registry — she calls for an emphasis on regional interests.
She initially voted against her party policy and with the government to abolish the controversial long-gun registry. But she voted with the NDP against the Conservatives' latest bill to scrap it in the fall. When she entered the NDP leadership race, the Conservatives were eager to point out her conflicting voting record, and suggested she is a MP that doesn’t keep her word.
Ashton said she has always held the same position: that there are some parts of the country that want the registry (like Quebec) and some that don’t (like Manitoba).
"Ultimately what we should have a federal government doing is allowing regions that want a registry to be able to build one and not impose a one-size-fits-all on all regions with respect to this very issue because it’s been quite clear that not all regions are on the same page," she said.
Ashton says provinces should be able to do what they need to do to ensure they can effectively create safe communities, but she wouldn't clearly say whether she thinks the registry is one of those effective tools.
She repeatedly says that different provinces have different views and that all voices, including those of her aboriginal constituents, should be heard in the debate.
Ashton says Harper played politics with the gun registry, calling it an example of his "old politics" because he was divisive and didn’t respect regional interests.
The government has said it plans to destroy the data in the registry despite Quebec's request to keep it so the province could mount its own registry once the national one is gone.
"I believe that's not an approach to building a stronger Canada," said Ashton, who supports Quebec's efforts to have their own registry. "For us, new politics is about recognizing that there are regional differences when it comes to certain issues."
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