Ed Broadbent calls for greater reform and a return to social justice

Are western governments doing enough for their citizens by intervening in the markets during the current economic crisis? Not nearly enough, says Ed Broadbent, former leader of the federal New Democratic Party and former York professor and Board of Governors member. Broadbent, in delivering the annual Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History public lecture on Feb. 19, criticized the cutback of social rights and accompanying social instability brought about by the neo-liberalist policies of North Atlantic countries over the last several decades.

Right: Ed Broadbent is greeted by
York Chancellor Emeritus Avie Bennett

A capacity crowd filled the Robert R. McEwen Auditorium in the Seymour Schulich Building on York’s Keele campus to listen to Broadbent deliver the lecture, titled “Barbarism Lite: The Political Attack on Social Rights, 1979-2009”. Broadbent last spoke at York 20 years ago in his final year as leader of the federal NDP. He referred to that as a political speech. This, he joked, would be a lecture.

Broadbent said that the devastation caused by the Second World War incited among the public an intense desire for change, a rejection of the old order of 1920s laissez-faire political and economic thinking , and the institution of a new one committed to social justice and a higher degree of equality among citizens. He said the transformation of life took place all over the North Atlantic world and it was epitomized by the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

Right: Ed Broadbent (left) chats with Stan Shapson, York VP research & innovation, and Robert Drummond, dean of York’s Faculty of Arts

He said that the public sought out the emerging rights to health, education, pensions and a decent standard of living and that these hallmarks of social justice were also the freedoms that brought about the greater social cohesion and political stability of the following decades.

How was this achieved? Broadbent emphasized that, in the post-war West, parties traditionally in the centre or on the right joined the parties of the left, leading to a change in the role of the democratic state into one governed by multi-party leadership. This new order saw government’s role not simply as one of occasional intervention in times of crisis or of bailing out the poor, but of ensuring the availability of goods and services such as food, housing and social security.

Broadbent felt this changed with the election of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and United States president Ronald Reagan a year later, as a new movement embarked on the dismantling of the structures and nature of the new post-war democratic state. He pointed a finger at the World Trade Organization as representative of this development and noted that governments returned to the laissez-faire principles that preceded the war. He said that the issue became one not of fixing apparent problems with government programs, but of abolishing them. “The income gap widened, social cohesion with social rights lessened and the values of the marketplace took over,” said Broadbent, who believes that, within Canada, both the Liberal Party and the Conservatives have been active in clawing back on social programs.

From left: Stan Shapson; Robert Drummond; Marcel Martel, York history professor and current holder of the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History; Ed Broadbent; Avie Bennett; and Ian Milligan, a doctoral student in Canadian history

Broadbent concluded his speech by acknowledging the current economic crisis, attributing it, in part, to systematic deregulation. He noted that governments are seeking reforms, but argued that most contemporary governments seek only temporary solutions. “We need once more to see the necessity of strong, positive intervention by government in the distributional struggle of the marketplace," said Broadbent. "Only this can provide both economic growth and the social rights that are the foundation for the ideal of equal citizenship embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Faculty of Arts Dean Robert Drummond introduced the evening’s speaker, stating, “Dr. Broadbent is a rarity among students of politics in that he took his ideas and expertise into the realm of electoral and parliamentary combat. Far rarer, he was successful.”

Historica promotes the study of Canadian heritage and history. Stan Shapson, vice-president research & innovation, took a moment to thank Avie Bennett, founder of the annual lecture series. Bennett is York’s Chancellor Emeritus and a member of the Board of Directors of the York University Foundation. “Through the support of the Avie Bennett Historica Chair, we can continue groundbreaking research, provide great programs for graduate students and get knowledge about Canadian history off the shelf and mobilized to the public at large," said Shapson. "These multiple impacts are part of the excellence of York’s History Department and so very important for the well-being of Canadian society.”

Marcel Martel, York history professor and current holder of the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History, hosted the lecture.

Click here to download the podcast of the Avie Bennett Historica Chair Public Lecture in Canadian History with Ed Broadbent.

For more information, visit the Historica Foundation Web site.

Submitted to YFile by David Wallace, communications coordinator, Faculty of Arts