Canada has become a more unequal society under Stephen Harper, says Ed Broadbent, former head of the federal New Democratic Party and now chair of the Broadbent Institute, a progressive think-tank.

By failing to invest in universal child care and concentrating on the petroleum sector to the exclusion of other areas of the economy, Harper has moved Canada away from the path set by many western European democracies, Broadbent said.

"In the last 15 years roughly, Canada became more unequal more quickly than most of the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries. We're still in about the middle range in terms of inequality, but we have been going, over that broad period anyway, in the wrong direction," Broadbent said in an interview on CBC's The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

Ed Broadbent

Ed Broadbent, the former NDP leader who is now head of the Broadbent Institute, said Canadians now distrust government and it will take some work to reverse that trend. (CBC)

Canada has moved away from progressive ideas like protecting the environment, being concerned about whether people have the opportunity to work in full-time jobs or whether families have supports in place that allow them to prosper, he said.

'It's been a matter of not introducing certain things that ought to have been introduced. Like universal child care.' - Ed Broadbent, chair Broadbent Institute

"It's been inattention to the economy on the one hand, total hands off when it comes to the economy except for the petroleum sector, which the present government favoured through tax incentives and a lot of other things," said Broadbent, a life-long social democrat.

"It's been a matter of not introducing certain things that ought to have been introduced. Like universal childcare," he added.

In Quebec, research shows universal child care had the effect of reducing costs for working families and encouraging more mothers to work, helping to raise household incomes, he added.

Broadbent held up for example the Scandinavian social democracies, where child care is universal and levels of inequality are the lowest in the world.

A different ideology

"Mr. Harper clearly has a different kind of ideology at work, and so over the period he's been there there hasn't been a move, surprise surprise, towards more progressive government, if you like," Broadbent said.

Broadbent, who sat as an MP from 1968 to 1990 and 2004 to 2006 and was leader of the federal NDP from 1975 to 1989, said he also sees a deterioration in civic participation and civil society, in part because of government policies.

"Just recently, the same government, and this is really my point, has discouraged civil society organizations in the environment for example, and in human rights, by having their books being audited. There's been a real attack on the kind of progressive civil society organizations that offered a lot of ideas for Canadian society for action abroad that the Canadian government could sponsor," Broadbent said.

He was referring to widespread auditing by the Canada Revenue Agency of charities related to human rights and the environment who might have spoken out against federal policies.

Broadbent also was critical of federal rules that prevent civil servants from speaking publicly.

Cynicism about government

"Instead of encouraging civil servants who were in the ... science domain to speak frankly to Canadians about the research they were doing, they've been politically muzzled. So there's a kind of degree of activism in civil society, that if it's encouraged, produces ideas and innovation whether in the environment, whether on poverty programs for children, that are desirable."

He said the result has been a deep cynicism and distrust of government, which makes it more difficult to encourage progressive policies. It will be a tough job to reverse that distrust, he said.

"Part of it is to openly address this issue that government, by definition, is bad," he said. "We have to counter that by showing examples that work, making it clear that you're not interested in government for its own sake, but because it can do something."

He held up the example of the role of Tommy Douglas in advocating universal medicare.

"It wasn't that he sat down and said, let's have a big new government enterprise. There was a real problem with health care and health-care financing, and the solution was, in his government's view, this … something we now call medicare," he said.