The federal NDP faces a problem common to used car salesmen, supermarket executives and referees — credibility. For nearly a year now the party has been edging along a tightrope, trying, on the one hand, to earn credit for legislation passed by the Liberals with NDP support and, on the other, to maintain that it is still the real opposition to the government. It’s hard to stamp your foot on a tightrope, but that’s what the party is up to, and the rest of us have been treated to the spectacle of David Lewis thumbing his nose at Prime Minister Trudeau and slapping him on the back simultaneously.
Lewis is profoundly uneasy in this role, not so much because of public reaction — his office reports that most of the letters criticizing him for not bringing down the wicked Grits come from Tory supporters, and the NDP has actually edged up in the Gallup Poll — as because of what the retreat from purity and disdain has done to the party’s internal workings. “We have become running dogs of the Liberals,” one western NDP official complained to me. “How the hell can we explain to the nation what we’re doing, when I can’t even explain it to my wife?”
It is this sense of unease, rather than any carefully worked out strategy, that explains the party’s new aggressiveness, and will soon lead to a series of votes designed to put some distance between the NDP and the Liberals, even if an election results. Having been found loitering in the neighborhood of a brothel, the NDP is about to launch a crusade for clean living.
The party has worked out a defense to the charge that it has forsaken its principles to avoid an election. It was put to me by Terry Grier, MP for Toronto Lakeshore (and, incidentally, one of the ablest of the new MPs) : “It’s a fact that we have voted with the government, but we’ve voted against it, too. The difference between us and the Conservatives is that they vote with the Liberals on matters of policy, because they think so much alike, and against them on nonconfidence motions, because they’re power hungry. We decide how to vote on
the basis of the issue. For instance, we voted against the government on three key bills — the tax rip-off, the Olympics and the railway strike settlement — and every time the Tories sided with the Liberals.”
Well, it’s a theory. To test it, I examined each of the 40 divisions — formal roll-call votes — that took place in the first nine months of the 29th Parliament. There were two free votes — on Criminal Code amendments affecting abortion and capital punishment — and 38 party votes. In these, the NDP voted with the government 29 times and against it nine times; the Tories voted with the Liberals 13 times and against 25; the Socreds voted with the Liberals 26 times and against 12. Of the 25 Tory anti-government votes, 16 were on straight nonconfidence issues (a vote to cut the Solicitor General’s estimates, for example, wasn’t really an attack on law enforcement; it was the Tory way of saying, “Out, you bums”), while nine could be called issues of substance.
For their part, the nine NDP antigovernment votes all concerned policy matters, from mortgage financing to corporation taxes, but its 29 progovernment votes included some — in support of the main budget provisions, for example — that you won’t find in any socialist handbook.
In short, if the NDP has embraced high principle and the Tories low expediency, you can’t prove it by their voting records.
No one is more aware of the danger of alienating the party workers who Believe (as opposed to those who merely Belong) than David Lewis, and that is why, at the party’s national conference in Vancouver last summer, he promised a tough new approach, and announced a special caucus of NDP MPs, which he was sure would back him in what amounted to an ultimatum to the Liberals to produce better legislation or face defeat. Federal NDP secretary Cliff Scotton warned Lewis against the tough approach, because he knew the caucus would not buy it, but Scotton lost the argument. He was right; when the MPs gathered in Ottawa, Member after Member rose to report that he could detect no bloodlust on the hustings, and Lewis, who looked on glumly and didn’t speak until last, had to climb down off his election threat, looking foolish.
Now we have entered a new phase. A great deal of legislation has been passed — higher pensions, higher income tax exemptions, a tougher stance on foreign ownership, a new housing bill — for which the NDP
can claim credit (the Liberals say, of course, that these measures would have been brought forward without NDP nudging, but that claim will appeal only to the hopelessly credulous). There are still some matteis on the order paper — a new electoral expenses bill and a strengthened foreign ownership bill are the most important of these — which the party considers essential. But once these are out of the way, the NDP will have to revise its priorities; voting against the government early and often will become essential; it will be the only way to show that the Tories haven’t taken over all the functions of opposition.
An election could be delayed. It is perfectly possible for enough Conservatives to stay out of the House on crucial votes to keep the government in power (the Socreds and Liberals muster 124 votes; the Tories and NDP 138; if as few as 15 Conservatives stay home, the government can win a vote. And the Tories are divided into more parts than ancient Gaul). That could happen once or twice, but no more; then party discipline would come to bear on the miscreants.
Before long, therefore, the NDP will begin voting consistently against the government, and soon after that, even if the Prime Minister doesn’t call an election, he will probably have one thrust upon him.
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