COVER

THE NDP'S ALL-TIME HIGH

PAUL GESSELL November 24 1986
COVER

THE NDP'S ALL-TIME HIGH

PAUL GESSELL November 24 1986

THE NDP'S ALL-TIME HIGH

CANADA

COVER

The damning letter contained only six short paragraphs, but it mentioned the New Democratic Party three times. Five prominent Liberals, including Quebec Senator Pierre De Bané, signed their names last week under the letterhead of “Review 86,” a group that is trying to explain to party members why they should replace John Turner as leader. Three times they cited what they called Turner’s failure to “stave off the NDP.” Turner’s ability to win leftof-centre votes for the Liberals was a major issue during the 1984 leadership campaign, which he won against Jean Chrétien. Now, as the party prepares to decide whether to call for a new leadership convention, it has come back to haunt Turner. “These are tough times for Liberals,” said the De Bañé group.

“Our position as the party of reform has been threatened by the NDP.”

Damage: In fact, the NDP is at an all-time high in opinion polls. According to the latest Gallup poll, released last week, the party wins support from 29 per cent of decided voters across the country. De Bañé, Senator Keith Davey and other Turner foes say that the party needs a more left-leaning leader to prevent the NDP from winning traditionally Liberal seats in the next federal election. Although some political observers say that the NDP’s strength is temporary, others see signs of a more permament realignment of political allegiances that could seriously hurt the Liberals— even in Quebec, which has never elected a New Democrat to Ottawa. Whatever the case, many Liberals voice concern that continued squabbling over Turner’s leadership will seriously damage their party and help the NDP. Said Eric Kierans, a former Liberal minister in both Ottawa and Quebec: “Why should the Canadian people trust a party of backstabbers?”

But as the Ottawa convention drew closer last week, more and more of Turner’s Liberal critics were making their views public—and the NDP threat was one of their most powerful weapons. Marc Lalonde, the former Liberal minister who was Pierre Trudeau’s Quebec lieutenant, cited it last week in the letter he sent to convention delegates to persuade them to vote against Turner.

Wrote Lalonde: “We now face a situation where the NDP not only has a popular leader but where its support is spreading solidly across the country. In Quebec, for the first time in history, the NDP leads the Conservative party across the province and it is close on the heels

of the Liberals in many regions.”

The NDP’S newfound strength in Quebec is largely responsible for the party’s high standing nationally. Traditionally, the party has fared badly in Quebec; now, regularly drawing the support of 26 per cent or more of Quebecers, its national totals are soaring. But political observers do not agree on

how or why the NDP has attracted that support—nor whether the party can hold on to it.

John Harney, the NDP’s Quebec leader, says that his party is up in the polls because it is making its first genuine effort since the 1960s to make itself and its policies known to Quebecers. He rejects the widely held theory that disenchanted members of the Parti Québécois are flocking to the NDP and temporarily swelling its membership. Harney says that his supporters are “essentially people who are looking for, and are finding, a social democratic option on the Canadian scene.” But Harney acknowledges that the NDP is doing well at least partly because the other two major parties are faring badly. “We’ll take that,” he said. “My wife married me because the other guy wasn’t available. So I’m happy.”

Jean-Luc Pepin, a former Liberal minister now teaching political science at the University of Ottawa, has another theory. Quebec voters, he says, are very sophisticated and are parking their votes temporarily with the NDP in order to pressure the Liberals and Tories to pay more attention to them. “Quebec is bargaining,” said Pepin, adding that Western Canadians must be asking, “How come those God damned Frenchies can get the whole of the country on their toes and we can’t?”

Naughty: During a lecture last week to his political science class, Pepin dismissed the NDP’S current support as a temporary phenomenon. “The history of the NDP, of the socialist movement in Canada, is a history of ups and downs,” he said. “And as some naughty fellow said recently, the ups are mostly _ between elections.” But other «epgl prominent Liberals —including some Turner critics—are not nearly so sanguine. The NDP, they contend, might well keep its current support until the next election, and badly hurt the Liberals. Said Davey: “Anybody who doesn’t put emphasis on the NDP threat doesn’t understand what is happening in Canada.” Many federal New Democrats concede that their high standing owes more to the other parties’ problems than to their own successes. “We’re not doing anything differently,” said NDP House Lead-

er Nelson Riis. “Ed Broadbent continues to ask the same types of questions and offer the same types of solutions.” That consistency was on display again last week. While the Liberals were drawn deeper into their increasingly bitter internal struggle, Broadbent attracted headlines after distributing a government memo which suggested that Canadian negotiators might make the Auto Pact part of free trade talks with the United States.

Hurting: For his part, chief Canadian negotiator Simon Reisman angrily accused Broadbent of endangering the talks. “The political people would be well advised—I’m thinking of Mr. Broadbent here—not to meddle,” Reisman said. “It’s dangerous, and they may well be hurting most the people they think they’re helping.” But the controversy allowed the NDP to speak out strongly for protecting thousands of well-paying jobs in Canada’s auto industry—at a time when the Liberals have yet to define a position on free trade. Broadbent has his own rationale for the NDP’S popular surge. Many Liberals, he says, may be seeking a new leader because Turner cannot shake his rightwing, pro-business image.

Because much of its newfound support is in Quebec, some observers say that the key to the NDP’S future lies there. Desmond Morton, a University of Toronto historian, said that the NDP will maintain its support in Quebec— providing the Liberals stick with Turner as leader. But he said that Quebec support could be “very temporary” if the Liberals replaced Turner with Chrétien.

The NDP’S success may be playing right into Chrétien’s hands. In the spring of 1984, with the NDP low in the polls, Chrétien stumped the country looking for leadership votes. He ar-

gued then that he, the small-town populist, would be better able than Turner, the Bay Street lawyer, to attract support from disaffected New Democrats. At one Liberal gathering in Stratford, Ont., that spring, Chrétien said, “A number of the NDP people have come to me and told me, ‘You are acceptable.’” Nevertheless, the Liberals elected Turner, not Chrétien, as their leader, lost the 1984 federal election and now squirm uncomfortably as the NDP climbs in the polls.

Certainly, the NDP’S rise has put pressure on Turner to moderate his right-

wing image and appeal to ordinary Canadians on a wide range of issues. Two years ago, Turner spent much of his time complaining about big government and high deficits. Now, he speaks more often about the need for subsidized day care and protecting old age pensions. But Turner’s transformation may be too late to silence a growing number of critics within his own party and among the general public.

Slugging: Recent polls show that the Liberals are the most popular party, with the NDP and Tories slugging it out for second place. However, Turner is running behind his own party in voter surveys and trails both Broadbent and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in personal popularity. Concluded Winnipeg pollster Angus Reid: “The Liberal party could stand to lose more support by confirming John Turner as Liberal leader than by replacing him.”

In a similar vein, John Conway, a political sociologist at the University of Regina, says that the Turner-led Liberals stand a good chance of losing significant ground to the NDP. The New Democrats, said Conway, “would hope that the Liberals keep Turner.” That is precisely the message that De Bañé, Lalonde and Turner’s other critics hope their Liberal colleagues will be thinking about next week as they decide Turner’s future.

-PAUL GESSELL with

MADELAINE DROHAN

MARC CLARK

HILARY MACKENZIE

The ups and downs of the political parties