Hard questions for the NDP

MICHAEL ROSE March 16 1987

Hard questions for the NDP

MICHAEL ROSE March 16 1987

Hard questions for the NDP

Only a couple of years ago it would have been unthinkable. One freezing weeknight last month New Democratic Party workers persuaded 300 francophone Quebecers to hear party leader Ed Broadbent make a speech in Lachenaie, a small town north of Montreal. Interest in the NDP, traditionally all but nonexistent in Quebec, has swelled in the local riding of Terrebonne since former Conservative Robert Toupin defected to the New Democrats in December, becoming the party’s first-ever Quebec MP. Broadbent’s speech got a standing ovation. But a local alderman, speaking before Broadbent, inadvertently raised a major issue. Said Yvon Dufort: “The NDP is far from being as socialist or communist as some people would say it is.”

Dufort’s comment underscored a fundamental problem facing the party as it prepares for a policy convention in Montreal, March 1315. With its standing in opinion polls at an unprecedented high, the NDP’s prospects across the country have never looked better. But hard questions are being asked about exactly what the party stands for at the new plateau in its development. The key issue: whether more Canadians can be induced to abandon their historical fear of socialist parties to take a serious look at the NDP program —and whether, having looked, they will be comfortable with what they find. The party itself will try to appeal to mainstream voters without betraying its social-democratic roots.

Some skeptics claim that Canadians—disillusioned with the Conservative government but still reluctant to throw their support to John Turner’s Liberals—are only parking their votes temporarily with the New Democrats

while they make up their minds between the major parties. But NDP strategists say they are convinced that the party’s consistent performance in recent surveys is more than an aberration. A February poll by Angus Reid Associates of Winnipeg put NDP support at 33 per cent—nine points behind

the leading Liberals and 10 points ahead of the Tories. And among the party leaders, Broadbent, 50, is by far the most popular.

In Quebec, the party’s popularity is at a historic high. The Reid survey conducted in February showed that 35 per cent of voters were ready to support the NDP in a province where it received just nine per cent of the vote in the 1984 federal election. Declared former NDP federal secretary Gerald Caplan, now a political consultant: “All of a sudden, misgivings about socialism or

some contentious parts of the NDP program appear to be less important to Canadians than a general liking of the party and its leader.”

Because of the strong showing, the three-day policy convention—which includes a speech by Broadbent on Friday to 1,200 delegates—has taken on unusual significance. A good performance by delegates is critical to the party’s attempts to shift away from its traditional role as the conscience of the nation. In the past, critics of the party found easy targets in some NDP policy resolutions. Those resolutions—including commitments to nationalize one major Canadian bank and end Canada’s participation in the NATO and Norad defence alliances—are still in the NDP policy book.

But caucus members say that voters are not deeply troubled by fine points of policy. Said Toronto Spadina MP Dan Heap: “When we are low in the polls, people advise us to drop certain policies. When we are high, people advise us to drop the same ones.” Added Broadbent’s principal secretary, William Knight: “Even if we

dropped all our so-called £ controversial policies, N the two other parties would attack us for be| ing too far left.”

I Still, senior party strategists have displayed a new pragmatism in recent months in dealing with sensitive areas of NDP policy. In public appearances in Terrebonne last month, Broadbent stressed that his party did not see business profits as intrinsically evil, that it would work with small and medium-sized businesses, and that it would not greatly increase the size of the federal bureaucracy should it take power.

Broadbent has displayed similar pragmatism in addressing recent public controversies. Wary about angering Quebec voters, he did not rush to the

defence of Manitoba’s NDP premier, Howard Pawley, when that province lost out to Quebec on the CF-18 fighter maintenance contract last October. Broadbent’s staff is careful to have him stress general concepts such as fairness and integrity, rather than the controversial NDP program. Said one aide: “We are in a national ball park now and, painful as it is, we have to

address national issues in a mature way.”

In past conventions, leftwing members of the party considered attempts to change key policies as a betrayal. At the party’s 1985 convention in Ottawa, bitter floor fights erupted over the party’s commitment to withdraw Canada from NATO.

Now, however, major conflicts appear unlikely. The key reason, according to NDP federal secretary Dennis Young, is that party members sense that there is a real chance now to make lasting electoral gains. And that sentiment overshadowed any fears about possible dilution of the NDP’S policies. Said Young: “A rising tide lifts all, and if there was any apprehension leading into the convention, it was over missing a historic opportunity.”

In addition, the so-called “Left Caucus” of the party, a loosely knit group that attempts to keep the party

true to its social-democratic roots, appears to be less active. Said Ottawa Labor Council delegate Marvin Gandall, who previously has been closely associated with the group: “The left wing is more quiescent than it has been in a long while. The party is on a roll and everybody wants it to succeed.”

The real test of the NDP’s unity will come after the convention, when its election planning committee will have to decide how to spend its campaign fund of $5 million — nearly twice the amount it spent during the 1984 federal election. Young predicted heated competition among regional branches of the party for access to the funds —especially if Broadbent makes fewer campaign stops in the West in order to be

more visible in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. Manitoba’s Pawley voiced some concern over those priorities last week. “I’m very pleased at the gains by the NDP in Quebec,” Pawley told Maclean's. “But the party must not forget its basic roots and history of electoral strength in Western Canada.”

Still, the NDP’S battle to become a

truly national party will likely be won or lost in Quebec. Toupin’s defection to the party was an unexpected gain, but NDP strategists are still uncertain about the degree of solidity in their Quebec support. The party has only 4,000 members in Quebec, compared with 35,000 in Ontario, and four full-time organizers. Party associations have been estab-

lished in only about half

of Quebec's 75 federal ridings. The NDP's Que bec secretary, Michel Agnaieff, acknowledged that the party is "at square one" in the prov ince. And Ottawa-based party workers said pri vately last week that the NDP has just six to eight months to put down firm roots in the province-or it may lose the opportu nity to win long-term support there. The NDP's hopes in Quebec have been clouded by a serious disagreement between

its federal and Quebec wings over a formula for bringing Quebec into the Constitution. The Quebec party, head ed by Jean-Paul Harney, wants the party to recognize the province's ex clusive power to legislate on language matters. Broadbent rejected that pro vision, but a compromise resolutionhammered out at a party meeting in January-committed the NDP to "ex

plore new constitutional provisions whose purpose would be to protect the linguistic rights of Quebec's major ity." Another problem in Quebec: per sistent reports that personal relations between Harney and Broadbent-ri vals for the party leadership at its 1971 and 1975 conventions-are embittered.

One sign of the NDP's new strength is the apprehension with which both of the other parties are watching its growth. The Liberals have even set up a special committee to monitor the NDP. Said NDP MP Steven Langdon: "The perception in the past among some people has been that you waste your vote by voting for the NDP, that we could never form a government." As they prepared for their weekend convention, many New Democrats seemed to believe that the party had a better chance than ever to change that perception-and become a real contender for nower.

MICHAEL ROSE

in Ottawa with ALYCIA

AMBROSIAK and ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Montreal, CHRIS WOOD in Halifax and DOUG SMITH in Winnipeg