As a former premier of British Columbia, NDP MP David Barrett is well aware of the stresses of high political office. In fact, on Aug. 28, he said that the pressure at the top was such a deterrent that he would not seek the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party—a post he described as “a debilitating, demanding, unyielding job.” But last week, after a flurry of backroom and public arm twisting to convince him to reconsider, Barrett, 59, told an Ottawa news conference that his name would be on the ballot after all when some 2,000 New Democrats gather in Winnipeg on Dec. 2 to choose a successor to Edward Broadbent. Said Barrett: “Yes, it’s a lousy job. Yes, it’s debilitating. And yes, I am going to give it another shot.”
That announcement brought visible relief to many NDP veterans. Barrett, a charismatic and witty political showman who served as B.C. premier from 1972 to 1975 and as opposition leader until 1984, was certain to breathe new life into what has so far been a listless leadership race. But while Barrett insisted that he was simply bowing to popular demand, the pressure on him to enter the race came largely from caucus MPs and labor leaders. Their decision to back the unilingual Barrett inevitably raised questions not only about the party establishment’s confidence in the six previously declared candidates, but also about the NDP’s pretensions to being a national party committed to making an electoral breakthrough in Quebec. Underscoring those concerns, the 55
NDP candidates in the Quebec provincial election earlier in the week garnered barely one per cent of the vote, prompting Quebec NDP leader Gaétan Nadeau to resign, declaring that his party was dead in that province. By week’s end, some in the party, including Louis Labarge, president of the Quebec Federation of Labor, were urging yet another reluctant candidate to enter the race: the fluently bilingual Ontario NDP Leader Robert Rae.
Barrett’s decision to run clearly came as a blow to the six who were already in the race. They are: MPs Audrey McLaughlin, 52, of Whitehorse, Y.T.; Simon de Jong,
47, of Regina; Howard McCurdy, 56, of Windsor,
Ont.; Steven Langdon, 43, of nearby Amherstburg, Ont.;
Ian Waddell, 46, of Vancouver, B.C.; and Roger Lagasse, 32, a teacher from Sechelt, B.C., who has never held elected office. But none of the would-be leaders performed strongly during a series of all-candidates debates in Western Canada early in September. Then the candidates failed to impress key labor leaders and senior party officers at meetings in Toronto and Saskatoon. After those encounters, party veterans began searching for new entrants
with the ability to fire up the race.
The search betrayed some signs of desperation. B.C. MP James Fulton, a key Barrett supporter, said that one caller even suggested that the party approach actor Donald Sutherland, a New Brunswick native, as a potential leader. But most of the attention remained squarely on Barrett and Rae. Said Fulton: “A hell of a pile of legwork was done by a lot of people to encourage Rae and Barrett. The people looking were looking at both.”
When it came, Barrett’s announcement, combined with the continuing pressure on Rae to follow his lead, threatened to obscure the original slate of candidates. For one thing, none of those already in the race has amassed caucus support to equal the 14 NDP MPs who publicly endorsed Barrett even before he declared his candidacy. But several of the other contenders said that the week’s events demonstrated the party establishment’s desire to reassert control over the race. Waddell, for one, complained that delegates should ignore “the big shots in Toronto who naysay this campaign.” But few in the party were ready to suggest that Barrett’s entry had foreclosed the other candidates’ chances. Party members have already selected about a quarter of the delegates to the leadership convention. And party insiders said that in constituency meetings from Ottawa Centre to Thunder Bay to Vancouver, McLaughlin in particular had already locked up strong delegate support. Even Barrett backer Fulton conceded that the Yukon MP was making inroads with the grassroots. Said Fulton: “The media may not be impressed, but the assessment from those who have seen her in action is that she has been given a bum rap.” As well, many of the NDP women backing McLaughlin are determined to choose a female leader. Said B.C. NDPMP Lynn Hunter: “If you don’t have the women of this party onside, you are in trouble.”
Still looming in the shadows was Rae, the 41-year-old Rhodes Scholar and ex-MP who quit federal politics in 1982 to take the helm of the Ontario NDP. Rae would likely have the support of Ontario labor unions, which will account for many of labor’s approximately 500 delegates at the convention. And he would be the only credible candidate to speak French fluently. But while Barrett acknowledged last week that his inability to speak French was a handicap, he also said that Quebec cannot be the only focus of the nation. Meanwhile, a day before Barrett’s declaration, Broadbent announced that he will resign his Commons seat—which he has held for 21 years—on Dec. 31. He did not say what he intends to do next, but his departure ensures a clear field for whoever leads the NDP into the next decade.
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