The evening sun cast long shadows across the parking lot of the union hall in Thunder Bay,
Ont., as Ernest Hrynyshyn, 57, and George Zurawski, 51, stopped to discuss politics. Along with about 275 other area residents, they had come to the Port Arthur Labour Association building to hear New Democratic Party Leader Audrey
McLaughlin deliver a stump speech on why the New Democrats are the only reliable defenders of medicare and other social programs. But the crowd was impassive, the occasional hoots of approval coming mostly from event organizers. As the crowd began to file out, Hrynyshyn and Zurawski admitted—with the air of resignation that seems to characterize many traditional NDP supporters these days—that they were
unimpressed. Hrynyshyn, a retired parole officer, is not sure that a vote for the NDP means much any more.
“The Reform party and the Bloc Québécois are parties you can cast your vote for in protest,” Hrynyshyn said with a rueful grin, “but not the NDP. Not any more.”
The NDP’s crash in the public opinion polls to single digits may send the party into political oblivion after Oct. 25. In a desperate attempt to stop the freefall—and regain some of its traditional core constituency—party strategists have switched targets from free trade and general outrage with the Mulroney years to preserving social
The case was closed, but the NDP leader was fighting gamely for a role in Parliament programs, specifically medicare. Eighteen months ago, when the New Democrats were debating their approach to this campaign, there were four possible themes: free trade and its impact on jobs, medicare, fair taxes and quality public service. Initially, free trade topped the list because of a strong lobby from Ontario’s industrial heartland. But in the last week of September, McLaughlin abandoned the strategy. “The polls showed it wasn’t a very interesting issue to the public,” said one disgruntled New Democrat, “but some people wanted to fight the 1988 election again.”
Now, with the party languishing in fifth place in the polls, the New Democrats might not even manage to elect the 12 members of Parliament necessary to guarantee official party status in the House of Commons. Said one worried strate
gist: “Getting 12 seats would be like almost drowning. We’d be alive, but needing resuscitation. At this point, getting 20 seats would be a small victory.”
That concern is not limited to backroom strategists. Outside the union hall, Hrynyshyn predicted glumly that the NDP would lose more than 30 of its 43 seats. His friend Zurawski, a former corrections officer, says that the party has yet to recover from 1988, when it failed to take up the fight against free trade with as much vigor as the Liberals. “They kind of lost their direction,” he adds. “When free trade came up, they fumbled.” Hrynyshyn nods in agreement: “They lost their way all right.”
For a leader whose party seems destined for electoral ignominy in less than three weeks, Audrey McLaughlin is surprisingly upbeat. Her speeches are peppered with jokes—one favorite being a reference to Prime Minister Kim Campbell’s promise to throw herself across the railroad tracks to save medicare. “Big deal, considering Tory cuts in train service,” the NDP leader remarks dryly. “But it’s a good reason to get the trains going again.” Nor is there any of the bitterness among the leader’s staff that marked the NDP’s 1988 campaign, when Ed Broadbent saw his dreams of forming the official opposition disappear. Despite current polls and the possibility that McLaughlin will lose her own riding to Liberal Don Branigan, she maintains her poise. “I really am cheerful,” the 56-year-old party leader told Maclean’s last week. “When you go out to these events, you see that people really are counting on you. People care about these issues.”
But McLaughlin’s style of politics has drawn criticism within her own party. She is more comfortable in small gatherings; when thundering speechmaking is required, her delivery appears forced and unnatural. But even her biggest detractors do not blame her for the party’s poor showing. Her own occasional awkwardness pales in comparison with the political damage inflicted on the national NDP by three unpopular social democratic governments in Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
The federal party has most to lose in British Columbia. That province sent more New Democrats, 19 out of 32 seats, to Ottawa in 1988 than any other. It is home to several of the party’s caucus stars: Svend Robinson, Nelson Riis and former B.C. premier David Barrett. But the unpopularity of Premier Mike Harcourt’s two-year-old government has accelerated the federal party’s downward spiral. This time, say rival strategists, B.C. voters may send as few as two New Democrats to Ottawa. And in Ontario, where they now holds nine seats, the party has slipped below six per cent in recent polls, compared to the 20 per cent of the Ontario vote it claimed in 1988.
Still, McLaughlin perseveres: “If every time things looked a little tough we said, ‘Oh, well, we better fold up and leave now,’ we wouldn’t have accomplished anything.” Although she reportedly offered to resign from the leadership last summer, she continues to soldier on without complaint. Party president Nancy Riche, for one, says that she is awestruck by McLaughlin’s determination. Adds Riche: “I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had wanted to quit midway through the campaign.”
The gently rolling landscape around Humboldt, Sask., is covered by soft yellow stubble. This year’s harvest was wet, but on the day of McLaughlin’s arrival last week the weather is sunny and cold. George Classen, 75, and his wife, Caroline, 73, wait outside
NDP wins Ontario election
Audrey McLaughlin elected leader
Ontario NDP tables first budget, predicting a $9.7-billion deficit
NDP wins elections in British Columbia and Saskatchewan
Ontario NDP government begins socialcontract talks
the Del-Air Systems environmental technology plant. They have driven in from nearby St. Gregor—“two stops down the line” as Caroline says, or 22 km by car—to express their support for the party. The Classens have been loyal New Democrats “ever since Tommy Douglas” and they refuse to be discouraged. “I don’t believe those stupid polls,” George says bluntly. The Classens are also pleased that the NDP campaign has been refocused on medicare and social programs. “You hear a lot about jobs, jobs, jobs,” says George, “but why not go back to the things Douglas talked about?” Caroline concurs: “These things he gave us are worth saving.”
Inside the plant, McLaughlin is being guided through workshops and between towering stacks of plastic containers and cardboard packages. The Classens, who hover in the background with about 75 locals, are supportive—but not wildly enthusiastic—about McLaughlin’s leadership. “I think she’s fine. It’s what she stands for that I like,” says Caroline. George looks defiant and adds: “As far as I am concerned, I am NDP.”
But not everyone in Saskatchewan—the birth place of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, precursor to the NDP—has remained as loyal as the Classens. New Democrat Barrett Halderman, 49, a local lawyer and town councillor who is running to replace the NDP’s retiring Stan Hovdebo, says that the Reform party is gaining a foothold among “people who have bought into this idea that the whole system is rotten and Reform is a quick fix.”
When McLaughlin completes her 15-minute tour of the plant, she delivers a speech to the assembled visitors and workers about the value of small business and environmental technology. Afterward, she invites questions. Journalists crowd around, but only one question is asked. A new poll suggests that if current trends persist, the NDP will take fewer than 10 seats on election day. McLaughlin’s face tightens. “We will wait for the 25th of October,” she says tersely.
In Timmins, Ont., New Democrat MP Cid Samson expresses confidence that he can hold onto the seat he won in 1988. While the riding has historically voted either Liberal or New Democrat, it went to the Conservatives in 1984. This time around, Samson claims that he is running “far ahead of the national polls.” Still, he is baffled by the party’s overall standing. “I honestly don’t know why we are so low nationally,” he says.
In the end, the solution to the riddle may be depressingly simple. When the New Democrats were elected to form three provincial governments, they gained legitimacy but lost much of their mystique. As one glum strategist put it: “The NDP used to be something special. Now, we have become just another party that says one thing in opposition and does another in government.” Just when New Democrats seemed to be breaking into the ranks of the political establishment, voters seem to have decided that membership in that club is no longer socially acceptable.
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