The gleaming DC-9 jet on the tarmac at Ottawa International Airport last week told the story. It was Ed Broadbent’s plane—at least for the duration of the election campaign. No longer would the leader of the New Democratic Party have to lumber around the country in an elderly turbo prop, as David Lewis, Broadbent’s predecessor, did in the last two election campaigns. Broadbent and the NDP—benefiting from the new election financing laws that they helped push through Parliament—are travelling first-class, just as the Liberals and Conservatives have done for years.
After several years in the shadows as Ottawa’s third man, Broadbent is emerging in this election. While Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Conservative leader Joe Clark stumbled through the first heat of the campaign, Broadbent was jogging unmolested along his own course. True, he is still third: a preelection Gallup poll showed NDP support from just 15 per cent of the voters—well behind the Liberals and Conservatives, who were tied at 41 per cent. But the good news for the NDP in that poll was that the proportion of unde-
cided voters had reached 35 per cent. It seemed increasingly likely as the campaign wore on that those voters, turned off by Trudeau but not turned on by Clark, would give Broadbent a look, some of them for the first time. It also seemed likely that Broadbent, 43, the first NDP leader who never heard J.S.
Woodsworth speak and doesn’t have his roots in the Great Depression, would appeal to the 18-to-21-year-old voters who will be going to the polls for the first time and who have voted overwhelmingly Liberal in the past. While no one expects Broadbent and the NDP to win the election, 30 seats— and the balance of power in the next Parliament—are definitely within reach.
John Edward Broadbent is a bundle of apparent contradictions. He is a socialist who admires the work of anti-socialist author George Orwell; a politician who disdained campus politics as a university student; a cigar-smoking, fast-driving Epicurean who bridles at a reporter’s suggestion that politics should be fun. Born in Oshawa, Ontario, the home of General Motors of Canada, Broadbent is the son of a GM clerk and grandson of a GM millworker. Instead of graduating to GM himself, he attended establishment-oriented Trinity College at the University of Toronto, emerging in 1961 with a master’s degree in philosophy. Along the way, he became a socialist.
After a sojourn at the London School of Economics, where Professor Michael Oakeshott, a Burkean conservative,
stimulated him but did not change his socialist views, Broadbent returned to the University of Toronto to get his doctorate in political science. He then joined the political science faculty at Toronto’s York University. In 1968, when the NDP was casting around for a candidate in Oshawa, Broadbent agreed to run, partly because he believed in putting theory into action and partly because he was appalled at the way some of his academic colleagues had fallen mortarboard over heels in love with Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the new Liberal leader.
Broadbent was chosen the NDP candidate in Oshawa despite a horrible speech at the nomination meeting and went on to beat incumbent Conservative Michael Starr by a mere 15 votes in the 1968 election. From there, Broadbent’s political career followed a tortuous path
that appeared headed toward oblivion. He flirted with the ultra-left Waffle Group. Indeed, he is credited with giving that NDP group its name. But at the last moment he backed off signing the Waffle manifesto because of its shrill rhetoric about “American imperialism” and its non-stand on Quebec’s independence (“I wanted a specific federalist commitment,” he says). He then ran for the NDP leadership in 1971, offering himself as a compromise candidate between the Old Guard and the Waffle. Instead, he alienated both sides and finished a poor fourth on the first ballot. (David Lewis eventually won in a final-ballot showdown with Waffle candidate Jim Laxer.)
he 1971 leadership conven-
tion was the low point in giL Broadbent’s political career,
IBP but he recovered and held on
to his seat in the 1972 election. Then, in the 1974 election, Broadbent increased his majority to 10,230 votes while other New Democrats, including party leader David Lewis, were losing. After that debacle, Broadbent assumed the post of interim leader of the shattered party almost by default. But the party officialdom was looking for someone with more stature, and even tried to draft Eric Kierans, the former Liberal cabinet minister. Kierans rejected the overtures, but Broadbent was furious and announced that he would not seek the leadership at the convention in July, 1975. The party, panic-stricken, crawled back to Broadbent on its knees and begged him to reconsider.
There ensued a tug of war between the party and Broadbent’s wife, Lucille, who did not want him to be leader. The party won, but only on the condition that Broadbent be given weekends off
“to spend time with my family, listen to Bach or read novels.” Having thus established himself as a reluctant suitor, Broadbent very nearly blew the leadership convention, eking out a fourth-ballot win over Rosemary Brown, a littleknown MLA from B.C.
Later, he worked hard to restore the alliance between the NDP and the Canadian Labor Congress—an alliance that had been ruptured when NDP provincial governments backed wage-price controls. Gradually, his work began to pay off. The clincher came last spring with the election of Dennis McDermott, a Broadbent confidant and longtime advocate of closer ties between labor and the NDP, as president of the CLC. Now the CLC is promising to work as it never has before for the NDP and deliver the labor vote to Broadbent.
But most important in Broadbent’s emergence has been his maturation as a politician. His speeches, once boring and academic, have been energized with
a cadence that is reminiscent of David Lewis. When combined with his highpitched voice, the new style makes him sound almost shrill. “But better that than dull,” remarks an aide. Broadbent has also learned how to dodge a question he doesn’t want to answer directly. Thus, when he was asked about abortion last week at a Catholic high school in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, rather than simply state the party’s positionabortion on demand—Broadbent noted that his wife and Fonse Faour, the local NDP MP, are both against abortion.
In the first three weeks of the campaign, Broadbent has probably outpointed Trudeau and Clark, if only because he has made fewer mistakes. He seems relaxed on tour and his confi-
dence is clearly growing as the campaign progresses. He also benefits from a much softer press than Trudeau and Clark because most reporters are ideologically sympathetic to the NDP and like Broadbent personally. Unlike Clark and Trudeau, Broadbent frequently rides on the same bus as the reporters and trades quips with them. Asked last week if he would attend church Easter Sunday, Broadbent deadpanned: “I’m a non-practising Druid.” But, as voting day draws nearer and it becomes more and more apparent Broadbent could wield the balance of power, the questions will become tougher. Broadbent told Maclean ’s in January that he would consider a “mélange” of factors in deciding whether to support the Liberals
or the Conservatives after the election if neither has a majority. Those factors, he said, include the number of seats each party has, their share of the popular vote, and their willingness to adopt NDP policies.
Those policies are heavy on economics and light on national unity. Last week, asked by Maclean’s whether he thinks it essential that a federal cabinet have a substantial contingent of francophones during the Quebec referendum debate, Broadbent replied: “It would be advantageous, if that were the only question.” Clearly, for Broadbent, the future of Quebec is not the only question nor even the most important question facing Canada at present. In a speech last week in Montreal, Broadbent said of Trudeau: “He wants to discuss national unity because he does not want to discuss the economy.” It could as easily be said of Broadbent that he wants to discuss the economy because he does not want to discuss national unity.
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