On the surface, it will not appear as a direct challenge to Edward Broadbent’s leadership. But when the New Democratic Party begins its national convention in Regina this Canada Day weekend, the ritual pledges of support for the leader will not fully hide the anger in his party. The NDP is still reeling from recent provincial setbacks and its low standing in national polls. Especially in the West, there is also a sense that the Broadbent establishment in Ottawa is out of touch with the regions.
The convention was originally conceived as a forum for unveiling a new statement of principles to mark the 50th anniversary of the Regina Manifesto and the birth of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). But talk of the oblique challenges to Broadbent overtook the larger themes. The boldest attack came last week when former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney and Alberta NDP Leader Grant Notley held simultaneous news conferences to table a proposed statement of principles for convention delegates to debate. The statement urges the party to adopt more flexible policies on regions, including Quebec’s democratic right to secede. It also calls for a new “social contract” between government, labor and business and for a “nuclear free zone” in Canada. But what sparked the preconvention jitters was the manner in which the statement was prepared. It was drawn up, without Broadbent’s knowledge, by a mostly western group of prominent party members who held private meetings and a series of telephoned conference calls.
The authors included former Saskatchewan attorney general Roy Romanow, Simon Fraser University professor John Richards and onetime federal leadership candidate John Harney. A number of the 25 western MPs contributed to the statement, but only two—Saskatchewan’s Simon de Jong and British Columbia’s Nelson Riis— publicly supported it. Broadbent met individually with some members of his caucus and asked that they not take part in what was being viewed as a western gang-up on the leader.
Even though the 10-page statement was drafted in private, Blakeney denied that it was a threat to the party leadership. “I totally reject that,” Blakeney said. Notley, on the other hand, was somewhat less categorical at his Calgary news conference. “Any leadership will find movements from time to time
within a party,” Notley said. “Frankly, I would be surprised if our federal leader does not take a close look at this document.” For his part, Broadbent’s initial public response to the Blakeney-Notley statement was at least conciliatory. “I agree with 90 per cent of what’s in the document, and the other is open for debate,” he said.
The roots of western discontent in the NDP go back to the party’s last national convention two years ago. At that time a faction—again led by Blakeney, Notley and Romanow—squared off with Broadbent and the federal party establishment over the Constitution. Believing that Prime Minister Trudeau’s original constitutional package ignored the regional nature of Canada, the western dissidents tangled with the Broadbent forces in a floor debate over the party’s parliamentary support for the Trudeau package. Although the Broadbent position was upheld at the convention, many believed that the machinery had been set in motion for Broadbent’s demise. With 25 of the party’s 31 federal seats in the West, members want to reassert greater control of the party. Said Notley: “The notion that somehow we can plan the totality of the destiny of Canada from our capital in Ottawa is just not relevant in the 1980s.”
The motivation for greater western influence is based in large measure on the stark desire for political survival. Polls show the party at 16 per cent and slipping. Combined with the stunning defeat of Blakeney’s government last year and the party’s losses in British Columbia this spring, the western wing is running scared. The caucus in Ottawa, says one staff member for an MP, is like “cats in a bag, all trying to save their own skins.”
Last year, in an attempt to redefine itself and shore up its electoral base, the party announced that it would attempt to produce a new statement of principles at the Regina convention. But the process has been fraught with ongoing problems. Three such proposals, however, including the Blakeney-Notley draft—which missed the deadline to have it introduced as a resolution—will reach the convention floor. Federal secretary Gerry Caplan said last week that he sent copies of the statement to all members of the federal council with a letter recommending that they allow it to be introduced. Ironically, western dissidents regard Caplan as a symbol of Ontario’s control of the party structure. Perhaps because of the feelings of western members, Caplan said that he could “in large part” accept the Blakeney-Notley statement. But Caplan was less forthcoming about the way it was drafted: “You know I don’t want to make a judgment or say anything about that.” -DALE EISLER in Regina.
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