He has mastered the treacherous art of politics—and now he wants to flex those skills. After 20 years as an MP, Edward Broadbent, 52, is an adroit parliamentarian, capable of devastating jabs at government folly. After six federal elections, he is a superb trooper—a self-described “happy campaigner”—who genuinely enjoys the hectic pace of the campaign trail. And, after 13 years as leader of the New Democratic Party, struggling with the frustrations of opposition, he is a politician in search of power: in this federal election, he wants to emerge as prime minister or at least as a pivotal player in a minority Parliament. As Broadbent’s close friend Joseph Levitt, a University of Ottawa history professor, told Maclean’s: “I believe that if he thought he was going to remain in opposition for the rest of his life, he would quit politics. He has better things to do—he has a whole life outside of politics.”
Broadbent’s growing ambition for his party has been matched by his party’s growing admiration for him. Confirmed as leader in 1975 after a bitter four-ballot leadership battle, he has topped the Gallup poll since September,
1986, as the federal leader who Canadians believe would make the best prime minister. NDP insiders told Maclean’s that Broadbent’s high stature ensures that there will not be a rebellion against his leadership after the next election—no matter how the party fares at the polls. Instead, if the party performs badly, Broadbent will likely question his own performance—and whether a new leader might perform better. If he concludes that he has not met his own standards, he would likely resign. As deputy campaign director Robin Sears declared: “He really likes his job. But if he were critical of his own performance or if he felt others might do a better job, no matter how enthusiastic he felt about continuing,
he would say that it was not acceptable [to stay].”
Some party insiders, who insisted on anonymity, believe that Broadbent has already set his own personal goals for the upcoming election: he wants to emerge with at least 45
seats or as a player in a minority government. Two senior strategists told Maclean’s that Broadbent will likely offer his resignation if he wins fewer than 45 seats in the 295-seat Parliament. If the NDP held the balance of power in Parliament, they added, the NDP would probably reject that resignation— and Broadbent would probably comply.
But if there is a majority government and
Broadbent fails to improve substantially his party’s current 32-seat position, the strategists say that the NDP would likely accept his resignation. Broadbent then would retire, as an honored elder statesman, and he would probably receive an offer to join an international organization such as Socialist International, a London-based organization of 58 democratic socialist parties from such nations as Britain, Norway and West Germany. Levitt speculated that Broadbent would also enjoy a challenging position at a Canadian university, perhaps a university chair, “something with social meaning.”
Broadbent’s current elevated stature in the party is ironic because many members were originally lukewarm about his leadership. The second of three children of working-class parents in Oshawa, Ont., he obtained a doctorate in political science from the University of Toronto in 1966. Two years later, in the 1968 federal election, he narrowly won the blue-collar constituency of Oshawa-Whitby. In 1975, although he had served as parliamentary leader following the defeat of NDP Leader David Lewis in the 1974 federal election, he faced a tough contest to win the party leadership. Then, throughout the early 1980s, as party faithful clashed over such issues as Broadbent’s endorsement of Liberal plans to patriate the Constitution, he survived several challenges to his authority, including an abortive, halfhearted coup by disaffected Westerners in the spring of 1984.
Undeterred, Broadbent simply persevered. His political speeches are now polished performances for the national media; his policies, a delicate balance between the ideals of the hard-line Socialists and programs that the average voter can comfortably espouse. Recently, for example, Broadbent said that the NDP had abandoned its plan to nationalize a Canadian bank on the grounds that the money could be better spent on national day care. As Judy Steed noted in Ed Broadbent: The Pursuit of Power. “The idealist grew into a pragmatist, pursuing power. For him the art of politics is a balancing act.”
For Broadbent, all speculation about his future is folly. As he
told Maclean’s on Sept. 7, “It is
entirely sensible to say that I could be the first NDP prime minister after the next election.” It is equally sensible to say that, whatever the election outcome, Broadbent and his party will likely remain on friendly terms.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.