It was, at times, an unusually brutal political display from a party that prides itself on benevolence. But in the end, the New Democratic Party leadership convention delivered the predicted showdown between its two leading candidates. And it ushered in a new era in North American politics when Audrey McLaughlin staved off a late challenge from former B.C. premier David Barrett to become the first woman to lead a major national political party. Her victory capped a race in which McLaughlin led from the start. But little else that occurred in the charged atmosphere of the Winnipeg Convention Centre last Saturday unfolded according to expectations. McLaughlin’s turbulent road to victory was marked by dramatic swings in mood, momentum and political allegiance. And when she finally captured the party leadership by 144 votes after four ballots, an exuberant McLaughlin pledged that, under her leadership, the New Democrats had launched “a revolution.”
With her victory, McLaughlin, 53, inherited the leadership mantle of Canadian democratic socialism that has been passed down from such legendary political titans as J. S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas. But as the former social worker replaces outgoing leader Edward Broadbent, McLaughlin inherits a party that is increasingly perceived as being adrift on policy and in danger of being relegated to the periphery of national politics. In fact, the convention demonstrated that the party was willing to postpone any detailed debate over what it wants to stand for in the 1990s.
Charisma: In large measure, the party made its choice between two leadership styles, forsaking the undeniable charisma of Barrett for the unknown potential of a second-term MP from the Yukon who promised to bridge the party’s numerous divisions (page 23). But it also turned its back firmly on Barrett’s oldstyle stump socialism in favor of a hazily defined vision of a new kind of politics under McLaughlin. And, just as importantly, in its rejection of Barrett, the party appeared to hold out a slim olive branch to Quebec, the province where it has historically been viewed with the most suspicion. At the outset of his leadership campaign, Barrett had harshly dismissed Quebec’s demands for a constitutional settlement with the rest of the country. McLaughlin, although she voted against the Meech Lake accord in Parliament, said that she accepted Quebec’s five minimum conditions for such a settlement—including the contentious constitutional recognition of the province as a “distinct society.”
Much of McLaughlin’s victory can be attributed to a superior and well-funded organization that spent more than $80,000 raised from 556 contributors—15 times as many as Barrett. The strength of that organization enabled McLaughlin to rebound after she delivered an uninspiring speech to delegates on the night before the balloting. McLaughlin’s ability to withstand Barrett’s late charge was a tribute to the breadth and depth of her support: a coalition that included an aggressive feminist wing determined to see one of their own achieve office; an influential array of the party’s Ontario establishment; and those delegates, including most of the 65-member Quebec delegation, who refused to back Barrett at any price. The message in her victory, said defeated candidate Howard McCurdy, was “that it was time to change this party.”
Defeat: For Barrett, the seeds of his bitter defeat were sown from the day he declared his last-minute candidacy in September and was immediately tagged as McLaughlin’s main challenger. Barrett’s statements at his Ottawa news conference, attacking the “preoccupation with Quebec” in federal politics, haunted him throughout the race.
For a time, however, it appeared that Barrett’s populist appeal was what the party thought it needed to match the political and oratorical skills of Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the man whom most New Democrats consider the most likely successor to John Turner as Liberal leader, Jean Chrétien. Barrett was only 80 votes behind McLaughlin on the first ballot.
But that was just the beginning of a long afternoon and evening of allegiances made and broken. After the first ballot, Vancouver-area MP Ian Waddell, who had come sixth—just ahead of last-place fringe candidate Roger Lagassé of Sechelt, B.C.—released his 213 delegates to be “free spirits.” Then, he cut through the crowd to join Barrett. Windsor-area MPs McCurdy and Steven Langdon, with combined first-ballot support of 687 votes, formed a southern Ontario coalition at the urging of Ontario NDP Leader Bob Rae.
But McCurdy’s support for Langdon proved to be a mere flirtation. After the second round of balloting, with McLaughlin holding an even slimmer 49-vote lead over Barrett, McCurdy crossed to the McLaughlin camp. Said Leo Gerard, Ontario director of the United Steelworkers, who escorted McCurdy to McLaughlin’s side: “I told Howard we had to make changes in the party. Langdon couldn’t win.” Langdon, to the anger of some, stayed in the race until he was knocked off after the third ballot. By then, Saskatchewan MP Simon de Jong had also thrown his support behind McLaughlin, confounding Barrett, who had been assured of his support by de Jong’s top organizers. In fact, Barrett had already left his seat to meet de Jong halfway when he learned that his western colleague had slipped into McLaughlin’s comer. Explained de Jong: “My head said David, but my heart said Audrey.”
Emotion: McLaughlin’s victory came without the traditional blocks of labor support that have proven to be electoral hurdles for some NDP leaders in the past. Although McLaughlin had individual pledges of support from such union leaders as Gerard and Canadian Auto Workers president Robert White, no labor leader claimed to be able to deliver a union block of votes. And the divisions in labor were intensified when Canadian Labour Congress president Shirley Carr, whose organization embraces 2.2 million workers, made an emotional last-ballot endorsement of Barrett.
As they emerge from the eight-month leadership battle, the New Democrats must deal with more than simply the divisions that have been driven among the various leadership camps. The roughly 2,400 delegates who voted for their new party leader in the end left unresolved how best to bring the party into the Canadian political mainstream. Despite electing a record 43 members to Parliament in the 1988 election, the party stalled at 20 per cent of the national popular vote—about the same percentage of electors that has supported the party in most federal elections during the past three decades. And it failed once again to claim a single seat in Quebec. Indeed, with only 10 of its MPs representing ridings east of Manitoba—all in Ontario—the NDP remains the overwhelmingly western force that it has been throughout its history (page 26).
Nor can McLaughlin look forward to a long honeymoon as leader. Her constitutional stance is especially likely to be tested early, as the country confronts the mounting crisis over whether the Meech Lake accord can be ratified by its June, 1990, deadline. As well, the party is adrift on many other policy issues. For one thing, there is no consensus on how to alter the party’s foreign policy—which highlights withdrawal from NATO and Norad—in the wake of the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe. The NDP must also come to grips with the economic consequences that would result from its call for stiffer environmental laws—including the displacement of unionized workers in polluting industries. And, other than de Jong, none of the candidates showed any willingness to address the issue of Canada’s perennial budget deficit.
In Winnipeg, policy clearly took a backseat to the politics of personality. Barrett, the most charismatic of the candidates, was the last of them to arrive in Winnipeg. He spent his final campaign day in Montreal—a stop that allowed him to boast that he had campaigned in every province. But the gambit nearly backfired: by delaying his departure for Winnipeg, Barrett barely avoided being held up by a southern Ontario blizzard that crippled air travel. And he landed in the midst of the prime topic of conversation on the first morning of the convention: the arrest on a shoplifting charge of veteran Saskatchewan MP Lome Nystrom (page 24). Barrett described the charges as a “minor incident” of “major embarrassment” to both Nystrom and the party.
Levity: The following day, Barrett joined the six other contenders in a two-hour question-and-answer session described on the agenda as a “bear pit.” Despite the name, the session drew little political blood. In fact, none of the candidates seemed eager to take chances as they fielded tamely worded questions about their stands on such issues as the economy, the Constitution, and women’s rights. For the most part, they relied on time-tested party shibboleths, attacking the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, government favoritism towards business, and discrimination against minorities. In one rare moment of levity, candidate Langdon argued for better protection of the environment on the grounds, he quipped, that “good planets are hard to find.” But in the audience, some delegates toyed with balloons, and others dozed.
But if the bear-pit session revealed only superficial differences between the candidates, tense backroom negotiations were already under way as the various camps sought support from noncommittal delegates. For all the candidates, organized labor, which fielded about 25 per cent of the delegates, was an especially critical group. Among the first acknowledged convention power brokers to make his preference for leader clear was the CAW’s White. The 54-year-old unionist had shunned McLaughlin’s entreaties for an endorsement earlier in the campaign. At the same time, three top CAW executives were split among McCurdy, Langdon and McLaughlin, as were the union’s roughly 100 delegates. But White faced acute pressure from within his own 160,000-member union to declare his support. In the end, White listened to his personal assistant and McLaughlin’s floor organizer, Carol Phillips, making his decision over dinner at a downtown restaurant on Wednesday night.
Flat: But White’s wavering was typical of labor’s uncertainty about all of the candidates. Indeed, when Gerard followed White into McLaughlin’s camp within hours, his endorsement was only lukewarm. The head of the 160,000-member Steelworkers union had openly rejected McLaughlin midway through her campaign, describing her as a political lightweight. And in announcing his late recruitment to her camp, he told reporters, “My candidates are Stephen Lewis and Bob Rae, but they are not running.” Added Gerard of McLaughlin: “But she is the best of the rest.” Even so, Gerard acknowledged after McLaughlin’s flat speech that she could likely count on only half of his union’s delegates.
Still, the divided support of labor in the end affected the outcome of the convention less than the question of the party’s approach to Quebec and the Meech Lake accord. In the wake of the signing of the Meech accord in June, 1987, the NDP at first officially endorsed the agreement. And Broadbent, who worked energetically to court voters in Quebec during his term as leader, had remained among its most vocal supporters. But a growing number of party members have had second thoughts. For her part, McLaughlin—who campaigned against the accord on her way to winning her Yukon seat in a byelection on July 20,1987—won Broadbent’s permission to break with the party’s federal caucus and vote against ratification of the accord in Parliament.
Before last week’s convention, the party’s federal council had sought to reconcile those divisions over Meech with a resolution that avoided direct mention of the accord. Instead, it committed the party to work for unspecified “constitutional improvements.” But even that awkward compromise failed to win support from several key elements of the party. And in the end, the convention called on the party to seek “improvements and changes to the Meech Lake accord.” Among them: new terms to address the concerns of aboriginal people, the North and women. Said British Columbia MLA Joan Smallwood: “We were trying to put together a motion that would support Quebec but, at the same time, break the impasse.” More significantly, when the resolution came to a debate, Broadbent endorsed its wording.
Dismay: Although the final phrasing of the resolution may have averted open Quebec-bashing on the convention floor, the vote deeply dismayed Meech supporters and Quebec delegates alike. Leaders of the party’s Quebec wing said that they had been betrayed. And they warned that the resolution would dash the party’s hopes for a long-sought breakthrough in Quebec when voters in the Montreal-area riding of Chambly go to the polls in a federal byelection on Feb. 12. The seat became vacant last May when Tory MP Richard Grisé resigned after pleading guilty to charges of fraud. Philip Edmonston, the NDP’s candidate in Chambly, told the convention: “I am not saying this to be menacing. I am not saying this to engage in blackmail. But that breakthrough will not be made because of what you have decided today.”
That dismay was echoed among other supporters of the Meech accord, notably such Ontario-based party figures as provincial leader Rae and former leader Stephen Lewis. Observed Lewis, who doubled as both a voting delegate and a CBC-TV commentator at the convention: “Our party still has not learned that the Quebec question transcends other issues.” And Lewis lashed out at Broadbent’s failure to stand by his defence of the Meech accord. “Broadbent,” Lewis declared, “could have chosen to leave over a question of honor and principle.”
Example: The remark was not the only taint on the party’s leave-taking from its leader of the past 14 years. At a dinner on Thursday night in tribute to Broadbent’s remarkable career, a cadre of prominent party members lauded the man who established himself as the most popular national party leader of the 1980s. But the accolades were bittersweet for Broadbent, who once thought briefly—and, as it turned out, falsely—that he had led his chronically third-place party within reach of power when it topped opinion polls for a period in 1987. There were no open references to previous criticism of Broadbent’s politics: the moderation that, by the time of the 1988 federal election, had estranged the party from labor; and his decision early in that campaign to ignore free trade, leaving the issue to the Liberals. Instead, Kamloops MP Nelson Riis told Broadbent that “You led by example, and we followed you.” And the Canadian Labour Congress’s Carr presented the Oshawa MP with a going-away gift: the keys to last year’s Buick.
Despite the muted criticism, Broadbent’s farewell speech to delegates on Friday reminded delegates of how far he had come since he was first elected to Parliament in 1968. To prolonged and genuine applause, and at least four standing ovations, Broadbent flung aside his prepared text and thundered his final message. “We are all part of one family,” he shouted. “It is the acceptance of individuality that makes for enrichment. So too in our nation, diversity is what makes us flourish.” By late that afternoon, however, Broadbent was just another delegate, waiting his turn at microphone number 6.
Women: His successor’s victory highlighted the rising political force of New Democrat women. Party officials estimated that at least half of the delegates were women. “We tried to bring everyone into the process,” said Edmonton MLA Marie Laing, a member of the self-styled “Sisters From Hell,” an informal NDP women’s network. “It is simply a question of being politically active versus the old-style, male-dominated brokerage politics.” Even so, McLaughlin’s handlers tried to protect her from accusations that she was leading a feminist crusade. “There were a lot of strong feminists behind the campaign,” said Patricia Gibson, a Vancouver McLaughlin-campaign worker. “But she was not sold as a feminist.”
Still, some McLaughlin opponents attacked what Ontario MP John Rodriguez, a Barrett supporter, described as “the feministas.” Said Calgary MLA Barry Pashak: “Some delegates tried to deny the existence of a strong feminist bloc, but there is a women’s group that simply decided it was time for a woman leader.” And with McLaughlin as leader, the role of women in the party is certain to be a larger factor. Already, McLaughlin has insisted that women candidates be nominated in at least half of the so-called winnable ridings during the next federal election.
But the face of the party is also aging. Only 57 youth delegates were present in Winnipeg to help select the new leader. “Youth are always shortchanged,” Halifax student Lou Arab angrily told the convention when the chairman tried to cut off debate on youth issues. Added Arab: “We are never going to build this party, God damn it, unless we spend more time listening to the young.” As well, the sea of white faces in the convention hall demonstrated that the NDP membership, in contrast to its rhetorical support for minorities, does not accurately reflect Canada’s burgeoning multicultural communities. Said McCurdy: “The party has to be more inclusive if it wants to reflect the diversity of this country. Right now, it does not.”
Guarded: With little evidence of new directions in the party’s thinking, many NDP activists admit that the party remains largely content to rest its appeal upon the policies it has long proposed. And despite the closeness of the final vote, the lack of palpable excitement in the leadership race before the convention underscored what many party members expressed in guarded backroom whispers: that McLaughlin would be regarded in some quarters of the party as an interim leader only. In fact, even before the convention was over, many party members were speaking about the prospects of another leadership convention in four years. Privately, some advisers to Rae were promoting the merits of the bilingual Ontario leader should McLaughlin falter.
Other party figures acknowledged that the NDP confronts unfamiliar challenges in the 1990s, both on the issues and within its own membership. “We are a party of professionals as well as workers,” said B.C. NDP Leader Michael Harcourt. “We have not lost our reformist impulses, but we are spending more time trying to factor elements such as the quality of life into our economic decisions rather than talking about tearing the economic system down.” For her part, Nancy Riche, executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, observed: “During the  election, the polls indicated we were not strong on the economy, so we pretended there wasn’t one. We have an economic platform, but we still look scared about the issue.” And Saskatchewan NDP Leader Roy Romanow added: “We must find a way to live in a competitive world, where trading barriers are coming down and where market forces are a reality. Clearly, there is no future for the party if it supports the idea that the market economy is dead.”
That tone is a far cry from that heard in other quarters of the NDP, where some members clearly yearn for a return to the party’s ideological roots and a reaffirmation of its stature as the social conscience of Canada. And there were those at last week’s convention who saw in it evidence that the NDP has succumbed to the same style of hard-edged brokerage politics that characterizes Liberal and Tory conventions. For Audrey McLaughlin, the challenge will be to avoid becoming captive to either extreme as she leads a deeply troubled party into a new era.