The issue has preoccupied New Democrats ever since the Nov. 21 federal election: if Edward Broadbent stepped down as leader, who could then improve the NDP’s fortunes and lead it into the future? Now, with Broadbent’s announcement that he will step down, party members have to confront the problems of leadership head on—at a time when they are already engaged in an active internal debate over the reasons for their disappointing showing in the election. Most members agree that the party has never been more in need of a dynamic, resourceful leader. And among many New Democrats there is a sense of concern that the party ranks contain no heir apparent to Broadbent.
Still, one veteran NDP member pointed out that Broadbent, one of the most popular politicians in Canada, was regarded by many party members as “a tweedy, academic nerd” and the best of a poor lot when he took the leadership in 1975. Added former NDP federal secretary Gerald Caplan: “Many people in the party have as much potential as Broadbent did in 1975.” But none of the potential candidates has generated excitement. And some New Democrats say that the leadership contest in Winnipeg later this year may be similar to the Conservatives’ 1976 leadership race, when an unknown named Joe Clark swept through a group of more experienced candidates to claim the leadership. Said Rodney Murphy, the NDP’s caucus whip: “This is a wide-open race. Anyone could take it.” Among the more prominent would-be contenders is Saskatchewan MP Lome Nystrom. In 1968, Nystrom, then 22, became one of the youngest people ever elected to the House of Commons. Seven years later, the boyish-looking former schoolteacher with an easy television manner was among the five candidates in the leadership race that Broadbent won. Now, if he decides to seek the leadership again, Nystrom could count on significant support from Western Canada and from Quebec—he is one of few potential contenders fluent in French. But many party members question whether his ability is as extensive as his ambition appears to be. Said one party official who has worked with him: “He is a quick brief, very good on television—and very shallow.”
Still, Nystrom’s bilingualism would be an asset. The NDP has never elected anyone in Quebec, but members say that they remain determined to establish the party in French
Canada. Said Murphy: “The candidates don’t have to be able to speak French fluently, but they will have to prove that they can learn.” At least two other possible leadership contenders in the NDP caucus—party House Leader Nelson Riis and Yukon MP Audrey McLaughlin— have demonstrated that capacity, and both are well-liked within the party. For his part, the soft-spoken Riis, 47, has earned the nickname “Nelson Nice.” And McLaughlin, 52, rapidly won the respect of her peers after winning a byelection in 1986. In January, they
elected her chairman of the NDP caucus.
Several party members said that McLaughlin will be under strong pressure to run. Said Caplan: “With all our rhetoric about feminism and equality, the party must run a credible woman for leader or be humiliated.” Other potential women candidates include Alexa McDonough, leader of the Nova Scotia NDP; and Johanna den Hertog, federal party president, who ran unsuccessfully in a Vancouver riding in the last election.
Some party members also say that Burnaby, B.C., MP Svend Robinson may also seek the leadership. Murphy said that Robinson, who publicly declared his homosexuality in 1988, would “probably run to prove a point.” But Ontario MP Howard McCurdy, who represents the riding of Windsor-Lake St. Clair, added that Robinson would have only an outside chance of winning. “Can a gay man lead a political party in Canada in 1989?” McCurdy asked. “A black? A woman? The country is ready for a woman as
leader, but I am not so sure about the others.”
Among other MPs who may take a run at the leadership is Steven Langdon, the member for Essex-Windsor in southwestern Ontario and the party’s economic development critic. And some members say that among potential candidates from outside the federal caucus, Antony Penikett, government leader in the Yukon, would likely attract considerable support. Penikett, 43, served as executive assistant to Broadbent in 1975 and 1976, and last month led his Yukon government—the only remaining NDP government in Canada—to re-election. Penikett, a former steelworker and screenplay writer, speaks some French.
As Broadbent drew down the curtain on his leadership, there was as much talk among party members about who would stay out of the race as who would step in. Few New Democrats said that they expected British Columbia MP David Barrett to run, although one friend
said that the puckish former provincial premier may decide to go for the national leadership. Also widely seen as a noncandidate: Robert White, the well-known leader of the Canadian Auto Workers union. Still, one unionist who said that White’s intentions were unclear added, “Who can read Bob?”
But the most prominent among those who are almost certain not to run is Stephen Lewis. Lewis, the articulate former leader of the Ontario NDP and former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, has stated many times that he does not want the job. Still, that has not stopped some prominent party members from encouraging him to do so. Caplan, a close friend of Lewis, said that those promoters will fail. Declared Caplan: “He will not run, period, and he is getting tired of people asking him if he will.” That will clearly leave the field wide open to other, more ambitious New Democrats.
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