A race without stars

A little-known Yukon MP leads the NDP hopefuls

CHRIS WOOD June 5 1989

A race without stars

A little-known Yukon MP leads the NDP hopefuls

CHRIS WOOD June 5 1989

A race without stars


A little-known Yukon MP leads the NDP hopefuls

She is a 52-year-old grandmother with addresses in Whitehorse and Ottawa and a taste for world travel. Last week, Audrey McLaughlin, member of Parliament for the Yukon since she won a byelection in July, 1987, became the first woman to join the contest to succeed Ed Broadbent at a convention to be held in Winnipeg at the end of November. Her opponents so far are three fellow NDP MPs and two nonelected party members. But McLaughlin demonstrated a degree of support from the party’s caucus that has so far eluded other candidates—no fewer than she serving and three former NDP MPs stood beside her as she announced her intention to run at a midday reception in Ottawa on May 24. The gesture reflected McLaughlin’s reputation within the party as a superb organizer. But it also vaulted the relatively littleknown MP to the forefront of the pack in the opening days of what has so far been a quiet campaign.

In fact, even some party members who were not openly supporting McLaughlin were relieved that she had entered the race. Said one adviser to Broadbent: “Thank God we have someone in the race who is organized. She doesn’t embarrass us; some of the others did.” For a party that as recently as last summer seemed on the verge of overtaking the Liberals as Canada’s official opposition, the New Democrats are suffering from a paucity of brandname candidates in the race. As well, the party remained mired in third place with the committed support of just 20 per cent of Canadians in last November’s election, and 43 members in the 295-seat House of Commons. The NDP was again unable to make its long-hoped-for breakthrough in Quebec, a critical province for any party with national ambitions (page 17). Elsewhere, there is disagreement over the party’s ties to organized labor, its economic platform and even whether it should strive for power at all if it means compromising important political principles. Said University of Toronto economist Mel Watkins, a veteran party activist: “There is a widespread feeling that we are adrift.”

That feeling may partly explain why several of the NDP’s most prominent stars have so far steered clear of the race. The high-profile list includes Stephen Lewis, the party’s Ontario leader in the 1970s and Canada’s United Nations ambassador from 1984 until 1988; Saskatchewan party chief Roy Romanow; Ontario NDP chief Robert Rae; and Canadian Auto Workers union president Robert White. But while the contest may yet attract more prominent candidates, party members in several regions of the country told Maclean ’s that only a profound re-evaluation of the NDP’s policies

would dispel the sense of drift. Noted Watkins, for one: “We need to sit down and decide where this party is going.”

For her part, McLaughlin has few uncertainties about her direction. Since becoming NDP caucus chairman following last November’s federal election, the divorced mother of two grown children has spent much of her time travelling the country speaking to local party organizations. And two weeks before announcing her candidacy, she began calling provincial leaders and senior party officials, firming up the beginning of a national campaign organization. The efforts have given her a national profile among party members. Said Elizabeth Weir, leader of the party’s New Brunswick wing: “She’s a real quick study. She understands the importance of building strength in the regions.”

Indeed, McLaughlin’s background and brief political experience reveal an individualist with

a curiosity about geographic differences. In 1978, after four years as executive director of the Toronto branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Ontario-born social worker sold most of her belongings, bought a pickup truck and drove to the Yukon, where she knew no one. In Whitehorse, she established a practice as a consultant for the federal and territorial govem-

widely in Europe, Africa and South America. Recalled Whitehorse environmental planner Nancy MacPherson, who joined McLaughlin on a trip to Mexico four years ago: “Travel has given her a tremendous view of the world.”

At the same time, since winning the seat vacated by former Tory cabinet minister Erik Nielsen, McLaughlin has worked to stay in touch with her scattered constituents. She makes regular visits to isolated communities, knocking on doors for chats and occasionally hand-delivering news releases. Last December, McLaughlin flew to the tiny northern Yukon village of Old Crow to spend New Year’s Eve with the hamlet’s 250 Loucheux Indians. Says MacPherson: “People were so amazed she would go there to be with them.” Still, McLaughlin’s socia~ bility and humor—she 2 once remarked that the s sole advantage that male 2 politicians have over

the campaign women is “comfortable shoes”—mask a steely

determination. Observed former B.C. NDP MP James Manley: “She is a great organizer, a good administrator. And she is tough.” Certainly, McLaughlin has breathed life into the campaign. None of the three other MPs in the race—Simon de Jong of Saskatchewan, Ian Waddell of British Columbia and Steven Langdon of Ontario—has so far demonstrated more than a smattering of support among the party’s grassroots members. Of the three, Waddell, 46, a 10year veteran MP from Vancouver, has shown the strongest profile, criticizing outgoing leader Broadbent for allowing the party to suffer “hardening of the arteries.” Langdon, 42, an MP from Windsor, Ont., since 1984, is considered among the most intelligent members of the party’s caucus. But he suffers from a handicap in the age of media politics, an inherited condition that sometimes causes his voice to waver. And de Jong’s campaign got off to a bad start when the 47-year-old Regina MP, another 10-year veteran

of the Commons, announced his candicacy in a single interview on April 28 that received little attention amid the furor over the federal budget leak earlier the same week. The two other candidates—Roger Lagasse of British Columbia and Edgar Ryan of Gatineau, Que.,—are virtual unknowns.

The favorite among the potential leadership candidates would clearly be the articulate Lewis, 51.

Now teaching at the University of Toronto, Lewis has come under strong pressure to enter the race. At one private meeting in April, Romanow,

White, and provincial leaders Rae of Ontario, Gary Doer of Manitoba and Alexa McDonough of Nova Scotia all urged Lewis to run. But Lewis has said repeatedly that he has no desire to return to a political arena that he considers exhausting and often demeaning—leaving only a slim chance that he might respond to a draft. Remarked Toronto historian Desmond Morton, author of three books on the NDP: “If everyone from here to the North Pole lies on the ground and grovels, he’ll take it. If there’s a two-foot gap somewhere up around Baffin Island, he won’t.”

Other party stars have other reasons for shying away from the race. For his part, Ontario’s Rae—41, and one of the few bilingual potential candidates—is preoccupied with his family: his younger brother, David, is fighting cancer. Regina’s Romanow, meanwhile, may

see more potential in defeating Saskatchewan’s embattled Conservative Premier Grant Devine than in leading a perennial opposition party in Ottawa. And federal party president Johanna den Hertog has seen her political stock slip since she failed to win a Vancouver seat in last fall’s federal election. But David Barrett, a former B.C. premier and now an MP from

Vancouver Island, is still considering a bid, as are White and Saskatchewan MP Lome Nystrom. Many analysts consider Barrett, who will be 59 in October, to be a spent force. But Nystrom, 43, an MP since 1968, could be buoyed by his command of French. McLaughlin, in contrast, admitted last week that she was not bilingual.

But it is a campaign by the prominent and outspoken unionist White, 54, who broke his Canadian Auto Workers away from the U.S.based United Auto Workers in 1984, that could sharpen the policy debate. Some New Democrats, particularly in the West, are uncomfortable with the traditional influence of unions in the party’s affairs and see it as an electoral millstone. For that reason, many western members would oppose a White candidacy. But at the same time, White struck a responsive chord among many grassroots party members shortly after last fall’s federal election, when he criticized the conduct of the party’s campaign.

White’s traditional views of the NDP-labor alliance, however, could underline his differences with McLaughlin, who said last week that she has not sought union endorsements. Indeed, McLaughlin has noted

0 that during the last election, ^ polls suggested that voters 2 had little confidence in the g party’s ability to manage the

1 economy. “If Canadians think 1/1 we are weak on economic issues, we should address that perception head on,” she told

Maclean ’s. “We need to demonstrate that we can be responsible economic managers.” For the moment, McLaughlin will need to demonstrate that her appeal in the party can be translated to the nation at large.