Audrey McLaughlin bounded between the racks of shoes to reach a tattooed woman sitting on a black 1,100-cc motorcycle by a curb in downtown Oshawa. “I’m the leader of the New Democratic Party, and this is a campaign for the Aug. 13 federal byelection in Oshawa,” said McLaughlin, eyeing the motorcycle. “Have you come far? Where are you going? Is this bike difficult to manage?” Clearly taken aback by the sudden onslaught of questions at a summer sidewalk sale, the woman, who identified herself as Lee, sputtered that she had just finished a hard three-day ride from Calgary, was newly married and about to meet her in-laws, had owned motorcycles since 1985 and had suffered a muddy upset outside Saskatoon. “I haven’t the faintest clue who that was,” said Lee as McLaughlin moved on.
“But if she is a politician, she certainly is different.”
In the eight months since she promised to launch a “revolution” in the wake of her narrow victory as NDP leader at the Winnipeg convention last December,
McLaughlin’s attempts to be different have garnered mixed reviews—and little public recognition. Neither she nor her party has managed to capitalize significantly on the plummeting popularity of the governing Tories or the yearlong leadership vacuum that existed in the Liberal party prior to the June election of new leader Jean Chrétien. And with the NDP relegated to the periphery of national politics during the impassioned debate over the Meech Lake constitutional accord, McLaughlin has yet to establish a clear-cut policy to highlight her leadership— and show Canadians the course that her party will take.
That is in sharp contrast to her predecessor, Edward Broadbent, who retired as Canada’s most popular politician after 14 years at the helm of the NDP.
Still, the Yukon MP and first woman to lead a federal political party in Canada has attracted the interest of many political analysts and the loyalty of her 42-member caucus with a lowkey style that may yet redefine the role of political leadership in the 1990s. With few exceptions, she is known to seek a wide range of opinions rather than impose her personal stamp on party decisions. And unlike Broadbent, the single most visible driving force of the
NDP before his retirement, McLaughlin deliberately downplays her public position as leader. Instead, she relies on the strengths of more experienced and aggressive members of her caucus to score political points. Some New Democrats express reservations about the new leader—largely because of the extent of her consensual style—but, for the most part, they applaud the changes. Said Kamloops MP and NDP House Leader Nelson Riis: “Audrey lacks some of the political shine. Because of her, however, we are turning the caucus into a finely tuned operation—as opposed to an Old Boys political club.”
But NDP members say that they are con-
cerned because that positive message is not reaching the disgruntled electorate. They add that she has been treated unfairly in the media. Five months after her election, one newspaper headline described her progress with the headline “From hero to zero.” Another recent article derided her July 13 effort to deliver food to the Mohawks on the barricades at Oka, Que., as a foolhardy publicity stunt. And some prominent New Democrats say that McLaughlin must tum her attention to improving her public standing. Said Robert White, leader of the Canadian Auto Workers union: “At the end of the day, Audrey will probably decide that she—and not other caucus members—needs to make the high-profile announcements.” Criticism of McLaughlin has also been fuelled by the NDP’s lack of movement in public opinion polls. Although the party enjoyed a record high of 41 per cent in July, 1987—the highest rating for the NDP in its 29 years of existence—during Broadbent’s final days as leader, it had fallen to 25 per cent—a figure
that has not improved significantly under McLaughlin. Indeed, although the party’s popularity rose to 27 per cent in February, according to a July Gallup poll it has since fallen to 23 per cent—ahead of the Tories at 19 per cent, but well behind Chrétien’s Liberals, who led with 49 per cent.
McLaughlin’s personal rating was also low in that poll. When asked which political leader would make the best prime minister, only 18 per cent of respondents picked her, ahead of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s 14 per cent but well beiow Chrétien’s 30 per cent—and significantly less than the 35-per-cent rating enjoyed by Broadbent at his peak in 1987. But, said Riis, “It took Ed Broadbent a full decade before people felt comfortable calling him Uncle Ed.” And Lome Bozinoff, vice-president of Gallup, noted that Broadbent’s popularity had swung widely, to a plateau just under 20 per cent from a low of five per cent. Said Bozinoff: “In that light, Audrey is right on track. If she is faster off the mark and leads the initiative three or four times, the numbers will move.”
In fact, McLaughlin appears unconcerned by either the polls—or her critics. “My objectives in the first six months were to get my personal office functioning, to reflect my style and to unite my caucus,” the 53-year-old leader told Maclean’s. “I know what I’m doing.” For one thing, she has shifted the power base of the federal party in Ottawa from the clutch of advisers who ruled during the last half of Broadbent’s tenure to a broader network of MPs, party mem2 bers and labor contacts. In2 deed, according to Leo 2 Gérard, Ontario director of the United Steelworkers of America, relations between the NDP and organized labor have never been more congenial. “There is a possibility that Audrey can be what we need,” said Gérard. “She needs to develop her speaking style, but her personal abilities are just fantastic. She’s got no airs about her.”
McLaughlin’s personal accessibility—and what NDP members describe as an unusual thoughtfulness—is in step with the greater degree of openness within the party. The divorced mother of two grown children often walks the three blocks between her Parliament Hill office and her small apartment in Ottawa’s bustling Bytown Market neighborhood. Caucus members frequently find personal notes attached to official correspondence from the leader. But McLaughlin’s own life is clearly focused on work. Noted B.C. MP James Fulton: “Audrey’s strongest attributes are her ability to combine a fearsome capacity for work with an ability to discuss very deeply with people their own personal interests.”
At the same time, she has unified a divided
caucus in the aftermath of the Winnipeg convention by shrewdly delegating responsibility and expanding the duties of individual members. “Audrey’s style is often misread as a lack of policy or direction,” said political scientist Alan Whitehom, specialist in the NDP at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. “To the contrary, her deliberately decentralized and consensual style fits more into the newer evolutionary wave of 1990s socialists.”
That approach appears to have produced some positive results. For one thing, many observers expected the outspoken Vancouver Island MP and former B.C. premier David Barrett to leave the federal arena after his leadership loss by 244 votes to McLaughlin. Instead, colleagues say that Barrett has been galvanized by being able to lead the NDP’s fight against the government’s Goods and Services Tax (GST), scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1. With McLaughlin’s encouragement, Barrett teamed up with the similarly aggressive Nickel Belt MP John Rodriguez to form what caucus members call “the nasty boys.” Their raucous antics during a three-week political siege of the parliamentary committee hearings on the GST— including a 10-hour filibuster—grabbed headlines and effectively stalled the parliamentary progress of the tax bill. “The assumption was that I had lost control to the two,” McLaughlin said. “Not only did I let them do that, I planned it. We are a small caucus and we have to use our strengths where we’ve got them. That, to me, is the sign of a good leader.”
But other leadership decisions that McLaughlin has taken have met different reac-
tions. In the spirit of consensus, McLaughlin asked caucus members to submit their visions of NDP economic strategy—in three sentences. Declared Toronto MP Daniel Heap: “I could no sooner outline my ideas on the economy in three pages, let alone three sentences.” Rodriguez, for another, says that he is frustrated at what he sees as the party’s newfound obsession with finding a common and united ground on every issue. Added the MP, who supported Barrett and who once accused McLaughlin of surrounding herself with “feministas”: “There comes a time when the politics of conviction have to overtake the politics of consensus.”
Most caucus members say that whatever internal differences still exist reflect in part an adjustment to the radical change in leadership style under McLaughlin. Said Essex/Windsor MP Steven Langdon, who finished third in the leadership race and now says that he is watching McLaughlin’s development with admiration: “There are probably some people in the party who feel Audrey is going to fall flat on her face. They are uncomfortable with her feminist style of leadership that gets away from the macho style of the past.” But others have more specific concerns, comparing McLaughlin’s awkwardness in front of TV cameras unfavorably with Broadbent’s relaxed approach in his latter years, or contrasting her conciba tory style to Barrett’s more aggressive demeanor.
Still other party members say that they are uncertain about McLaughlin’s tendency to give too much authority and responsibility to her colleagues. This week, in the critical walk-up to Aug. 13 byelections in Broadbent’s former
riding of Oshawa and Montreal’s Laurier/SteMarie, McLaughlin is in Norway, speaking as the only invited Canadian leader at an international conference on aboriginal women’s rights. Her presence would likely have little effect on the Montreal campaign, in which independent sovereigntist candidate Gilles Duceppe enjoys a strong lead in the polls. But some New Democrats were clearly concerned about her absence from Oshawa.
Although the NDP is fielding a strong, highprofile candidate—Michael Breaugh, the local member of the provincial legislature since 1975—the Liberals spent lavishly and sent as many as 50 MPs, as well as Chrétien, into the riding to support their candidate, school board trustee Kathy O’Flynn. McLaughlin campaigned with Breaugh three times, but some observers still said that she was taking a risk in leaving the country during such a crucial byelection. Said one senior NDP official: “We are prepared to lose in Quebec. But to lose Oshawa would be a strike at the very heart of the NDP.”
Still, the biggest test of McLaughlin’s fledgling leadership will arise when Parliament reconvenes in the fall. It is then that both the party and its leader will have to turn outward to deal with the larger issues that face them: the threat of the Reform Party in the NDP’s western strongholds, the bleak prospects in Quebec and the perception that the NDP is a directionless party led by a political neophyte. It is then that Audrey McLaughlin will have to prove that she does, indeed, know what she is doing.
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