SO LONG, SOLIDARITY
On paper, the party is in an enviable position. More than half of all Canadians live in provinces governed by the New Democratic Party. At the federal level, NDP activists are laying the groundwork for a fall election campaign against an unpopular Conservative government and a Liberal Opposition whose leader, Jean Chrétien, has been denounced by critics as “yesterday’s man.” Across the country, 1.5 million men and women are out of work and looking to Ottawa for a bold new economic vision. After nine years of Tory rule, Canadians from coast to coast are hungry for change and a more responsive, down-to-earth style of government—precisely the sort of populist alternative that New Democrats have long championed.
Why, then, are so many New Democrats across the country feeling dejected and demoralized?
DEJECTED AND DEMORALIZED, NDP ACTIVISTS ACCUSE THE PARTY OF BETRAYING OLD IDEALS
Peter Cassidy, a loyal NDP foot soldier for 28 of his 43 years, epitomizes the party’s malaise. An environmental and social activist who ran unsuccessfully for the party in the 1985 provincial election, Cassidy helped Ontario NDP candidates get elected in 1990 by canvassing for them in and around Hamilton, Ont. He was also an organizer for the anti-poverty protest groups that dogged thenLiberal premier David Peterson on the campaign trail. On the night that party leader Bob Rae defied predictions by becoming the first New Democrat premier in the country’s most populous province, Cassidy celebrated by dancing and drinking. But now that euphoria has turned to disgust over what Cassidy calls Rae’s “corporate, right-wing agenda”—including the provincial government’s decision to cut social services and roll back the salaries of as many as 950,000 public sector workers.
So deep is Cassidy’s anger, in fact, that there is a good chance that he will work to defeat the Rae government in the next election, expected in 1995. “Imagine the Premier going around the province and getting picketed by teachers, environmentalists, injured workers, poverty groups—the same people who used to work for him,” says Cassidy, now an executive member of the party’s riding association in Wentworth East, near Hamilton. On top of that, Cassidy predicts that Rae’s policies will have a disastrous impact on federal NDP Leader Audrey McLaughlin in the coming federal election. “I have a real fear that the NDP may be wiped out as a political force in this country. We’ve lost our raison d’être. If we’re not the party of labor and working people, why do we exist?”
It is a question that many New Democrats are asking them-
selves—sometimes angrily, sometimes philosophically—as they watch NDP governments in Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan grapple with crippling deficits and public outrage over rising taxes. Since the birth of the NDP’s predecessor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, in 1932, social democrats across Canada have fought for expanded social programs, public ownership and greater use of state planning to narrow the gap between rich and poor. But those goals are clearly out of step with the anti-government, belt-tightening mood of the 1990s. Instead of looking to build on their recent electoral successes, many left-leaning activists are mired in soul-searching. “The true believers are shaken,” says Philip Edmonston, the party’s lone Quebec MP, who plans not to run in the coming election. “The party has got to go through a cleansing. It has to grapple with the fact that it has more than one vision.” Adds Colin Gabelmann, Attorney General of British Columbia and a New Democrat MLA first elected in 1972: “During the glory days, the approach was to throw money at problems. Now we’re all trying to find socialdemocratic responses to an era of limited resources.”
As she prepares to wage her first national campaign as party leader, McLaughlin must struggle not only with the future of social democracy but also with an array of day-today political headaches. The most embarrassing of those is her party’s dismal showing in recent public-opinion polls. According to an Angus Reid/Southam News poll released on Saturday, the NDP has the support of nine per cent of decided voters, compared to 39 per cent for the Liberals and 35 per cent for the Tories. The Reform party and Bloc Québécois each had seven per cent. “No one is denying that we face a challenge,” McLaughlin told Maclean’s last week during a two-week pre-election tour through Western Canada. “But what am I supposed to tell the stalwarts of the party and our candidates—‘Oh well, we’re at nine per cent in the polls so you might as well pack it in and go home’?”
McLaughlin, 56, a former social worker who is the fourth leader of the NDP since its founding in 1961, acknowledges that many party members are unhappy with the records of the Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia governments, believing that
“The trouble with socialists is that they let their bleeding hearts go to their bloody heads.”
A favorite saying of Tommy Douglas (1904-1986), a CCF founder and first federal NDP leader
has no authority over her provincial counterparts. “I am not Bob Rae’s boss. Some people think that all I have to do is tell [the NDP premiers] they shouldn’t do something and they’ll say, ‘Oh, Audrey called. She thinks we shouldn’t do that.’ ”
The tensions within the NDP camp burst into the open in April when one of the federal party’s most respected members, Windsor MP Steven Langdon, lashed out at Rae for fighting the provincial deficit on the backs of unionized workers. ‘There is no way that I can stay true to the beliefs for which I sought election to fight, no way that I can keep faith with the thousands who elected me as an MP . . . unless I speak out against this economic direction in Ontario,” Langdon said in an open letter to the Ontario premier. “Please reconsider what your government is doing.”
A day later, McLaughlin fired Langdon as the party’s finance critic, saying that he had lost the confidence of the federal NDP caucus. But Langdon continues to speak out against Rae—and caucus colleagues such as MPs Dan Heap of Toronto, John Rodriguez of Sudbury and David Barrett of Vancouver Island have voiced support for his position. The party is suffering a real identity crisis,” Langdon told Maclean’s. “When I go off to Newfoundland, for instance, the discussion tends not so much to be about Audrey and the federal party, but about what Bob Rae is doing. The reality is that he is blotting out Audrey’s message.”
Ontario’s 45-year-old premier, however, appears sanguine about the attacks from former allies. In a Maclean’s interview last week in his Queen’s Park office, he pointed out that even Tommy Douglas, a founder of the CCF, the NDP’s first federal leader and a legendary figure of the Canadian left, faced accusations during his career that he was betraying socialism. “Look at the reality of the party instead of the mythology,” Rae said. “I mean, Tommy Douglas didn’t introduce medicare as soon as he entered office [as Saskatchewan premier in 1944]. He had to get out of debt. He had to pay his way. He had to deal with the problems, deal with the real world. Frankly, he was denounced within the party.”
But in spite of Rae’s protestations, Langdon’s public disavowal of the Ontario premier’s policies continues to stir heated debate in NDP circles. Beyond a mere falling out between two old friends from university days in the late 1960s, the dispute goes to the heart of the New Democratic Party’s role in Canadian politics. It also raises anew
they represent a betrayal of cherished social democratic goals. “Do I agree with everything they’ve done?” McLaughlin asked rhetorically. “Absolutely not. But am I going to wipe them out and tell them to abandon the whole ship? Absolutely not. Every one of those provincial governments has attempted to take into account people at the lowest income level. They have passed pro-labor legislation and they have tried to improve working conditions.” Besides, she added, she
the perennial debate over whether social democrats should make the necessary compromises to gain and hold power, or remain untarnished on the opposition benches as a voice for working people and the downtrodden.
Rae, Saskatchewan Romanow and B.C. Premier Michael Harcourt have each clearly chosen the former option. All three men preach the gospel of fiscal restraint and praise the private sector as the sole creator of new wealth. They and their colleagues also stress the need for Canadians to rely less on government and more on their own initiative.
“Historically in the party there was a glib, negative reaction to the role of the market,” says Gabelmann.
“There is now a recognition that government is not the solution to every problem.”
In one important respect, however, Rae’s government stands apart from its western cousins. Long before their twin election victories in October, 1991, both Romanow and Harcourt enjoyed huge leads in the polls and were grooming themselves for office. In addition, social democrats had held power before in each province—in British Columbia from 1972-1975, and in Saskatchewan from 19441964 and from 1971-1982. Tempered by
experience and careful not to promise more than they could deliver, the two leaders campaigned on moderate platforms and made few concrete commitments.
Rae, on the other hand, had no reason to expect that his party would topple Peterson’s Liberals in the 1990 Ontario election. As a
result, he ran a traditional NDP campaign, promising everything from public auto insurance to higher welfare benefits and a sharp increase in the provincial minimum wage. Although the cost of implementing those promises would have run into the billions,
NDP strategists assured themselves that it didn’t matter because the party stood little chance of winning. “In 1990 we had a cafeteria-style platform in Ontario,” acknowledges Dick Proctor, who stepped down a year ago as the party’s federal secretary and is now federal campaign manager for Saskatchewan.
‘There was no expectation that Bob would be premier so we tried to be all things to all people.”
The period since the election has been wrenching for Rae and his party. In some areas—principally those that do not require significant new spending—the Ontario government has forged ahead with its reform agenda. It has given increased powers to unions, expanded the province’s existing pay equity program to ensure that women are z paid as much as men for work of equal value, and introduced tough new legislation to protect the rights of visible minorities and disabled people. But in many other areas, the Ontario NDP has abandoned longstanding social democratic goals. It cancelled plans for public auto insurance, reversed its opposition to casino gambling and Sunday shopping and shelved a promise to impose an inheritance tax on estates worth more than $1 million.
Even more controversial among NDP stal-
warts is the epic battle Rae is now waging against the province’s public-sector unions.
Government insiders say that the roots of the conflict lie in a secret ultimatum delivered to Rae early this year by Canadian and international bond dealers.
They told the premier that if he allowed the province’s deficit to reach a projected $17 billion, investors would demand junkbond interest rates in order to finance Ontario’s debt. In the end, Rae promised to keep the deficit for 1993-1994 under $10 billion—in part by cutting $2 billion from the public payroll.
In April, Rae invited unions representing the 950,000 public-service employees—including doctors, nurses, teachers, firefighters and civil servants— to negotiate the cuts in an agreement euphemistically labelled a “social contract.” But talks broke down after the province proposed a three-year salary freeze and a requirement that workers take as many as 12 unpaid vacation days a year—the equivalent of a fiveper-cent pay cut. A bill due to become law this week will give the Rae government—as well as hospitals, school boards and other employers—the power to reopen more than 8,000 collective agreements and impose cuts unilaterally on August 1.
Three of Ontario’s 71 New Democrat MLAs have broken ranks with the government over the legislation, including Karen Haslam, who resigned last month as junior minister for health. A far more serious problem for Rae is the threat by public service unions to withdraw their political support for his government. Last week, four large private-sector labor leaders joined the fray. Canadian Auto Workers president Buzz Hargrove said that unless Rae backs off, his union will consider withholding all future financial donations to the Ontario party. Meanwhile, Canadian Labor Congress president Bob White said that his federation is filing a complaint over the Rae government’s actions with the International Labor Organization, a Geneva-based agency of the United Nations. “Some of the things we are struggling with in Ontario can’t help but have an impact on support for the federal party,” White told Maclean’s. ‘The question is how much enthusiasm some of the activists will have on the [federal] campaign trail.”
But as the complaints from union leaders grow louder, so do the rebuttals from Rae and his defenders. Says Ross McClellan, the Ontario premier’s chief policy adviser: “Buzz Hargrove can jump up and down all he
wants, but if the labor movement lets the party go out of its hands, it will be repeating the mistake of the left in the United States. At the end of the day, you get nothing.” In fact, unions contribute only about 20 per cent of the NDP’s funding, with the rest coming from individual donations. Moreover, non-unionists in the party have complained for years that labor leaders are out of touch with their members and unable to deliver their votes.
So far, McLaughlin has done her best to remain neutral in the dispute, no doubt hoping that the acrimony will fade before the party must mobilize its troops for the fall election campaign. But with the Ontario government poised to begin rolling back negotiated settlements as early as next month, that seems unrealistic. White, for one, says that the federal party has committed a grave error by failing to dissociate itself from Rae’s economic policies. “I think it is going to be impossible for the federal election to be fought in isolation from the things that are taking place in Ontario,” the CLC president said. “The potential for very deep conflict in the middle of an election campaign is considerable.”
Nor is the discontent confined to the labor movement. In British Columbia, environmentalists—another traditional NDP constituency—are enraged by Harcourt’s decision to allow old-growth logging on Vancouver Island. That decision, like’s Rae’s fight with the unions, has aggravated longstanding tensions within the party. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of armchair left-wing quarterbacks who do a lot of yakking and complaining,” says Les Campbell, a former chief of staff to McLaughlin who worked on last month’s unsuccessful Alberta campaign. He added, “It’s a little depressing.
Even the strongest supporter finds it hard to get enthused any more.”
Another sign of trouble for the NDP is the difficulty it faces in attracting new members. According to Alan Whitehorn, a political scientist at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., and the author of Canadian Socialism, the party has been frustrated by the neoconservative mood among young, well-educated people since the early 1980s. Paradoxically, many of the left-leaning activists who remain on university campuses view the party as a useless vehicle for social change. Three years ago, before Rae’s victory, the campus NDP club at the University of Toronto had 30 enthusiastic members. This year the club held only two meetings; three people attended each one. “I tried to
get students out to help canvass for the upcoming federal campaign, but practically no-one came,” says Farhan Memon, 22, the club’s former co-chair. “People feel that the NDP has betrayed its fundamental policies. The unfortunate thing is that the party has not taken Bob Rae to task in a severe way.” Whitehorn also notes that for the first time in decades, the federal NDP is facing competition from another populist party—in this case, Preston Manning’s right-of-centre Reform party. Despite their policy differences, both will try to appeal to voters who are alienated from the political status quo. “The question is, to what degree is the NDP now seen as part of the old establishment?” Whitehorn said. “Voters are going to be concerned about the discrepancy between the party’s rhetoric in opposition and its practice in office.”
But if the party is to have any hope of rebuilding its support, it first must recapture the hearts and minds of its own troops. “I became a New Democrat when I was 15 because I had this class consciousness,” said Hamilton’s Cassidy. “I felt that if you were an ordinary Joe, the NDP was your party. Now the politicians we helped to elect have bought into the agenda of business and the so-called realities of government.” At a time when big government has fallen into disfavor, that transformation was probably inevitable. But as many socialists see it, the politics of pragmatism are no match for the ringing declarations of decades past.
ROSS LAVER and PAUL KAIHLA
with NANCY WOOD in Ottawa, BRIAN BERGMAN in Toronto, JOHN HOWSE in Calgary and JOHN DeMONT in Halifax