Politics

THE MISSIONARY POSITION

RICK SALUTIN February 10 2003
Politics

THE MISSIONARY POSITION

RICK SALUTIN February 10 2003

THE MISSIONARY POSITION

The NDP possesses the truth, and always has, so why try anything new?

Politics

RICK SALUTIN

FRIDAY MORNING: I arrive at Toronto’s National Trade Centre for the NDP leadership convention, a copy of Anthony Giddens’ The Third Way in hand. Giddens is the bible of modernizing leftists, he’s Tony Blair’s guru. A recent Toronto Star editorial asked, “If the Third Way style of social democracy, best portrayed by British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, works in Europe, why not try it here?” OK, why not?

Giddens ushered leftists into “a world where there are no alternatives to capitalism.” He held a sunny view of this choicelessness: “Third Way politics should take a positive attitude toward globalization.” He had slogans: “No rights without responsibilities.” Your Scout leader couldn’t put it better. He took a deferential tone toward big business, seeking “synergy between public and private sectors.” And zero verbal passion, to prevent confusion with florid left-wingers of the old days.

I should have left my copy home. There’s not a Third Wayer in sight among the candidates, or delegates. Some NDPers gave it a shot once, like ex-Ontario premier Bob Rae; or outgoing leader Alexa McDonough, briefly. The rejection is well-timed. It would be an odd moment to glorify globalization, after Canada’s long experience with the thing, via free trade, and the way services like education and health have declined. Or to adopt Giddens’ sucky tone toward business, after Enron. What a difference a few years makes. You’d look like a horse’s ass striking that note now. Oh, and there’s an answer to: why not try it here? Someone did. We call them the Liberal party.

This convention is low rent. The candidates all seem to wander around unaccompanied. With an exception: front-runner Jack Layton, the Toronto city councillor, has an entourage of one press aide. He strides briskly as if he has somewhere important to go.

On the floor, Peggy Nash of the Canadian Auto Workers’ union. She says she’s back-

ing Layton, without great zeal. “Ya gotta vote for somebody,” she says. Oh yeah? You could find lots of anarchist kids to dispute that. And up walks Max Silverman, a string of buttons down his front. He heads a Jewish group opposing the Israeli “occupation.” He’s in Grade 11. One of the fabled youth the NDP is desperate to recruit, to whom Jack is seen as their bridge. Hey, even the Barenaked Ladies support him.

At noon I fly to Montreal to speak to student journalists. Federal Heritage Minister Sheila Copps is leaving as I arrive. Now, this is an entourage. Aides on all sides, so that when someone stops her, she can appear totally engrossed, until one of them intrudes: “we really must go, minister”—despite her evident wish to never do anything again except rap on with this potential supporter.

Friday evening: Back in Toronto, the candidates debate, in front of a giant screen. It’s useful, since electoral politics today is mainly about TV impressions. Because it’s hard to grasp policy conflicts in detail, most voters just try to intuit which leader seems trustworthy. Here you can compare their video impacts, each in turn.

Layton has been called “media-sawy” often. But what does it mean? I’ve been surprised at how circumlocutious he can be. “It’s the government of the day who...” he’ll say, instead of, “the Liberals.” He doesn’t time soundbites well; the moderator keeps cutting him off. Nor does he seem to understand the camera; his jaw thrusts toward it as if he’s overeager, instead of letting it

Layton seems to react to whoever or whatever issue is nearby, like a compass that’s moral, but has no firm setting

come and explore him. True media-sawy politicians, starting with Kennedy and Trudeau, hang back and wait, like Gretzky behind the net. On the other hand he manages to signal, or indicate, a media sense. Maybe it means showing a fierce desire to make a media impression, which flatters the media-folk—hey, he knows how important we are—and translates as “media-sawy.”

It’s like Layton’s emphasis on being “new.” The NDP, moaned a Globe and Mail editorial, “seems incapable of reinventing itself for the new century.” But how many of us reinvented ourself for the new century? Was that a priority in your life?

Afterward, the Layton camp parties in the shadow of a windmill energy project that Layton never tires of invoking as his work. Back at the Delta Chelsea, in the hospitality suite of Layton’s sole real competition, veteran Manitoba MP Bill Blaikie, they’re celebrating Robbie Bums day. Blaikie recites, with awesome familiarity, Burns’ Address to a Haggis, in the presence of the steaming article.

Saturday morning: The Toronto Star is in kingmaker mode this morning. “NDP job is Layton’s to lose,” it blares.

The final speeches began at 8:45, the slot poor Lome Nystrom from Saskatchewan drew. I didn’t make it. Next is Windsor MP Joe Comartin. He has concentrated on foreign policy: Iraq and the Mideast. It seems a bit odd, yet it fits the post-Sept. 11 era, when the world beyond has intruded on our lives as never before. I saw Comartin last night in the hotel lobby (unattended). He said the focus evolved, for him and others, during their cross-country debates. He’d start, they’d chime in and their audiences clearly cared. He says he hasn’t seen such concern with world affairs since the Vietnam years. Then Bill Blaikie might mention how independent Canadian behaviour could prompt U.S. retaliation to which we’re vulnerable because of free trade, so they’d dis-

cuss whether to renegotiate that or cancel it. And so on. It sounds like they went through a real process together.

Yet I find it odd how small a part Sept. 11 played in their debates; Comartin says yes, it rarely arose. Perhaps that’s due to what I think of as the NDP’s missionary position: they possess the truth, always have and will, so particular events never seem important enough to force a basic rethink. The missionary position makes it hard to learn anything new, or admit you have. Comartin has a touch of it, and Bev Meslo, who follows him, has gobs. She’s the choice of the socialist caucus and says, nay demands, that the party turn left, then exits to Billy Bragg’s version of The Internationale. She’s followed by young Quebecer Pierre Ducasse, everybody’s favourite losing candidate, who “we’re sure to see more of” at future conventions.

Bill Blaikie speaks second to last. Big, as in huge, rumpled guy. Refuses to shave his beard. Growls more than speaks, but wittily. Suffers fools barely or not. He did a noninterview with Citytv’s Adam Vaughan in which he barked “No” to all of Adam’s cheery queries. Scores high in the don’t-give-a-shit

factor, which I value a lot. I think it works well in media and wears better than the perky, telegenic Stock Day or Layton style. Everyone wants to talk to the person at the party who doesn’t want to talk to anybody.

You can tell he’s been boxed in by Layton’s campaign. They’ve turned him into the establishment candidate. He tries to escape: “Some will tell you I represent the status quo. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have suffered from and survived the status quo.” He’s clearly frustrated. Jack, the “outsider,” is supported by most mainstream media, many pundits, the Star, the Ottawa Citizen; yet the Globe wrote that NDPers face a choice “between taking a gamble on a fresh face or staying true to the party establishment.” Believe me, leftists rarely want to be seen backing the establishment. There’s psychological intimidation at work.

Layton’s speech gets scant response, though the trappings are good: an edgy video, an intro by party (establishment)

icon Ed Broadbent, a rockin’ song. Applause comes in response to Layton indicating applause moments, by pausing or beaming. There’s little substance, but lots of personal examples—I met a farmer in a withered wheatjkld—thaxyon might call the signalling of substance.

Saturday afternoon: Voting is underway. They’ve devised a complex system that combines member and delegate votes, some in advance and some in real time, over the Internet. It’s a noble effort at wider democracy. The NDP has been slow on democratic issues, leaving them to the Alliance—but now they’ve voted in favour of proportional representation, a more radical stance than the Alliance has.

Unfortunately, a hacker is already in the system. But delays, we’re told, will be minimal.

Max comes up to complain how mild the resolution on the Mideast is. He voted for Bev. The rest aren’t radical enough, and Max is unradical enough that he’s in the NDP. Makes you wonder why they bother fantasizing about attracting radical kids. Makes you wonder about the Third Way

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too, and its smug claim that there are no alternatives to capitalism. What a thing to tell young people. A century ago, Rosa Luxemburg said the choice was between socialism or barbarism. If many of them see what’s around them as barbaric, why deny them even the possibility of the alternative?

Janet Solberg, of the NDP Lewis dynasty, says she voted for Layton, the outsider, even though she’s from the party establishment. She says Jack thinks outside the box. There is no phrase more inside the box these days than outside the box. The first ballot results are finally in.

To everyone’s shock, Layton has a majority, 53 per cent, and it’s over. First ballot victories suck. Nobody gets a chance to do all the whining they were looking forward to. (How long until we can get out of here?) The crowd dutifully gathers. At the end of the stage a legion of CBC news superheroes waits: Julie Van Düsen, Eric Sorenson, Christina Lawand, Susan Bonner. Layton gives a gracious speech, warming to the crowd. There’s a terrific Chinese paper dragon rearing onstage, worked by two kids.

Afterward, Layton melds into the scrum, a technological beast of booms, cameras, lights, wires, interviewers, Layton’s face a bright eye at its centre, all moving backward in tandem like a mutant insect on Saturday morning cartoons, yet no one trips or falls. Is this media-sawy?

That night in his suite, Blaikie says he had the worst of all possible situations. He means the box Layton’s camp put him in. When I first heard Layton’s team talk about how to “position” him, their use of a term employed by admen and marketers disgusted me. I found it shameful to adopt the same commercial, manipulative techniques that people flee when they turn to a party like the NDP. But it’s also true that positioning is a skill, and Layton’s victory was a triumph of it. So good for them and bad on me. But I still don’t see anything “new” about it.

Sunday morning: Jack is asked about his win on CBC Radio early this morning. He says, “Of course, I was surprised,” not just “I was surprised.” His inability to simply react, as opposed to figuring out how he wants to be seen to react, could be trouble. Voters like to know there’s someone home; they may not want to know you intimately, but they want to know you’re there. Layton rarely allows that sense. He seems to react to who-

ever or whatever issue is nearby, like a compass that’s moral, but has no firm setting. He emits a sense of needing approval—well, OK, don’t we all—but it’s a question of how desperate and pervasive it is. That need can be exhausting for onlookers, while concealing anything spontaneous in the person. Such perceptions count in a media age; voters must decide who they’re willing to put up with in their home each night for years. They may like and admire you, but still not wish to have your need and insecurity in their face. As for the media, they will soon smell the vulnerability.

Later, in his acceptance speech, he claims he wants to speak to the people of Canada, not just NDPers. He says “invading Iraq is wrong, period.” Whoops, sounds like the missionary position again. Instead of explaining why this war will do more harm than good, he simplifies as if all war is wrong because it isn’t peace. He uses terms like “warmonger.” This is still talking to the party. You have your list of principles and nostrums, applicable to all times and problems. Same thing on the economy. His set of complaints could have come from the 1960s or even 1930s, rather than the unique blights of the globalization era.

By noon little is left at the site. But next door, Speedorama, an auto show, is pulling huge crowds. They are the ordinary work-

ing people the NDP often courts, and they pose a problem for the missionary position. Most of them do not feel specifically oppressed, deprived, needy or active. They are at best “citizens,” who have mere citizenship in common with other Canadians. How does Jack Layton relate to this category, sometimes whittled down to “voters”? The trouble with activism like Bev Meslo’s or his is it can hide an unease with what’s ordinary among people and the calm things that unite them, alongside the angry things that divide them. Layton admires activists, who he says are the leading edge, but there can be an elitism to that notion, and it won’t serve well in national politics. National elections make sense only with a certain almost bland idea of common interests that bind us. You have to believe, contra Margaret Thatcher, that there really is such a thing as society.

For the folks at Speedorama, it will be a question of what unites them with everyone else. Successful NDP leaders in the past have hit a note with these people, combining a cry for justice with a common (literally) touch. The NDP, through this leadership process, have stumbled on a couple of timely positions—an independent foreign policy along with rejection of globalization and the Third Way—but these could be undermined by the party’s own impulse toward timelessness, built into the missionary position— as well as by the foibles of their new, rather vulnerable leader.