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The NDP Leadership Convention 2003: Day One

By Barton Wong
web posted 4:25am

Morning Session

Toronto- The first thing that hit me about the NDP Leadership Convention being held this weekend in Toronto was its location. For reasons yet unknown, the self-proclaimed protectors of Canadian social democracy had decided to locate themselves at the National Trade Centre in the heart of the depopulated Canadian Exhibition Grounds. In the middle of winter. One could put this down to incompetent logistics or perhaps, if you wish to be cruel about it, a psychological need to insulate themselves from the outside world. In either case, it took me awhile to get down there. This gave me time to read the newspapers.

"Little New Democrats Lost" proclaimed Jeffrey Simpson's column in the Globe & Mail. The leadership race had not exactly been a political thriller. Jack Layton set the tone early. "We're running with each other, not against each other," he said in a spirit of camaraderie. This allowed the National Post to all too aptly sneer that the leadership candidates seemed to be like "collectible NDP bobblehead dolls," each nodding along with each other. As I read this, I heard the two NDPers on my otherwise empty streetcar both mutually agreed that every country needs a party just like the NDP.

Arriving at the National Trade Centre at 8:30 am, I was struck first by the kitschy heritage murals (complete with "Injuns"), then by the enormity of the place. The entire NDP convention took up just one hall out of six and it wasn't even the biggest show there. That happened to be the Speedorama Car Show right next door. The glass lobby was so high and stretched so far, dwarfing the conventioneers so much that they looked like figures out of a de Chirico painting.

True to form, as I waited in line to register, I was handed a peace button to wear. I considered wearing it upside down, but deciding that that would be too obvious, I slipped it into my pocket. It was a long, long wait. A Pierre Ducasse supporter took it upon himself to supervise the line. CBC Newsworld's Don Newman passed by, looking like the picture of capitalistic excess in a snazzy pinstripe suit. Someone handed me a pamphlet which looked like it'd been printed out on something just slightly better than dot matrix. It read, "To survive, the NDP must: Turn Left. Socialist Caucus candidate Bev Meslo shakes up NDP establishment." One need not rehearse the contents, as you can very well predict what they are from the title, but to give you a taste of just who represents the Socialist Caucus, I offer up the biography of Max, candidate for New Democrat Youth Rep. to the Federal Council:

Max, 16, has been an NDP member for 2 years, and is a supporter of the Socialist Caucus. He believes in a left-wing, socialist NDP that can bring real change to Canada, following the example of the Worker's Party of Brazil and the Presidency of Hugo Chavez (!). Max's main political activity is focused on his organization called Jewish Youth Against the Occupation. Max has close ties with progressive Israeli and Palestinian forces, including the Israeli-high-school-graduates Military Refusal Movement, as well as Ta'Ayush, the Arab-Jewish partnership. Also Max is active in the Canadian anti-war movement.

I was stuck between a friendly woman from the United Steelworkers and a Layton campaign staffer. There was so much meet-and-greet going around me, it was clear that everyone went way back. This unfortunately brought to mind Pierre Ducasse's remark about the need for fresh blood, as he acidly noted that the average age of a NDP convention delegate was a geriatric 49. This was true, though some more youthful NDPers had brought their little children who scampered about everywhere. As I looked around me, I couldn't help but notice two more things. First, trade unionists are really easy to identify as they actually all do look like "Joe Working Man," complete with beer belly and coarse laugh. Second, for all their vaunted openness and multiculturalism, 95 per cent of the NDP delegates were white. You'd have to have gone to a Gap store before seeing so many white people all in one place. This was dismaying, since being a Tory, I knew that all the immigrant and ethnic votes weren't going to us and they definitely weren't with the Alliance, so, there was only one place for them left to go... A youth delegate handing out flyers at the door was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of President Bush on it, with the caption "International Terrorist." A young man with blue, spiky hair came by, selling copies of "L'Humanité" and "The Communist Manifesto and Regina Manifesto" for two dollars each. Two janitors, clearly university students, walked by us. Someone said "Look, the people earning $6.85 a hour! They're the future of this country." I couldn't help but find this condescension rather funny. A beaming, downright cherubic (perhaps from the cold?) Buzz Hargrove, dressed in another snazzy suit (as all the union leaders were) walked right in front of me. The Layton staffer right behind me said, "Hi Buzz," as Buzz returned the greeting.

I finally paid the entrance fee and got registered (someone wittily remarked that the line-up was so long because NDPers did not know how to handle money). Jack Layton walked by, in that theatrical manner he has developed ever since he plumbed deep into his psyche and perceived there his future greatness. Dressed in a spiffy suit, he glad-handed everyone in sight, walking ramrod-straight in a pose that just screamed "LEADER." I saw him again soon afterward, while a photographer snapped immortal images of His Jackness, not just posing this time, but in the only word that can describe properly his behaviour, preening, to the camera.

Layton's minions had plastered his smiling visage all over the front doors, complete with endorsements from such artistic luminaries as the Barenaked Ladies' Steve Page and Moxy Früvous'

Jian Ghomeshi. Other posters told us that Ducasse! had both Imagination and Solutions. A quote on a Lorne Nystrom pamphlet summed up the candidate's position well: "Tommy Douglas once told me: ‘If you're successful at the till, then they'll trust you at the ballot box.'" In Nystrom HQ however, there were posters which had that most original of antiwar proclamations: "Drop Bu$h, Not Bombs." Bev Meslo's posters declared that she was "Fighting for a socialist Canada." But it was Joe Comartin's handmade cardboard creations which took the prize in, uh, creativity. Looking like they had been drawn by six year-olds, these posters graced the mind with such memorable slogans as "War is bad for the plane," (tape was covering the "t"), "Joe has a posse," "Peace, says Joe!," and perhaps best of all, "Vote for Joe- no more war for little children, it's dangerous, but Joe will...st?p that. Go ?Joe?."

At 10:25 am, outgoing leader Alexa McDonough made her first farewell speech. Dressed in a pantsuit the colour of Barney the Dinosaur, she received the pro-forma standing ovation which ended with comic suddenness once McDonough had signalled everyone to sit down. She announced that the NDP now had a grand total of 82 000 new members including 1 600 union delegates who, in that democratic tradition the NDP is famous for, get weighted as 25 per cent of the vote. This got tepid applause. One must acknowledge however McDonough's sincerity. She positively radiates integrity everytime a sound comes out of her mouth. Unfortunately, she lacks every other quality you would expect from a rhetorician. She spoke with mealy-mouth enthusiasm about leading the party "through a process of renewal," of the NDP steadily rising in the polls ever since the 2000 election, of fighting the evils of globalization. She talked about "the joy in my heart" using that phrase with no apparent leavening of irony or self-consciousness. She thanked the people of Halifax for "the astounding privilege of serving as their elected representative," for there was "no greater privilege." In other words, she sounded like Alexa McDonough: pleasant, but vague. The speech was met with a smattering of applause.

Next came the Party President, Adam Giambrone, a picture of freckled-faced earnestness who looks like he just stepped out from a Yearbook Club meeting (in fact, he's 25). Like every other speaker on the platform who was not Quebecois, his attempts at bilingualism resulted in some ghastly effects. While Giambrone murdered the French language, Pierre Ducasse unexpectedly turned up. Looking a bit like a cross between Ezra Levant and Ari Fleischer, he seemed rather too well-fed and balding to quite hold up his claim to be the "youth candidate" in the race, though unlike his English counterparts, he operates perfectly in either official language. I shook his hand and I watched as he applauded Alexa McDonough enthusiastically and (even more amazing) with complete sincerity.

I wandered around and spotted Bill Blaikie in a scrum with other party members. Staffers hovered around, but they had nothing to worry about. What Blaikie lacks in Periclean eloquence for the masses, he makes up for with his United Church-bred gravitas one-on-one. A big bear of a man with cheap, plastic 70s-style glasses and a bushy beard which all his (male) followers seem to insist on imitating, he impressed even this ideologically hostile witness. He drew a laugh with his admission that his bluntness had led him to "step on some things in my lifetime." He got some applause when he announced that he would not vote for a war against Iraq, even if the UN was "manipulated" into supporting one. To a loaded question about why he had not supported the New Politics Initiative, he nicely sidestepped by replying that while he backed some items of the NPI platform, as a loyal NDPer he could not wholeheartedly endorse a program which had a lot of outsiders as its main creators. As for Jack Layton, the worst thing Blaikie could say was that the party needed a leader who would be able to be there all the time. This was pretty anaemic stuff. When an alternate approached to ask me to support Blaikie, I told him that I wasn't a party member and that according to every poll, Layton was almost certainly going to win anyway. The best comfort I could offer was a shrugging, "Well, there's always hope," which I suspect is a sort of motto for every NDP member.

Back on the floor, they were debating resolutions from the disability committee. When a delegate with an awful lisp stepped up to speak, one of the other delegates at the back started laughing uncontrollably. As I sat down among the senior citizens in the Observer section, someone beside me kept maniacally clapping at every opportunity. The continuous repetitions of "Thank you, brother" and "Thank you, sister" after every delegate spoke reminded me for some reason of a cult. A resolution to shorten speeches from 3 to 2 minutes to save time was violently assailed as an attack against disabled people (they being slow of speech, apparently). And on it went. I found out, that due to a loophole, members of NDP campus clubs in British Columbia do not have to be members of the NDP nor youths.

When one delegate made a speech saying that youths should be encouraged to join the NDP and the President of the Youth Wing concurred, saying that there was nothing wrong with youths attending political conventions, these empty banalities were met with the most vigorous applause I had heard all morning. Then came the resolution guaranteeing gender parity among party officers, so that if the members did not see fit to elect enough women, the women would be appointed to make up the difference. The first speaker made a paradoxical speech, asking for the resolution to be rejected, that we should just look at the candidates and simply vote for a woman. Someone else defended this affirmative action, saying that "this isn't an attack on democracy; it's greater democracy." Another person said that since it was already so hard to meet set gender quotas voluntarily, such a resolution "will help us recruit progressive women, socialist women, uh, social democratic women" and so forth.

While this torturous exercise in political correctness was going on, I noticed that Alexa McDonough had sat down directly front of me for an interview. The journalist held a microphone which looked like a big, black popsicle. Jack Layton made an entrance, this time we got "casual Jack" wearing a bright orange sweatshirt as he went on yet another walkabout for the cameras. He kept his sleeves carefully rolled up because I assume he wanted to send the message that Jack Layton intended to get down to work. The healthcare resolutions which now came up, predictably brought out vitriol in everyone, as they railed against the general evils of multinational health and tobacco, with Blaikie particular vehement in his denunciations. When the foaming-at-the-mouth had at last subsided, the chair finally dismissed the morning session and everyone departed as the sounds of The Guess Who's "Share The Land" filled the hall with 60s nostalgia. One final incident capped the morning off. Svend Robinson, wearing an unbearably bright tie, was finishing up an interview and in Three Stooges fashion, as interviewer and interviewee moved to depart, they just about collided into each other. With that, the morning session drew to its shambling close.


Lunch

While I stood in line for my five-dollar hamburger, I noticed everyone wearing a "Mr. Perfect Goes to Hawaii" button with a Gordon Campbell mugshot underneath. Other buttons on sale at the convention proclaimed such political profundities as "Free Palestine," "Bush is an insult to morons," "Bush is the real terrorist," and "Cheney is a dick." They even had one of those neat "Osama Bean Laden" buttons. I couldn't even hear the proceedings at the Labour Caucus, because Sid Ryan (dressed like a Mafioso) kept blabbing away loudly beside me. Then there was the National Post's Paul Wells. Surprisingly short and compact, he was late for another one of Blaikie's scrums, so I watched in amazement as Wells crept towards Blaikie as quietly as possible, as if he planning to frighten him by yelling, "Boo!" The ever-present staffer seemed even more anxiety-ridden about her candidate than usual. Layton was walking around rolling up his sleeves. Perhaps he needed practice at it. An enormous motorised boom was driving about everywhere (and came very near my head) like some symbol of the unstoppable might of industrialised labour that you find all the time in Soviet cinema. At 1:20 pm (I noted this precisely), the makeup person arrived, complete with a trolley full of beautifying chemicals. I took to noting the abandoned newspapers on the delegates' tables. The Toronto Star (of course) seemed to be the newspaper of choice, followed closely by the Globe & Mail. I think I had the only copy of the National Post on the entire premises and that I kept hidden in my backpack. One of Bev Meslo's delegates had left behind a "Free the Cuban Five" paper. Behind where I sat, Alexa McDonough was giving a baby love and tenderness. She let a supporter's little girl run into her arms, then gave it a loud smacking kiss, patted the little girl on her bum, shook her around, before concluding with two more kisses. I wasn't quite sure if the full "McDonough Treatment" had been carefully honed over the years or whether it was a sign of genuine delight. With politicians, even one as guileless as McDonough, you can never tell about these things. At 2:12 pm, the convention was called back to order. The new chair was a man wearing a pirate patch. I am not kidding about this.


Afternoon Session

I do not know whether this is part of political conventions everywhere or whether this is a feature unique to the NDP, but as the afternoon session got off the ground, it seemed that less than half of the people on the floor, including the delegates, were paying any attention to the platform resolutions (which opened with a section entitled "Revitalizing Democracy") and that percentage got smaller and smaller as the afternoon dragged on. I watched as a few delegates spent almost the entire afternoon session reading the Globe & Mail (not the worst of activities to be sure, but still...), raising their heads just enough times to vote with the majority on a resolution. Add to that, the chair's complaint that no one was using their translation devices, so that the overwhelmingly anglophone NDP delegates could not understand the platform speakers half the time, since in a bid to maintain the illusion of the NDP as a viable party in Quebec, the leadership had insisted on equal amounts of English and French. This was not a good start.

Out of all the candidates and their campaigns, Lorne Nystrom's had been practically invisible throughout the morning. Their assigned bleachers were empty. The table they were supposed to maintain was unmanned much of the day. According to accounts in Thursday's National Post, Nystrom's campaign sounded like it was on the verge of collapse. His campaign co-chair had all but admitted defeat and was switching to Blaikie as soon as Nystrom was dropped, there didn't seem to be any other "co-chair," his Saskatchewan campaign office was not returning calls, and neither was his media spokesperson in Toronto. Now Nystrom showed up to speak in favour of a resolution endorsing proportional representation. For once, Nystrom actually showed some passion, PR and the abolition of the Senate (which he snuck in at the end of his speech) being the only two remotely radical things on his strictly centrist (and therefore, almost rational) platform. Nystrom's speech got surprisingly light applause and most of that came from his supporters. That's when I knew that Nystrom was all washed up. From the youngest MP in Canadian history at 22, the NDP's wunderkind was now viewed by the grassroots as one of the Establishment or even worse, the closest thing they had to a Tony Blair, a Neo-Liberal in Paleo-Liberal clothing (even Blair had endorsed constitutional reform and reform of the Upper House). Nystrom was respected. He was now, that most fatal of political descriptors, "an elder statesman." Heck, he was so defanged, the dreaded Mulroney had made him a Privy Councillor. So what else could Nystrom expect?

Upon hearing a resolution proposing the banning of all corporate and union donations along with the mandatory funding of all federal parties, once the NDP became the federal government, I decided to take a break from the Magic Kingdom for awhile and catch a breather outside. A group of regular guys, clearly fresh from Speedorama next door walked by and had a look at our show. "Do you want to join the New Democratic Party?," one of them asked rhetorically. Loud guffaws were the only answer.

And so it went on. There was a resolution increasing and guaranteeing the funding for the CBC in order to keep and expand its present role as a "strong, independent broadcaster" (all Canadian conservatives can pause to knowingly smirk here). A delegate suggested that the CBC get rid of commercials, since they were "wasteful propaganda." The newly-elected director of policy for the New Democratic Youth suggested that they be prepared to do a "1968" on the government with organized labour and other activists going on a general strike to prevent war with Iraq. Bev Meslo declared that, "We must be prepared to democratize this party!" (starting with breaking labour's automatic 25 per cent share, perhaps?) in her usual emphatic manner. But her hectoring, professorial rhetoric and tendency to shout her points out brought her little applause. Her small, but supposedly enthusiastic band of cheerleaders was little in evidence.

At 3:15 pm, the Order of the Day came in. Ken Georgetti, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, the umbrella group for all Canadian unions, gave the speech. He delivered it solidly, but manner can only go so far when the words one speaks are ones that you have heard many, many times from many, many leftists. He at least opened with a striking turn of phrase, "I bring you solidarity from the Canadian Labour Congress" (where was it, in a box?). He joked that his native British Columbia was "a province where the right-wing is drunk with power." He not so subtly hinted that Gordon Campbell should have resigned. "If you can't drive, let someone else do the driving," was his advice. He repeated that old shibboleth that "our long-held goal was a NDP federal government," but everyone had clearly heard this old applause line before, such a mild reception it received. He reassured the delegates that "millions of Canadians...want to come home, home to the NDP," but the biggest reception came when he said that "there are only two people in this country I know who are addicted to UI (unemployment insurance): Paul Martin and John Manley," and when he repeated the NDP's opposition against a war in Iraq, something which always got the audience riled up, no matter who was speaking: "Canadians do not want a war against Iraq." Georgetti warned the assembled delegates that "a party the whines is a party that does not win," that "the NDP must resist the corporate designs known as international trade agreements," before he climaxed with the line, "Sisters and brothers, it's time to go home, home to an exciting party named the NDP." The speech got tepid applause, but this was followed by the obligatory standing ovation which seemed equally tepid. If one can imagine an unenthusiastic standing ovation, this was it. I can't imagine any of the delegates had heard anything new.

The afternoon went on. At 3:45 pm, attendance was announced. The total delegates, alternates, observers, and hanger-ons came to 1 111; count the media, the staffers, and the various intruders and there must have been around 1 500 leftists in the National Trade Centre. This little fact proved to be a brief respite from the endless stream of resolutions and delegates trying to "voice concern" over them. "The treatment of Aboriginal people is this country's greatest shame!," declared MP Patrick Martin to loud cheers. "We support the emancipation of the Aboriginal people of this country," he continued. I overheard a snatch of a conversation beside me, diagnosing what exactly is wrong with America:

"I was reading one theologian who said that the problem with American mythology is that the bad is always out there."
"Yeah, yeah exactly."

On the other side, an alternate was urgently talking with a party bigwig (big enough to have been interviewed by CPAC) about getting support for his city council bid. The alternate seemed quite pleased with the result. Eventually, all the rhetoric from the floor seemed to blend in with each other. "We are the only party that is talking of empowering other levels of government," declared MP Brian Masse one moment. "We're getting 70 to 76 per cent of what men make," declared a female delegate from the Canadian Labour Congress at the next moment. I was beginning to lose track and interest in all the resolutions. Then Jack Layton came to the microphone.

What he said in itself was not remarkable; I have heard him give some version of a speech preaching the virtues of "sustainability" many times, but the manner in which he gave it and the reaction was rather special. Layton clearly stands at a higher level of quality compared to his five opponents when it comes to oratory. He is effective, polished, and smooth; smooth to the point of slickness even. You start to wonder if he does this in his bathroom mirror everyday. His attempts at "man on the street" plainness impress, but fail to convince, because you're always looking out for the contrivance, the seam. As for the reaction, when his name was announced and when he finished speaking, Layton got the loudest, most sustained, most sincere applause that entire afternoon. Someone even went up to hug him right afterwards. At that moment, I thought the race was over. Yet I still can't help shaking the feeling that, as the old saying goes, Layton's support is ten miles wide and an inch deep (like him, possibly?). Well, we shall see tomorrow.

The Alberta New Democrats quickly showed why they had only two seats in the provincial legislature, when one of them got up and slagged the popular Ralph Klein and supported the unpopular Kyoto Accord: "When Ralph Klein speaks of a ‘made-in-Canada' solution, intelligent listeners know that he is speaking of a deal made in Calgary boardrooms, dictated by George W.'s White House, etc." I stopped listening and watched as someone got their picture taken with Svend Robinson. By this time, there had been repeated warnings about the noise level, but the delegates simply ignored the chair and kept babbling as before. When everyone was finally about to be dismissed, it was found that all our schedules had been printed incorrectly leaving everyone with only a half hour for dinner before the inevitable "Tribute to Alexa" and final leadership "forum." Those last two events were supposedly open to the public and our chair told the viewers on CPAC to join us, as if they were all ready to jump into their cars at that very moment. The hungry delegates streamed out regardless and the session ended with almost no applause or any other acknowledgement of our poor chair as we all left to the sound of a harmonica playing from the speakers. On my way out, I noticed that the Nystrom table was empty again. Layton's table had four enthusiastic young men

Aftermath

By the time I got home, it all seemed rather unreal. I had worn my Observer badge on the subway, but no one had noticed. It was as if the entire city was intentionally ignoring this group of 1 500 people gathered by the lake to decide the fate of the Canadian Left for the next few years. The "Tribute to Alexa" was nothing out of the ordinary.

McDonough "took us from an endangered species to a strong and vital force," declared Gary Doer, Premier of Manitoba in the face of all opinion polls. McDonough's French was atrocious and perfunctory. She spoke in leftist clichés, "deficits in broken families," etc. She got a standing ovation when she shouted out to the floor, "No war in Iraq! No war in Iraq, again! Can you hear us, George Bush?," but that is par-for-the-course among antiwar activists.

McDonough was far more pumped up and enthusiastic than I have ever seen her and so were the NDP grassroots, but the inescapable irony remains that all this excitement on her part as well as theirs is over McDonough leaving. They would never be this way, if she had stayed. As for the leadership "forum," it wasn't even really a debate ("somewhat in a debate format" as the CPAC expert described it), more like a big, multi-person press conference with each participant trying to one-up each other on the answers. With the possible exception of slightly sharper Blaikie-Layton exchanges, nothing had changed. How could it, when it was the 25th time these guys have debated? The leadership "forum" settled nothing and answered nothing. And so ends my report on the first day of the NDP 2003 Leadership Convention.

Barton Wong is a regular commentator at the Texas Mercury and studies Literary Studies and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.


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