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NDP Leadership 2003: Final Day

By Barton Wong
web posted January 27, 2003

Toronto- "The more I listen to him, the less he seems to know about Commons issues," said the NDPer behind me to a colleague as I did my usual early-morning eavesdropping on the streetcar to the National Trade Centre. They were of course, referring to Jack Layton. This was not exactly the enthusiastic attitude among the grassroots I expected.

Jack LaytonAs this was the final day and with the new leader elected and only a morning session left, youíd expect the hall to be half-empty. Of course, it wasnít. Everyone had stuck around so as to hear Laytonís first major speech as party leader, which was scheduled for noon and was to last a full forty-five minutes. As for the television networks, only the dedicated team at CPAC even bothered filming the last resolution session, which mostly involved foreign policy issues. This was too bad, because it turned out to be quite the show.

First however, came the elections for party president and treasurer. There was nothing remarkable, though I did listen to treasurer candidate Violet L. Stanger guarantee her defeat by declaring the NDP "can have both Bay St. and Main St." Her conclusion that, "Iíll get you the money, I promise ya," sounded like an invitation for embezzlement. There was some amusement to be had, when in order to demonstrate that the ballot boxes were empty, a row of ushers lined up in front, each with a cardboard box, raised them above their heads, shook them about, and show the insides to the delegates, all to show that no fraud was about to take place. A delegate would wave their marked ballot wildly above their head in order to get the attention of the ushers. There turned out to be a lot of problems with the voting. There was confusion about the colour of the ballot for treasurer. When there was a motion from the floor that the balloting procedures should also be given in French, as the NDP was a national party after all, the chair replied that francophones would just have to get along with their translation devices. "The balloting committee isnít prepared to proceed in that language at this stage," he said, since apparently no one on the committee knew a word of French. Of course, then came a motion demanding a bilingual member be placed immediately on the balloting committee. This was followed by a demand from the floor that the future ballots be numbered, in order that colourblind delegates could distinguish between them. As this comedy of errors was going on, the Nystrom delegate with whom I had talked to yesterday (the one who assured me that Nystrom had 30 000 supporters) came up and said that he was "glad to see youíre getting your moneyís worth" in entertainment. He said that he had been standing in the corner when Laytonís landslide had been announced. He then made an indescribable sound that seemed to connote stunned bewilderment.

The speeches given regarding the foreign policy resolutions were fun, if predictable. During a "debate" about passing a resolution against an American invasion of Iraq, Svend Robinson got loud applause for his bilingual speech which denounced what he called "genocidal sanctions." "I looked into the eyes of an Iraqi mother...and heard her plea, ĎWhy? Why are they doing this to us?í" said Robinson in describing his visit to Iraq. A member of the Federal Council who had also visited Baghdad made a speech decrying the "hegemonic militancy of President Bushís Pax Americana." This astonished me. It was the first time in my three days at the convention that I had heard anyone call George W. Bush "president." Of course the resolution passed, though a lone dissenter forced the chair, labour activist Hassan Yussuff, to embarassedly declare that the house was "almost unanimous."

Next up on the agenda was a resolution from the Socialist International which denounced the violence of both Israelis and Palestinians and asked for a resumption of the peace process. Pretty uncontroversial stuff, youíd think. But a man from the Public Service Alliance of Canada stepped up to the microphone and in a strikingly vicious speech in a convention which had been full of them, actually had the temerity to denounce the resolution as being too even-handed. Why should they try to be impartial he asked, when it was all too clear that it was Israel that was the force of evil in the region? He sneered at what he called "the new McCarthyite smear of being anti-Semitic." This insanity actually got some loud applause from the floor along with a few boos. I just about lost my pretence of neutrality and nearly began booing as well. Thankfully, a Jewish member of the NDP came to the defence of the resolution with a direct counter-argument."...if it is perceived that we favour one side, then we are doing a disservice to all the peoples of the Middle East," he said, adding later in a scathing aside, "...if you are against this motion, then you are against peace for both peoples in the Middle East." I found myself applauding. Another delegate spoke up, this time to denounce Israel as an "apartheid regime" which received the unfair benefits of ten billion dollars in American aid. There was no mention of the billions in American aid to Egypt. Dismissing the need for impartiality out of hand, the delegate declared vehemently, "When workers are on a picket line, there isnít a balance of justice between the workers, the forces of management, [and] the forces of the state." Citing other historical examples where there had been imbalances of justice, the delegate cited the cases of East Timor, Ireland, South Africa, and American imperialism in Vietnam. He made no denunciation of the currently operating oppressive communist regime that had replaced the Americans in Vietnam, but this was to be expected. Alexa McDonough, now just an ordinary MP and still wearing that godawful "Barney the Dinosaur" pantsuit, finally settled matters. She said that she was "not interested in rhetorical flourishes." McDonough pointed out that the resolution had been "crafted with the full participation of the Israeli Labour Party," and she urged her fellow delegates to "show some tolerance and respect." For the first time in my life, I found myself applauding her. The resolution passed just about unanimously, which I found hypocritical, given the strong amount of support I had seen for those who had denounced it.

Another resolution from the Socialist International, this time declaring that there should be no war in Iraq, now came up. The delegate who had just been speaking about the "balance of justice," now denounced this resolution as being too milquetoast as well. He pointed out that while the resolution condemned unilateral action, it left open the possibility for multilateral action with UN approval. The delegate said there should be "No blood for oil! No war! No way!" He suggested that UN weapons inspectors should be sent to the United States, which he called "the Evil Empire." Opposition to the war should be unconditional, he said. A delegate from the United Nations Association in Canada declared that "We do not create peace by making war," especially a war for oil. A woman from the Canadian Union of Public Employees said she was proud that all six leadership candidates were walking in lockstep with each other when it came to any war in Iraq. She too said, "Itís all about oil." President Bush was attempting to put together "a coalition of the willing, which is in fact, a coalition of the coerced." Everyone must oppose any war in Iraq, "no matter what the UN Security Council says."

As the time for Jack Laytonís Order of the Day drew nearer, more and more prominent people came down to the convention floor. There was Lorne Nystrom on a cellphone, a man who I am 95% certain was Globe & Mail columnist Rick Salutin, Joe Comartin, Laytonís wife Councillor Olivia Chow, Pierre Ducasse, City TVís Adam Vaughn, but no Bev Meslo. Bill Blaikie was conducting an interview with CPACís Holly Doan, towering above her by over a foot-and-a-half. A resolution asking for a referendum on implementation of the Romanow Report was defeated, but not before someone denounced "the Liberal-Conservative-Alliance axis that almost deny the existence of this report," which I found really funny. The 23-year old unfortunate whom the party had nominated to run in the Perth-Middlesex by-election arrived on the floor to advertise his campaign complete with an escort of signĖholders. He made all the right noises about joining the "fight against globalization" and made a game try of speaking that odd dialect of French that most anglophone NDP members affect to use when they wish to demonstrate their "bilingualism." The balloting committee proceeded to announce the results of the party executive elections almost completely in French as if to compensate for their English unilingualism earlier. One of the delegates smelt a fish when he said that the numbers did not add up correctly, but it turned out that he had misheard. Someone from the platform then announced that they had completely misprinted the name of the partyís francophone associate president, Pierre Ducasse, and had substituted a womanís name in his place.

While these language follies were going on, someone urgently handed to me pamphlets asking me to help free the Cuban Five and advertising for the Pan-Canadian Student Anti-War Conference being held at the University of Toronto. "Books not bombs!" was their motto. But I was distracted from all this, as the time for Laytonís speech was drawing near. MP Dick Proctor, as he introduced the Federal Caucus, told the house, "The next time we meet for convention, theyíll sure as hell be a lot more of us." As the 14 arrived on stage, the mob erupted into a prolonged chant of "NDP! NDP! NDP!" I watched as "Rick Salutin" stifled a yawn. Newly re-elected party president Adam Giambrone, still looking like the perpetual adolescent and still mangling the French language, made a brief introduction before Laytonís speech. Layton stepped on stage, still wearing his bright NDP-orange tie (I hope this doesnít become a trademark of his), while the Layton victory song ("Itís time, itís time for a celebration\ Itís time for a new relation," etc.) blared at us in English and French. The speech he gave was rather banal in content, but lively enough in delivery. Layton never did have that "deer in the headlights" paralysis that seemed to plague Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough so much of the time.

Layton said that, "today I want to speak to the people of Canada. I want to offer them a choice." As he had, time and time again during his campaign, he made reference to the nearby wind turbine and he contrasted that clean source of energy with the Lakeview Coal Plant, a polluter which he said was owned by a company Paul Martin had bought. I was distracted from Layton, when a Quebec delegate came around with a bucket to beg for money. Bev Meslo was now ten thousand dollars in debt and because she had received so few votes, she had lost her deposit. You would think a feeling of schadenfreude would have emerged at that moment, but instead I felt embarrassed and more than a little sorry for her. I came up with what change I could and I found myself in the incongruous position of contributing nearly three dollars to help Meslo out of her financial problems.

When I got my attention back to Layton, he was cracking a series of sarcasms at the expense of the Liberals and the Alliance: "Far too long, what the Liberals and the Alliance say has been called a Ďdebate.í" (Laughter.) "But a debate involves disagreement!" (More laughter.) He asked us, "How many of you have felt those tax cuts in your pocket books?" and the assembly of NDPers shouted back at him, "None!" Layton assured Canadians that now, "You have a real choice in the New Democrats." As for the Official Opposition, Layton sardonically said that unlike Stephen Harper after his election as a party leader, he would not go to the beach, he would not prefer "sun over solutions," he would not go on vacation, heíd be going straight to work (of course, Layton did not mention how Harper in fact, spent most of the summer of 2002 successfully clearing up the Allianceís massive debts). Harper, along with the "pathetic attempts of the Alliance," Layton said, "may well be leading something, but itís not the Opposition." He liked this witticism so much, he would repeat it or some variant of it several times in his speech. Layton waxed eloquent about the "6 000 people right here in this countryís biggest and richest city living and dying on the streets" (cries of "Shame!" erupted from the audience). "Donít our citizens deserve something better than a sleeping bag on the sidewalk?" he asked us. He waxed indignant over American foreign policy and said that Canada should become once again, "a leader in peace." "Invading Iraq is wrong, period!" Layton declared. With that, he was given a thunderous standing ovation and the crowd began screaming out, "No war, George Bush! No war, George Bush!" over and over again.

Paul Martin and the Alliance agree on practically everything fundamental, Layton asserted. Debate in Parliament had been reduced to "the odd quibble [ed. like the billion-dollar cost overruns in the gun registry?] over this boondoggle and that." He thinks, "it is a tragedy that the boondoggle is the issue of the day." In fact, the government and the opposition were so blind, that they had not noticed the fact that they had made a "boondoggle of democracy." Layton said that the inequity of wealth between North and South was "a timebomb more dangerous than we have ever seen" and that "No one is speaking of the fundamental solidarity needed between the peoples of the world other than your New Democrat members in Parliament." "It shouldnít be record student debt that is a right," he shouted, "it should be education that is a right!" These were all rote left-wing themes and I sensed that Layton was really just paying them lip-service. Itís environmental and lifestyle issues that are Laytonís true raison díÍtre.

Again and again, he obsessed over the environmental improvements he had pushed through in Toronto. He wanted to expand a Toronto program of retrofitting old buildings for energy efficiency nationwide, predicting it would bring one million person years of work to Canadian industry. His favourite catchphrases are of a "vision of sustainability," a "New Economy," and a "New Society." Layton was offering Canadians what he called "a real choice." He actually at this point, made a bizarre and irrelevant segue into the minefield of abortion politics, suddenly saying out of nowhere "I always am and shall always be pro-choice," which got him another standing ovation, though some of the older-looking party members very conspicuously sat on their hands.

Going once again on the attack, he said that, "If there was a time for a party to rise, it is now," for he made the prediction that Paul Martin would only be Prime Minister for only "a brief period" and that Martin was in hock to Big Business. Heíd been "studying a list of Martinís corporate donors" and heíd found that theyíre "a lot different from our list of donors," which got him a laugh. Layton did hint however, that he was not closed to the possibility of joining a Liberal minority government, if it ever came to that. He heaped praise on the 1972-74 minority government, when NDP leader David Lewis pushed through a nationwide affordable housing program. He said he was proud of the fact that 2.2 million Canadian now lived in the government housing Lewis had helped build, which sounded rather odd. But Layton said he wanted a national referendum on Proportional Representation to be held first, as a pre-condition before joining any Liberal minority.

Layton assured those concerned by his lack of seat, that he indeed thinks that "serving in Parliament matters, it matters a lot," and that he hoped to be putting on his fatherís parliamentary pin which he was carrying in pocket, very, very soon. Ironically, the elder Layton had been a cabinet minister in Brian Mulroneyís government, but that of course, remain unsaid. He climaxed with this: "Weíre going to make Canada the place of our dreams; the hope and the dream that we cling to. Thank you!" Of course, Layton got a sustained standing ovation. Rather more surprisingly, as he was hugging all his opponents, when he put his arm around Pierre Ducasse and with Pierre Ducasse only, the entire house erupted yet again. This was not bad at all for the candidate who had finished second-last in the leadership race. There was one last point of order, when a rather desperate union organizer pleaded with the delegates to walk a nearby picket line for half an hour or so, in order to show their solidarity with the strikers, whom he claimed were being plagued by scabs, "racism, discrimination, the works." President Giambrone then called a motion for adjournment, which passed nearly unanimously and to the sounds of the Guess Whoís Share The Land which had been endlessly repeated over three days, the 2003 NDP Leadership Convention adjourned.

And did they make the right choice in picking Jack Layton? Well, and I can say this honestly even as a conservative, with Laytonís new responsibilities, Toronto is losing one of its most effective and proactive city councillors ever. I remember a conversation I had with a lefty the week before at the university. For him, Lorne Nystrom was a "Third Way" sell-out and Jack Layton was the candidate of the urban elites, which was why he was supporting Bill Blaikie. A NDP led by Layton, he asserted, would be a party of urban, upper middle-class intellectuals, as relevent and as appealing to the greater public, as professors at an university are today. Itíd be a party of yuppies, of bobos, of champagne fundraisers, and limousine liberalism. Blaikie, on the other hand, would get the NDP back to basics, not as a party prostituting itself for votes, but as a social movement based on Prairie farmers and trade unionists. Such a NDP would probably never form a federal government, but as long as it improved the living conditions of those two groups by influencing the parties that would win elections, they would have succeeded. I can see the manís point. Nevertheless, if I had had a chance to vote during this weekendís convention and I was a pragmatist who did not want to frighten people away, I would have voted for Nystrom. If I had voted on the basis of who impressed me the most with his or her political ideas, I would have voted for Ducasse. But if I was voting strategically for the person who would get the party more seats, I would have supported the very telegenic Layton. Sure, he could very well turn out to be another Stockwell Day and/or lose to Dennis Mills which would be disastrous, but where else could we go from here, but up? And one more thing. My politics might be the complete opposite of Laytonís, but Iím also a very, very proud Torontonian. Everyone in this city, left or right, respects Jack Layton. We in Toronto are simply sick and tired of the rest of the country bashing us and treating us like, well, dirt, especially the Ontario-based Chretien Liberals. Itís about time we had a Toronto-centric candidate who advertised and advocated for our concerns and our issues on the national stage. We in this city trust and some of us even love Jack Layton because, in the final analysis, he is and always will be, one of us.

According to his Identification Badge at least, Barton Wong was Observer No. 31, acting as a representative of the University of Toronto at the 2003 NDP Leadership Convention.

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