by Chantal Hébert
NDP gives its leader the boot, plunging the party into its most divisive debate in decades – and he’s likely just the first casualty
The fix was in for outgoing NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair before the convention that led to Sunday’s vote even opened.
The writing was on the wall when twice as many delegates than had originally been expected showed up.
Even before they summarily terminated Mulcair’s tenure, with 52 per cent voting to oust him,
Most declined to pick up Mulcair buttons at the registration desk.
In casual conversation, few were interested in discussing the merits of the leader and even fewer were inclined to defend him.
It was a striking paradox of this NDP convention that the name of the man whose fate was on everyone’s mind was so rarely on anyone’s lips.
In the lead-up to the gathering, some NDP insiders believed that collective inertia would ultimately see Mulcair carry the day in Edmonton.
Until Sunday, the NDP had had a tradition of giving its leaders, at least, two kicks at the election can.
As a rule, federal parties do not show their leaders the door on the floor of a convention. Those – like former Tory leader Joe Clark – who resigned on the heels of a confidence vote chose to do so because they felt the majority that had backed them was not high enough.
Absent an obvious successor and with ongoing and upcoming provincial election battles in Manitoba and British Columbia, the initial thinking was that a critical mass of delegates would stand fast against the prospect of an uncertain federal leadership campaign.
But as the convention progressed towards its dramatic denouement, it was the pro-Mulcair camp that ran on empty. By Saturday afternoon, there was scant evidence of loyalists working the room on his behalf. In private, MPs who had come out publicly for his staying were admitting to having second thoughts.
In a counterintuitive strategy, Mulcair spent much of the convention time on the media hot seat, taking questions from journalists but taking none from the floor. The many interviews he gave over the course of the gathering had little resonance inside the convention bubble.
Even if he had delivered a speech for the history books, he would have changed few minds. Predictably a text designed to please everyone essentially ended up pleasing no one.
It did not help that by the time Mulcair finally spoke, two speakers – Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and former Ontario leader Stephen Lewis – had significantly raised the bar he would have had to reach to score a hit.
Theirs are the speeches this convention will be remembered for. About the only feature, they had in common was that they each barely mentioned Mulcair in passing.
Notley laid out the stakes for her province and her government in the pipeline debate, calling in no uncertain terms on the New Democrats to support efforts to get more oil to tidewater.
Never in the federal party’s history had a speaker so bluntly and so openly defended Alberta’s oilsands and rarely had so many delegates from Alberta attended a national convention.
In rebuttal, Lewis offered as eloquent a defence of the need to repudiate the fossil fuels industry to transition to a clean-air economy as anyone in the party could have delivered.
At this convention Lewis’ pleas carried the day.
A resolution committing the party to debate the so-called Leap Manifesto and its contention that there should be a moratorium on all future pipelines was adopted in the face of the strenuous objections of – among others – the delegates from Alberta.
They pleaded in vain for the New Democrats to avoid this, giving their political opponents’ ammunition to cast the party as a threat to the resource sector, the workers that depend upon it and, ultimately, the Canadian economy.
Mulcair tried to straddle the divide of the debate. For his pains, he was caught in the crossfire. Neither camp saw him as a worthy defender for its side of the argument.
The battle is far from over.
It will be fought by proxy over the course of the leadership campaign.
It will plunge the NDP into its most divisive debate since the constitutional wars of the Meech Lake era in the late ’80s.
Mulcair was only the first casualty of this potentially self-destructive battle for the soul of the federal NDP.
There will likely be others.
Copyright 201 – Torstar Syndication Services