A non-party animal crashes the NDP bash

| March 28, 2012
Photo: John Maclennan/rabble.ca

Politically, I'm postmodern. In our democracy, where the medium for electoral engagement is the party system, I'm decidedly non-partisan. Values, principles, people, and opportunities to make a progressive difference are more attractive for this activist. Flexibility and openness are key.

In my present incarnation, I'm Green MP Elizabeth May's press secretary. After returning to Canada from the U.K. and examining the contemporary political landscape, I felt it would be a privilege to support this brilliant, outspoken woman in her efforts to challenge Harper, the Northern Gateway pipeline, and more. Now, I'm on Parliament Hill confronting the daily insults the Conservatives inflict on our society.

Years ago, however, I worked for a cabinet minister in Bob Rae's NDP Ontario government, which originally represented a great social democratic dream. I later joined Paul Hellyer and his Canadian Action Party when he became the most outspoken critic of NAFTA. In the last federal election, I voted Liberal to stop the aggressive Conservatives from regaining Kingston and The Islands (plagued by fraudulent robocalling during the campaign).

It was with this unique, if slightly contradictory, perspective that I walked into the sterile, labyrinthine South Building of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for the NDP convention last week. My objective? To get a sense of just how much that party was willing to move towards some kind of collaboration with others, so that the voices of a clear majority of Canadians could be properly represented in the House of Commons.

Nathan Cullen had opened up the debate on progressive co-operation as a way of getting around our dysfunctional first-past-the-post system, but how far had that penetrated into the attitude of the party? I was there as a kind of human litmus test. Would they see me as a Green enemy and threat in their time of ascendancy -- or a potential ally?

Generally, I was positively impressed.

Mark Hosak of Burnaby, B.C., told me the system was broken and it was "time to bury the hatchet for the greater good," noting that young people were breaking down traditional barriers. He pointed out cheerily that Elizabeth May's experience winning her riding in Saanich-Gulf Islands could serve as a prototype for future efforts. May managed to oust controversial Conservative Gary Lunn in part because Liberals and NDPers made room for her.

Kingston City Councillor Jim Neill greeted me with the same enthusiasm for doing things differently. He suggested that 12 ridings could be designated -- 6 for the NDP and 6 for the Greens. With no vote-split, 12 progressive candidates would be elected, rather than 12 Conservatives -- the difference as we now know between a Harper majority and minority.

Another delegate I questioned seemed quite relieved that so many members of the party were finally "mature enough" to openly recognize that "we need to have that discussion," instead of just whispering about it. She did not give her name.

At one point, a conversation about coalition-building progressed for a while before I had a chance to reveal my status with Elizabeth May. "Oh," responded a delegate from Ontario, "she would be a good person to have a coalition with." Another wall down.

For every speaker I heard pronouncing that "this is about family," I also picked up lines like "it's our job to be the unifiers; we sit across from the dividers." Things came to a togetherness height when I ran into a gaggle of Liberals. When I mentioned May, one MP laughed: "She has fun with us!" A good thing, because she is surrounded by them in her back-corner seat.

There was a sense, especially among young people, that organizations like Avaaz and Leadnow were challenging the monopoly of political parties to dominate citizens' ability to be engaged. "A lot of people are more political than partisan" was one of the best observations I heard -- making me feel vindicated. I was getting the impression that parties, like most pre-Internet institutions, were going to have to modernize to survive as viable vehicles for democratic expression.

My spirits really rose when someone approached me with a petition to sign. It was the initiative of those in the party supporting ElectoralAlliance. By targeting the weakest Conservative seats with a progressive alliance of NDP-Green-Liberal and possibly the Bloc, the 60 per cent of Canadians who didn't vote for Harper would finally have the influence they deserve. I signed the petition with enthusiasm.

My only dust-up occurred after the NDP women's caucus meeting when a few of us continued the discussion in, where else, the women's washroom. One member proudly announced that she was very partisan and began denouncing the Green Party for having the same economic policies as the Conservatives. She obviously had never read a Green Party platform or proposed budget. Elizabeth's recent letter to Flaherty calls for a reverse of corporate tax cuts to 2009 levels, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, and the return of the Prime Minister's Office budget to Chretien levels.

Late Saturday afternoon, when it was obvious that the momentum was with Mulcair, I heard the theory that Topp's toppling might not be a bad thing. As a long-time party insider, he represented the circle-the-wagons, party-loyalty-first attitude which didn't seem to be working for Canadian voters. By that time, I realized that a lot of NDP members would be watching Mulcair closely to determine whether he will be as rigid as he has indicated in terms of party strategy and exclusivity.

Finally, I did detect one area of disagreement between the declarations of the NDP and my employer: the timing of the demise of Stephen Harper. Booting him out in the 2015 election seemed to be the general plan among social democrats. May points out that unpopular leaders, most recently B.C.'s Gordon Campbell, have been pushed out of office well before the end of their mandate. In the name of anti-Conservative unity, I'm sure a compromise can be reached.

Kathleen O'Hara has worked for government, NGOs, and the media. More recently, she published a book, Lost and Found in London, about personal and political change before joining MP Elizabeth May's Ottawa team.

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