After a successful convention NDPers should not rest on their laurels

York South-Weston NDP delegates with Jagmeet Singh after his conference speech on February 17. Photo: York South-Weston NDP/Twitter

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now in trouble over a seeming connection to Sikh extremism. During his state visit to India, the PM allowed Jaspal Atwal, a convicted criminal associated with the Sikh militant movement, to hobnob with him and his wife Sophie.

Sophie even got herself photographed with Atwal, and the PM was forced to rescind an invitation to Atwal for a lavish, official dinner.

It is all the fault of a Liberal MP from British Columbia who put Atwal on some list or other, the PM says, as though the Prime Minister’s Office does not have staff to check that sort of thing.

New Democrats must be feeling something close to schadenfreude over the Atwal affair, after the rough ride their leader got when he was insufficiently affirmative in condemning the militant (and likely terrorist) Talwinder Singh Parmar.

Parmar died in 1992, killed by the Indian police.

Trudeau’s association with Atwal is a lot more intimate than Jagmeet Singh’s with Parmar. Neither the NDP leader nor anyone in his entourage ever had their photo taken with Parmar. And Singh certainly never invited Parmar to dinner. The current NDP leader was still a child when Parmar died.

It is the prime minister who will have to answer questions about Atwal when he gets back to Canada, although most of those questions will likely come from reporters and Conservative politicians. NDPers might prefer to focus on more substantive policy matters, and especially on those where they differ from the governing Liberals -- such as pension theft and the privatization of public infrastructure.

A disillusioned social democrat is encouraged

New Democrats must still be feeling good about their recent policy convention, which went just about as well as it could.

This writer and others, such as the Toronto Star’s Chantal Hébert, found nothing earth-shakingly radical in what Jagmeet Singh had to say during the convention, or in the resolutions delegates passed. Others, however, were more bullish on the new progressive direction the party seems to be taking.

One who was there and who calls himself a disillusioned social democrat wrote a lengthy post about the convention on Facebook. He was impressed with the youth, engagement and diversity of the delegates. And he detected both a progressive spirit, and progressive content, in the leader’s speech and in the resolutions.

He put it this way:

“A key focus was the need for progressive tax reform to expand public services, especially public health care (to include pharmacare and dental care) and the means to free post-secondary education. This creates a key potential contrast with the Liberals, who are far more attached to income transfers to individuals such as child benefits than to federal funding and leadership when it comes to public services for citizens.”

The NDP will want to work on communicating that contrast with the Liberals, in ways that connect directly to the daily lives of Canadians, as it prepares the ground for the next campaign. Despite their successful convention, which drew favourable reviews from our erstwhile-disillusioned friend and many others, New Democrats still have big challenges.

There was, for instance, a lot of ink spilled about a number of frisky resolutions on Israel-Palestine that popped up at the convention, none of which, in the end, got adopted. Many who were not watching too closely had the false impression that all of the convention’s foreign policy resolutions dealt with Israel-Palestine to the exclusion of the entire rest of the world.

In fact, there were resolutions on the Rohingya, on human rights in Saudi Arabia, on the Trans Pacific Partnership and a number of other foreign policy issues, in addition to Israel-Palestine.

Critics unaware that only the NDP favours bilingual Supreme Court justices

On another front -- Quebec -- the NDP presented a motion last fall stipulating that all Supreme Court justices should be bilingual. Given the nature of the country, the NDP argued, judges on the highest court should be able to hear arguments in either official language and not depend on translation or interpretation.

The governing Liberals voted down that motion and opted for the status quo. Then, somewhat later, Singh mused that the NDP might consider waiving the bilingual requirement for a small category of potential Supreme Court justices: Indigenous judges. There has never been an Indigenous Supreme Court justice.

Singh’s musings caused consternation in Quebec, not least among his own MPs. The public reaction was a bit odd, however. Many who excoriated the NDP seemed unaware of the fact that currently there is no requirement that Supreme Court justices be bilingual. Judges on the highest court are specifically exempt from articles 16 and 17 of the Official Languages Act, which specify the bilingualism requirements for all other federally appointed judges.

And so, Singh was blamed, in Quebec, not merely for wanting to tweak his own party’s bilingualism policy -- a policy that goes far beyond what the governing Liberals are prepared to accept. Many in Quebec, including some journalists, falsely believed Singh wanted to roll back a bilingualism requirement that, in fact, does not exist, and which only the NDP supports.

Finally, there was the convention story that got big play in the Globe and Mail, about one Tamika Mallory, an invited speaker from the U.S. Mallory had, it seems, expressed sympathy (on Twitter) with Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, notorious for his anti-Semitic and anti-gay views. The NDP invited Mallory because of her role in the Women’s March on Washington of January 2017.  It seems the convention’s organizers had not taken the precaution of checking on all of Mallory’s tweets.

When asked about Farrakhan, Mallory pointed to the good work he does in getting African-American men to stop using drugs and reunite with their families. She insisted she is not responsible for any of Farrakhan’s personal views, only for her own. And that was that.

After Mallory spoke there was no follow-up on her Farrakhan connection, and the story seems to have disappeared. But the Globe’s big front-page headlines, which coincided with the start of the convention, had already done their damage.

From time to time, all political parties believe themselves to be targets of unfair and unfounded criticism. No doubt the Liberals are feeling more than a bit of that right now.

For New Democrats, the lesson from the various examples enumerate above should not be to go into a paranoid shell and avoid contact with journalists. Quite the opposite.

The lesson should be that the party should take pains, in the future, to always explain its positions -- carefully and in full detail.

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