NDPers support Singh agenda, Liberals rattle election sabres

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Jagmeet Singh. Image credit: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

There are three words organizers of this past weekend's NDP convention hope they never hear again. Point. Of. Order.

Policy conventions for all parties can be fractious and cumbersome affairs. They can produce politically embarrassing results. Witness Conservative delegates' recent rejection of the reality of a warming planet.

That was not their leader's stated policy, although Erin O'Toole has made a point of fudging his position on climate change since taking on this job.

For the New Democratic leadership, it was the feistiness of many party members that almost derailed their proceedings this past weekend. The main problem was the functionality of the convention's online system. (This was, of course, a virtual event, necessitated by the pandemic.)

The technical frustrations seemed to bring out the delegates' querulous side.

On Saturday, during debates on policy resolutions, there were endless procedural interruptions and delays. The chairs kept hearing, and having to cope with, two dreaded phrases: "point of order" and "point of personal privilege."

Many convention delegates were angry because the online system simply did not work for them.

Some called it an "ableist" system. New Democrats who live with disabilities found the online process to be, in many cases, impossible to use. Other delegates complained they did not know what items the convention was considering at a given time, or that they were victims of online bullying.

During an interview with convention co-host Laurie Antonin, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh -- who won overwhelming support on the leadership review vote -- admitted the party had failed to live up to its own principles in the organization of this event. The leader promised they would do better next time.

A strong set of policy resolutions

A times, the delegates' frequent and noisy disputes and complaints made it difficult to sustain a coherent policy conversation. But the convention did manage to pass a significant volume of resolutions, many of which dovetail with the issues New Democrats MPS have been pursuing in the current Parliament.

There was a resolution on making long-term care part of the universal health-care system, which closely resembles a motion the NDP presented to Parliament in March.

Another resolution proposed the federal government provide 14 paid sick days for all federally regulated workers -- an issue that has also been high on the parliamentary New Democratic agenda since the onset of the pandemic.

Delegates understood that providing guaranteed leave only for workers in federally regulated sectors, such as transport and communications, cannot solve the crisis for the far more numerous provincially regulated workers. In Ontario, for instance, shortly after taking power, the current Doug Ford Conservative government abolished the modest two days of paid leave Kathleen Wynne's Liberals had enacted toward the end of their term in office.

Cognizant of the fact that paid sick leave is primarily a provincial responsibility, the New Democratic delegates' resolution called on NDP MPs to "press the federal government to urge provinces and territories to legislate at least seven employer-paid sick days for all workers, with an additional 14 days during public health outbreaks."

Other resolutions proposed:

  • a green recovery, through investments in "low carbon jobs" and "transit and community infrastructure";
  • measures to facilitate the provision of clean water to Indigenous communities, such as enhanced training and elimination of the low-bid rule for contracts;
  • and a federal anti-racism act to combat "Islamophobia, racism, antisemitism and oppression and racism in all its forms."

That last resolution proposes more resources for "the prosecution of hate crimes," measures to "eliminate the disproportionately high rates of incarceration of racialized people," and strengthening the federal Employment Equity Act by "attaching employment equity measures to all federal investment programs."

These and a number of other policies delegates approved all fit nicely within the NDP's existing playbook.

A vexatious and unfounded accusation of antisemitism

There was one resolution, however, the party leadership did not enthusiastically welcome, and it dealt with Israel and Palestine.

Over the past decade, under leaders Jack Layton and, especially, Tom Mulcair, New Democrats have resisted taking a strong position in favour of Palestinian rights. This time, however, the grassroots prevailed and succeeded in passing a resolution dealing with "justice and peace in Israel-Palestine."

Eighty-five per cent of delegates supported the measure which called for "peaceful co-existence in viable, independent states [of Israel and Palestine] with agreed-upon borders, an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and an end to violence targeting civilians."

That part of the Israel-Palestine resolution is pretty non-controversial.

Two additional clauses -- one proposing Canada end "all trade and economic cooperation with illegal settlements," and another saying Canada should suspend "bilateral trade of arms with Israel until Palestinian rights are upheld" -- are more contentious, or, at least, journalists covering the event seemed to think so.

During a Jagmeet Singh press conference on Sunday afternoon, The Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson asked the NDP leader if the Israel-Palestine resolution worried him -- if he feared it would open the party to accusations of antisemitism.

Singh was quick to point out he believes antisemitism is real and dangerous. He and the party, he declared, are committed to combating antisemitism, and all forms of bigotry, vigorously. Singh went on to speak at some length about his own deep feelings on the issue of racism and antisemitism, as a person who has experienced race hatred personally and painfully.

The NDP leader devoted less time to defending the substance of the resolution. But he did emphasize there is a huge difference between legitimate criticism of the policies of a given Israeli government and antisemitism or promotion of hatred toward the Jewish people.

Singh added it is not, in any way, antisemitic to advocate pressure tactics designed to encourage the government of Israel to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians.

One Jewish organization, Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), which represents only a small fraction of Canada's Jewish community, applauded the resolution.

The mainstream Centre for Israeli and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) predictably denounced what it called the NDP's "toxic obsession with Israel." CIJA said it was "staggering," given all the other problems of the world -- from the pandemic to "catastrophes unfolding in Syria, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Brazil, Hong Kong, and elsewhere" -- that the NDP gave such high priority to the issue of Israel-Palestine.

Notably, CIJA did not say it considered the NDP's Israel-Palestine resolution to be antisemitic. The Jewish organization only argued the NDP "fails to recognize there are two parties to the conflict." The party's position, it said, "infantilizes" the Palestinians.

New Democrat wins in House, Liberals ready for early vote

In his speech to the delegates, Jagmeet Singh did not mention the Israel-Palestine resolution or the (largely invented) controversy surrounding it. Instead, the NDP leader focused on all the ways in which New Democrats have used their leverage in a minority Parliament to push the governing Liberals in a bolder more activist direction.

Singh mentioned the wage subsidy which the Trudeau government had originally pegged at a paltry 10 per cent of a worker's income. New Democrats, following the example of some European countries, fought for a 75 per cent subsidy and won.

NDPers also campaigned for a doubling of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, the CERB, to $2,000, and won that fight too.

It was the same story for the federal Liberals' 10-day sick leave benefit for all workers, designed to pick up the considerable slack left by negligent provincial governments. Prime Minister Trudeau was cool to that idea at first, Singh said, but unyielding New Democrats forced him to change his mind.

The overarching point Singh was making was: voters cannot trust the Liberals to do the right thing, not even in an emergency. Had the Liberals won a majority in 2019, he implied, their response to the pandemic would have been far weaker and more timid than it actually was.

Now, Singh told his supporters, the Liberals are promising such progressive measures as pharmacare and child care, and bold action on climate change. But if the voters give them 100 per cent of the power next time, don't expect them to follow through, not based on past experience.

As for the Liberals, they too just had their convention, and it was a smooth, glitch-free affair. Liberal delegates are more focused on campaign strategy and winning the next election and less on policy debates than their NDP counterparts.

Officially, the Liberal leadership does not want an early election (during a pandemic), but their convention had election written all over it.

Liberal Party President Suzanne Cowan talked enthusiastically about election readiness. And the prime minister's speech, aggressively targeting Erin O'Toole and his "out-of-touch" Conservatives, sounded a lot like a stump speech.

We will see the details of the Liberal campaign platform when we see the coming budget, on April 19. If the pandemic situation seems at all favourable, even if it is somewhat touch and go, the Liberal hierarchy will be sorely tempted to trigger a June election.

 Everything else seems to be going in their favour right now.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image credit: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

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