Intense. Exhausting. Exhilarating. Frustrating. Brilliant. That was the NDP policy convention in Québec City, in a nutshell. Oh, and did I mention intense?
I'm getting ahead of myself, so I'll back up. Be forewarned, though, that this may well be the longest blog post ever written, so you might want to fix yourself something nice to eat before you dive in.
The convention didn't officially begin until Friday, but really it started Thursday evening in Montreal, what with a whopping seven hundred and fifty delegates (just under half of the total number of around 1600) scheduled to take the free NDP express train from there to Quebec City. An old friend and I sat down to have something to eat at the "reception"--which actually seemed to be more about herding cats into one place than it was about anything I'd have termed a reception--and our table was promptly joined by Jack Layton and Olivia Chow. This meant that we ended up being visited by a whole bunch of people in rapid succession, which was great fun. Considering that this was my first federal convention, it also ended up being pretty useful, since it meant I got a chance to meet all sorts of old hands right off the bat. I admit that I find the whole cult of personality surrounding Jack (or for that matter any Canadian party leader) to be pretty off-putting, but he really does take well to the rock-star role. Just watching him is exhausting for this introvert!
Boarding the train went off without a hitch, which was a bit shocking given that the station doesn't seem to be designed to deal well with large crowds. As we got rolling, then, the train divided up neatly into "quiet cars" where people were having low-key conversations about the upcoming weekend, and "party cars" that were much more, shall we say, well-lubricated. Either way, it was three hours of a really crazy idea that was surprisingly well-executed before we finally arrived at around 11PM. There was a long, frustrating fifteen minutes or so where we were at the station but they wouldn't let us out because they had to split the train in two, but then we managed to pile into shuttle buses and head for our various hotels.
Friday morning, then, I braved the convention floor for the first time. I found myself overwhelmed pretty quickly by the sheer hugeness of everything from the facility itself to the orange banners hanging everywhere, so I took a while to find my feet and left voting on various constitutional amendments to the old-timers. The weird and unfamiliar bits included all the incredibly annoying, formal rules governing everything that happened on the convention floor (I'm an informal sort of person at the best of times). On the other hand, the cool and impressive bits included simultaneous translation devices (French to English and vice versa) provided free of charge to anyone who wanted them, and the fact that everything that happened on the floor was also translated into ASL and projected onto a huge screen. By noon, I'd pretty much decided I approved.
Friday's lunch break was taken up by the meeting of the LGBT caucus, the purpose of which was to elect two new co-chairs and discuss the statutes of the LGBT committee. When hordes of people started pouring into the tiny room, though, the chairs quickly started to realize that there was no way we were going to get to everything with so many people, so we decided to focus on the elections. Four candidates were nominated, including one of our local Edmonton crew, an incredibly impressive young anglophone Quebecer named Matthew McLauchlin, and a francophone transgendered woman named Micheline Montreuil. When Libby Davies nominated Svend Robinson, though, it was pretty clear who was going to be the first pick. In the end, the choices ended up being Svend and Micheline, which is just fine with me. One of the old-timers remarked, sort of shaking his head, that he could remember when they used to have to twist people's arms into doing this, which felt really good.
After lunch were the resolution prioritization panels, which consisted of a long block of time set aside for focus on prioritizing the order of resolutions in a particular focus area, as well as debating and amending the content of those resolutions. I attended the panel on "Building an Inclusive Canada," mainly because both electoral reform and LGBT issues were included there, but there were also panels on international affairs, the environment, and the NDP itself, among others. The main contentious issue in the panel I chose was the age of consent. The original impetus for the resolutions were the fact that in the last session of parliament, the NDP supported the Conservatives' efforts to raise the age of consent from fourteen to sixteen (with a "close-in-age exemption" added by the NDP in an effort not to criminalize sexual behaviour between youth). The NDP youth caucus was incensed by this, and came up with several resolutions that amounted to an effort to get federal caucus to back out on that support. Their reasoning seemed to boil down to two arguments: youth should be allowed to take charge of their own sexual behaviour, and the difference in the rules for anal sex and other forms of sex are homophobic (this latter issue was addressed through an amendment). The debate was very heated and intense, and in the end the panel voted to refer the matter to federal council, in a vote that ended with only twelve more on the "refer it" side than in the "let it go to the floor" side. The youth were very angry about the whole ordeal, and cries of "shame!" rang out from the back of the room. I have to admit that while I was willing to allow my mind to be changed, I had come into the discussion with the opinion that (given the fact that the close-in-age exemption allowed youth to have sex with each other) there was nothing wrong with the NDP support for the proposed Conservative law. I heard nothing in the debate to change that impression, so I sided with those who voted to refer. It was definitely a time when it felt awkward voting in a very public forum with bright orange cards, though, especially given that I'd just spent the lunch hour hanging out with the LGBT caucus, many of whom were profoundly in favour of the resolutions.
For me, though, the main excitement of the afternoon centred around the proposed Fair Vote Canada amendment, adding both a Citizens' Assembly and a nationwide referendum to an otherwise underwhelming resolution on federal electoral reform (it essentially reaffirmed the party's support for proportional representation, while enshrining in law its preference for the Mixed-Member-Proportional flavour of it). Several people spoke against the amendment, arguing that referenda have been "unsuccessful in other countries" (if anyone out there knows what might have been meant by this, please speak up--I'm only aware of New Zealand's use of referenda for this purpose, which were ultimately successful), which in turn prompted me to speak in favour of it. In the end, the citizens' assembly made it through the process unscathed, but not the referendum. But while the ultimate resolution was suboptimal in several ways (including its strong advocacy for one and only one possible flavour of proportional representation--which I'm not happy about because that's part of what undermined the referendum in B.C.), the addition of a citizens' assembly is a real win. My reading of the resolution as it emerged from the panel is that the NDP will advocate for MMP, but the non-partisan citizens' assembly would still have the right to recommend whatever electoral system it deems appropriate. I can live with that, and even be happy about it.
I heard some horror stories about some of the other panels--in one, most of the time apparently got eaten up by debating the order of the resolutions and almost no time was dedicated to the resolutions themselves, while in another, the socialist caucus apparently effectively held the proceedings hostage and kept any amendments from passing that made the resolutions' wording sound less strident--but judging from the one I was in, I really liked the process. When various Tory blogs poked fun at the leaked resolutions a few weeks ago, I had to cringe--quite frankly, some of them were pretty ridiculous as proposed. But the prioritization system meant that the delegates as a whole got to pick which ones would make it to the floor and which ones would end up getting referred to federal council, and the opportunity to propose amendments meant that some of the crazier ones were decidedly less crazy once people were done with them. Out here in the blog world we like to hold up the fringe of any given party as an example of the whole, but my experience at this panel confirmed my already strong impression that there are in fact a lot of smart, sensible people in this party. And at least when it came to debating the "Building An Inclusive Canada"-centred resolutions, they vastly, vastly outnumbered the flakes.
The rest of Friday started with a speech by Manitoba premier Gary Doer on the environment, which was terrific and incredibly inspiring. I had to wonder if he's seeing himself as Jack's eventual (after a long, long time, of course!) successor, because he sure sounded like someone running for leader! A friend even remarked that she remembered "when he used to be boring." But as far as I'm concerned, it was Friday evening--as a whole--that was the highlight of the convention. First came the "Building a Better World" showcase, starring 27-year-old Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya and Stephen Lewis, former Ontario NDP leader and current UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Both speeches were just plain phenomenal. Joya was sombre as she said things like "they may kill me, but they cannot silence my voice," and there wasn't a person in the room who wasn't in awe of this courageous woman. As a sharp contrast, Lewis, while talking about the equally serious subject of HIV/AIDS in Africa, actually managed to be incredibly funny. Part of it was his wonderful use of language--one quote I jotted down was: "these are not my figures, hatched in the feckless mind of an ambulatory subversive." I was right in the very front, which probably added to the magic of it all, and it was definitely something I won't ever forget.
After a late night, I found myself waking up with some difficulty and scrambling to make it to the convention floor in time for the first resolution debate of the convention: on Canada's mission in Afghanistan. The resolution on the table was strongly worded and in no uncertain terms called for an immediate withdrawal. MP Dawn Black spoke in favour of it, but the lineups at the "con mikes" were almost as long as the lineups at the "pro mikes." Also, in a twist that made things somewhat more complicated, the "con" side was led by Nova Scotia MP Peter Stouffer, who had already voiced his dissenting opinion with the NDP party line on Afghanistan. Stouffer spoke eloquently not in favour of defeating the resolution, but instead of referring it to federal council. He also urged that in the meantime, there should be a broad consultation process with Canadians across the country before official party policy on the matter would be made.
The problem for Stouffer was that because his suggestion of a referral had been preceded by a speech, the chair didn't accept it as an official motion. Worse yet, the rules of the convention stated that each delegate could only speak once to any particular resolution, which tied his hands. Enter my old friend Joanne Cook, who'd already been lining up at one of the "con" microphones, and who took her turn to speak to officially move a referral to the resolutions committee. She stated that the decision should be made only after "a cross-Canada consultation of NDP members and the public at large," with the aim of developing "a coherent policy on Afghanistan and more broadly on military affairs and international relations." And then she went on to say the following, completely off the top of her head (I have the full text because I captured the moment on video):
I'm a lifelong member of the voice of women, and I don't believe our troops have any business in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, I believe that we need more information, more consultation, more thought. I believe we need a coherent foreign policy framework for military and international affairs which this party has never developed. And I'm asking the delegates to think seriously--yes, we all support our troops. I believe that the majority of people in this room do not support the Afghanistan mission on which a government foolhardedly sent them. But to develop policy on an ad-hoc, as-needed basis without a coherent framework is a recipe for bad policy. [...] I don't want to see our men and women die there. I don't want to see Afghanis die, either. We need a decent policy, and we need coherent thought about what Canada's position should be in the world. But I don't think we can do that in a few hours on the convention floor any more than I think the government of Canada could do it in a six-hour evening debate.I was moved, but even more than that, her suggestion seemed like the best way forward. See, the resolution didn't speak to my concerns with the Afghanistan mission, but defeating it then and there wouldn't have done so, either. This is mainly because those concerns are pragmatic rather than ideological, i.e., more about "can this work well enough to make it worth the cost" than about "Canada's place in the world." Yes, I admit to having a knee-jerk, anti-military attitude that probably comes from having grown up in the United States, but I've poked at that attitude for weeks now, and I'm quite certain now that my concerns about the mission aren't coming from that part of my brain. What my position comes down to is this: if Canada can't provide any concrete, long-term help, we should clearly pull the troops; and if we can, then we should at least consider staying in (while at the same time thinking hard about what staying means for Canadian traditions). I should say that I'm sympathetic to the position that Odd Thoughts' Kevin G. took in the Afghanistan discussion on my blog: that if the mission is failing, then the time to reevaluate that is after our two-year commitment is over and not right away. This is because "doing what you said you were going to do" is a value I hold strongly, whether it comes to individuals or to nations. But in the end I can't wholeheartedly endorse that way of looking at it because it would mean putting a nation's commitment ahead of young Canadians' lives--lives that would be taken in vain if Canada really can't do any long-term good over there. And I frankly don't think we--at least not we of the public--know enough right now to make that call one way or the other. Referring the making of official party policy pending the gathering of more information seemed like the best way to proceed.
So I listened closely to the debate, which was of an extraordinarly high quality on both sides. Then, after thinking about it as carefully and as thoroughly as I could, I voted in favour of Joanne's referral to the resolutions committee, and abstained on the main motion. In the end they didn't listen to me--the referral was defeated, and the resolution passed by a wide margin--but since I was going have misgivings about the whole decision either way, I can live with that. Mostly, though, I have to say that the whole experience made me feel proud of being a member of a party in which difficult issues like this one can be discussed at great length and with great intelligence, entrenched positions can be revealed in a very public forum, lots of shouting can occur at the microphones--and then after all is said and done, people of quite different shades of opinion can all go out to lunch together and have a terrific time. That's a very different picture from the seemingly hard-line, "it's our way or the highway" NDP we often see through the lens of the mainstream media, but it's what I've known from my experience working with the local party here, and it's what I saw with my own eyes at the convention.
Next came the "spotlight on Québec," led by Pierre Ducasse and
the entire a portion of the Québec delegation, followed quickly by the "spotlight on the environment." In addition to a speech on climate change by the head of Greenpeace Québec and another by Australian environmental scientist Tim Flannery (author of The Weather Makers), we also got former Québec environment minister Thomas Mulcair--a Liberal--who spoke about his province's approach to environmental policy. He mostly spoke in French, but his best quote was in English: "Although it's true that the current government was dealt a bad hand by the last government, this isn't an excuse for inaction. It's very un-Canadian not to try." It was a little odd to have a Liberal speaking at an NDP convention--and a Québec Liberal at that, who tend to be more centre-right than centre-left--and I have to wonder if the lukewarm response he got from the floor had to do with people not being sure what to make of him. Flannery was probably the best of the lot; in addition to starting off by telling us rather wistfully how lucky we are "to have an NDP to vote for," he spoke quite authoritatively and convincingly about the science behind climate change. Afterward, emcee (and MP) Nathan Cullen told the crowd about how Jack Layton had given Harper a copy of Flannery's book and asked him to read it as a personal favour. I think we can all be pretty sure it hasn't been read yet.
Then it was back to debating the resolutions, all of which seemed incredibly easy and almost boring after the controversy over the Afghanistan one. The resolution on security certificates passed near-unanimously, as did the feared-controversial "Sherbrooke Declaration," which among other things officially recognized the "national character" of the province of Québec (after which the Québec delegation led the room in a rousing chanting of "N-P-D, N-P-D," which I have to admit freaked me out a bit, since in my mind the "NPD" is first and foremost the far-right party in Germany!). Even less controversial were the disabilities resolution and the one on aboriginal Canadians. The amended electoral reform one was up next, and while there was a small amount of debate (during which MP Joe Comartin lovingly called the resolution "plagiarized" from Ed Broadbent, and Wilf Day argued for the citizens' assembly on the basis of the electoral system belonging "not to the politicians, but to the voters"), it passed with no difficulty.
The planned bloggers' lunch was scheduled for the lunch break, but it required a 400-metre walk in the rain to a restaurant, and so most people (understandably) opted not to join us. Three brave souls did show up, though: myself, Northern B.C. Dipper, and Ian Gillespie of Canuckistan, and we salvaged the situation by merging with the gathering at the next table for the Mouseland mailing list. This gave us a total of ten net-savvy Dippers and some really terrific conversations about everything from the role of blogs to fixed election dates. Unfortunately, I also heard about Paul Summerville's defection to the Liberals at the same lunch, which brought me down a bit from my "high." My take: I've never been one to object to others making different political decisions from the one I've made, and so I won't say "good riddance." I really respect him, though, and I'm incredibly sad that he's decided the NDP isn't right for him. Like the Jurist, I think he's wrong (and I also think he might have realized that for himself if he'd actually come to the convention as originally planned), but I wish him well.
By this point, I was really feeling the lack of sleep from the night before. While I went back to the convention floor and fought to stay alert through the showcase of the provincial NDP leaders, more uncontroversial resolution debates, the "spotlight on culture," and then more debates, I desperately needed a break. Unfortunately, the tipping point came just before Shirley Douglas' speech, which I ended up missing in favour of a good long nap. I regret that, because everybody said she was just terrific, but I suppose you have to pick and choose at these things. To console myself, I had a wonderful dinner at the Bistro Moss. The food was amazing, and staff were just great--including but not limited to the host who asked us as we were leaving (with a big smile and a hand on my arm) whether we were from the NDP convention. His attitude toward us reminded me a little of something Québécoise ambulante had said to me shortly after arriving in Alberta: she said that she'd been told about this very nice little party that existed out west, which made her happy because it meant that she wasn't stuck with just the Liberals and the Tories. Apparently, Jean Average Quebecer thinks of us as sort of the Yorkshire terrier of Canadian politics: cute and unthreatening and perhaps a bit yappy. Which is a bit frustrating and even embarrassing, but also--despite everything--terribly amusing.
On Sunday there were more resolution debates, most of which continued to be pretty uncontroversial. The exceptions were the resolution asking the party to do a study on the possibility of decoupling the provincial parties from the federal one (which got very contentious and was eventually defeated), and the emergency resolution denouncing the war between Israel and Lebanon. For a while the latter seemed destined to turn into another Afghanistan debate, what with MP Judy Wacylycia-Leis opposing her fellow caucus members Dawn Black and Alexa McDonough, but eventually it became clear that it wasn't the "be it resolved" part that was at issue, but the rather strident "whereas" clauses. Wacylycia-Leis argued that the whereas clauses mattered because they would be debated and published in the media, and some other delegates even argued that the chosen wording should prevent the resolution from going forward, but in the end it passed. The only other debate was over the softwood lumber resolution that opposed the Tories' deal with the Americans, with Peter Stouffer rising yet again to go up to the con mike and argue that while they might not like this deal in Québec and B.C., they think it's just fine in Atlantic Canada because their issues are totally different. That resolution passed with no difficulty. There was other business, as well, such as electing a new party president (Ann McGrath) and voting on whether to hold a leadership contest (with 92% supporting Jack's continued leadership, that would be a resounding no), but the debates were more fun.
The most interesting thing about Sunday, though, was watching the talk of the prospect of an NDP-led government--which for the rest of the weekend had been bubbling under the surface--come out full force. One delegate, in debating one of the "building the party" resolutions, even slammed Jack for his "lend us your votes" rhetoric from the last election, saying that the NDP should instead start talking seriously about leading. I have to admit that I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, if the NDP wants to be taken seriously as a major force in Canadian politics, they have to instill confidence that they're ready to lead. To do this they need not just the right rhetoric, but also a serious effort to truly build the policies that would enable them to take the reins. I support this part of it wholeheartedly.
But at the same time, the NDP is supposed to be the only major party that completely supports an electoral reform in the direction of proportional representation. I know how PR elections are fought from my time living in Germany, and the people who fight them don't make statements like: "we want to form a government [implied: on our own]." They certainly don't say things like: "If we're ever going to form a government, it's going to be because we can beat the Liberals and the Tories at their own game." The fact is that PR makes single-party majority (or even minority) governments vanishingly rare, and majority coalitions--a form of government that's commonplace in most of the world but not currently a part of Canadian political culture--utterly normal. I brought that fact up with another delegate at the convention, and his argument was that the NDP needs to get elected before they can make the shift to PR, after which the necessary changes to the political culture can happen. I think this is the wrong tack to take, for two reasons. First, I agree as strongly as humanly possible with Wilf Day's statement that the voting system belongs not to the politicians, but to the voters, and that electoral reform needs to come from the people and not from their government. But much more disturbingly, it suggests to me that the NDP may not have thought about what PR would really look like once implemented. It suggests to me that the NDP may not want PR because it's the best thing for Canada, but because it's the best thing for the NDP right now, and they might well change their tune if the voters were to grant them their coveted chance to lead.
Finally, I'd just reiterate my misgivings about the strategy of replacing the Liberals as Canada's big-party alternative to the Conservatives, which, if successful, would almost certainly wreck the multipartisan nature of Canada's political scene and be devastating to the political left. With the mealy-mouthed messages coming from most Liberals these days, I don't think they're ready to govern again, and I certainly don't want the Conservatives back next time. I do think the NDP is the clear choice. But as much as I believe in this party, I'm first and foremost an electoral reformer. This kind of rhetoric is probably unavoidable given the realities of Canadian political culture, but aren't we supposed to be against those exact same realities? On balance, I do think that this shift in rhetorical and electoral strategy will be good for the party, and so I support it, but I still have several serious reservations. And I'll definitely be returning to this topic in the months to come.
Forming a government was the major thrust of the leader's speech that concluded the convention, which came off just wonderfully. I have no idea how it reads to people who weren't there, but the mood on the convention floor was completely electric. Jack put the NDP's opposition to the Conservatives first, but then hit the Liberals hard as well, and then finally the Bloc for propping up the Tories when they're clearly doing the wrong thing on so many issues that Bloquistes tend to care about. It was the best I've heard him speak in a long, long time, and a terrific way to close a tremendous convention.
Getting back and reading the media coverage has been interesting. I find the whole "oh no, the party faithful are forcing them to take a hard-left position on Afghanistan" thing quite puzzling, because I guarantee you that the socialist caucus wasn't terribly thrilled to hear Jack saying things like: "There is a time and a place for answering the call. Canadians are prepared to fight wars that are right for our country. We've done so proudly." If you're in favour of the mission, you can legitimately argue that it lacks nuance to say that we have to withdraw our troops immediately because the mission is failing--but that's not because it's anywhere near a hard-left position. I also find it rather strange that there's been little to nothing said about the things that felt most important to those of us on the convention floor, such as the controversy over the Afghanistan resolution (rather than just the ultimate position, which is being reported everywhere), or the messages in the Stephen Lewis and Malalai Joya speeches. It's an interesting lesson in the fact that even the best reporting is about telling one tiny fraction of the story rather than giving a broad picture. It also goes to show how that story is nearly always skewed toward what the public is already paying attention to.
My whole collection of photos is here. And now I will go rest my fingers!
Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.
Monday, September 11, 2006
Intense. Exhausting. Exhilarating. Frustrating. Brilliant. That was the NDP policy convention in Québec City, in a nutshell. Oh, and did I mention intense?