the ndp, unlike some other poli-tical parties, is gentle to a fault with its leaders, even terribly uninspiring ones who blow elections and stay around too long after the debacle. That's why, when the federal council meets at the Marriott Hotel in Ottawa this weekend, all eyes will be on leader Alexa McDonough. Will there be a sign, hint, gesture -- anything -- that she'll step down soon?Of course, no one will tell her to her face that the jig is up. Ross McClellan, a key figure in the Bob Rae administration and currently education director of the Ontario Federation of Labour and member of the federal council, doesn't expect anyone in Ottawa this weekend to be that rude. "We're nice, nice, nice. It's one thing to trash Stockwell Day. But Alexa has paid her dues." But, he says, there are problems with not knowing what she has in mind.
"The uncertainty creates a leadership vacuum. It would be helpful to know what she plans to do," he says.
The problems posed by a vacuum at the top were underlined this week by the release of the interim report of a steering committee appointed by McDonough last spring to oversee a renewal of the party. "We need to be bold and passionate and not afraid to take risks," the committee mandate says.
But contrary to what the front page of the Toronto Star reported on Monday ("NDP told to stage a "radical' overhaul"), there's nothing new or bold in the report. All the contents can be found in current NDP policy: electoral reform, economic sustainability, and reconnecting the party to the social movements.
Steering committee member Armine Yalnizyan says she and her colleagues did what they could with the time and circumstances they had. Yalnizyan, an economist formerly with the Centre for Social Justice in Toronto and one of the three non-NDP members on the committee, says simple logistics were a problem. "We've only met face to face twice, the rest has been by conference call. It's a bizarre experience. We had no organic group sense," she says.
But she says the committee has made a good start. The recommendations lean heavily on vision questions -- what should a social democratic party like the NDP stand for in a country as decentralized as Canada?
That's a harder question than it would seem to be at first glance, Yalnizyan says, and one that the competing New Politics Initiative reform group led by Judy Rebick and MP Svend Robinson has not tackled. "One of the great emphases in NPI has been on participatory democracy, getting democracy back into people's hands. We've seen a lot of that happening in Ontario, in particular with school councils and boards. What we've seen over time is that these councils and boards are not typified by progressive profiles just because they're localized."
But, she says, NDPers will have to wait to find out what the steering committee thinks about the most contentious issues, such as whether the party should sever its formal relationship with labour. "Whatever we produce is premature, because there are other dialogues that have to take place," she says.
As well as leaving that issue in abeyance, the committee is proposing another 12 months of "Revitalizing Democracy Forums" that would pull in activists from the social movements. NDPers love to talk about themselves, but is this too much even for them?
Increasingly, more and more people in the party are deciding that the poor fortunes of the NDP are not the result of policy -- Canada is, after all, a social democratic country -- but of having two dud leaders in succession. Many believe questions about future direction will be settled only by a leadership campaign where candidates adopt competing visions for the future as part of their strategies.
That's what McClellan thinks. So does Jordan Berger, a member of the Ontario party. "A new and exciting road ahead is dependent more on leadership than on a gabfest."
Speaking of new leaders, there's word that Bob Rae has been spoken about as a possible candidate for the federal leadership and has not dismissed it out of hand. Of course, he's still vilified in Ontario but would pick up a lot of support among more conservative party elements in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and BC.
Bob Rae vs. Jack Layton on the final ballot. Now that's a leadership campaign.