montreal -- if the new democra-tic Party is back in power in Ontario 10 years from now and occupying the official opposition in Ottawa, these two days at McGill University will be remembered as the moment when the NDP turned the corner.
Alternatively, if it ends up in the graveyard of parties that are no more, this Friday and Saturday (May 25 and 26) will go down as two days when a fuzzy outline of the future was blown away by the cold winds of ideology and ego.
Most of us sitting in the moot court at McGill law school have the feeling that we're part of something special, but in the middle of it it's hard to know exactly what that is.
Sure, many of those attending are the usual suspects one sees at most NDP gatherings -- some were even at the founding convention of the NDP four decades ago. But there are also lapsed members who've drifted from the fold. Those over 40 vastly outnumber younger people.
The mood is different from the cauldron that is the usual party gathering. That's because this isn't one. Officially, it's an invitation-only academic conference hosted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. There are no resolutions to organize for or against, no campaigning for executive positions. There's just talk.
The discussion revisits some familiar territory. But it also ventures into territory that's not traditional for the NDP, into the realm of poetry and spirituality. One panelist speaks of the need to use the "aspirational language" of the "abundant life" free from want that social democrats dream of.
Not everyone here is an NDPer. Tom Kent, who speaks on the Friday-morning panel, has been, among other things, principal adviser to PM Lester Pearson. His fellow veteran of progressive Liberal politics, former MP and cabinet minister Warren Allmand, points out that Canada made its most daring advances in public policy in the 1960s, when social democrats in the NDP and on the Liberal left wing were a majority in Parliament.
There's even a member of the Black Bloc that was active in the Quebec protests who gently upbraids party stalwart Gerry Caplan for his outburst on violent tactics. Don't go there, the BB member advises. This is not the time. And the moment passes.
"It's been a fabulous conference, much to my surprise," says media personality and ex-party member Judy Rebick toward the end. "There's been diversity of opinion, and we're used to having that shut down (in the NDP)."
Of course, not all is sweetness. Svend Robinson lets off a blast Friday afternoon during a session whose mission is to crack the old chestnut of how the left can live with the market economy.
Panelist Lars Osberg, an economist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, remarks that even his middle-of-the-road colleagues now recognize that the rich-get-richer phenomenon that results when there are no checks on the market is bad for the economy.
"More equal societies grow faster," he says. "The market can be a good servant but a bad master."
The metaphor unleashed, someone adds from the floor that "the market is a bad dog that must be disciplined."
Enter Robinson, who invites the audience to consider the waste of resources going into packaging and advertising, as well as the plight of maquila workers, who are the victims of globalization. "The market is a bad dog that must be put down," he says to a roar of approval and revulsion.
Ed Broadbent, once the party's federal leader but now its concerned uncle, feels obliged to pull rank and take the microphone after the speakers list has been cut off.
He recalls meeting women in Thailand who worked in sweatshops assembling Cabbage Patch dolls. Although they wanted better working conditions, they also insisted that they didn't want to lose their jobs. "There is a disposition toward markets," he cautions, "and we must understand that."
This contretemps captures the perennial fault line in the NDP: strive for government and deal straight-up with the ugly realities of the market economy, or be a social conscience that never has to make the difficult choices that come with power.
It's contentment with being a marginal protest party that underlies enthusiasm for proportional representation, the system -- common in Europe -- where parties are awarded seats based on the percentage of the total votes they win in that election. Under PR, the NDP would have netted 26 seats with its puny 8.5 per cent of the vote in last fall's federal election instead of the 13 that the party ended up with.
Alas, the federal Liberals, benefactors of the unfair system, will never change it. Anyway, PR is just a way to deflect attention from the NDP's inability to be believed as a government-in-waiting. But a party of social conscience that has no chance of winning power will not interest the youth of today, warns one under-30 panelist.
"We are unusually pragmatic, and realize that getting our hands on the levers of power is the best hope," says Peter Macleod. "A social democratic party must play to win. Otherwise, it won't capture the hearts and minds (of younger activists)."
The NDP tends to talk of those under 30 as if they all thought alike. But the evidence here suggests there's as much diversity of belief as in the rest of the population.
Joel Harden, formerly president of the Canadian Federation of Students in Ontario and currently a grad student at York, says the last thing the thousands of people involved in the anti-globalization movements expect the NDP to be is an electoral machine.
"Young people are looking for fighters," he says. "Svend Robinson, (NDP MP) Libby Davies, they're fighters. But I'm not confident the NDP will stick up for me."
A problem named here but not resolved is how to exercise the internal discipline of an electoral machine while staying open to social movements the party can't control. In the past, the party's formal ties to labour have forced it to maintain a balance between principle and convenience.
But now there's a move to undo those links as part of a campaign to purge the political system of both corporate and union political contributions. That project is well underway in NDP-led Manitoba, reports Becky Barrett, minister of labour immigration in the government of Gary Doer. A new law will require parties to make do on individual donations capped at $3,000. "The changes are designed to give all residents equal access to the political system," she tells the conference.
But the sparks that fly here in Montreal indicate that this will be an explosive issue leading up to the federal convention in Winnipeg in November.
"Wealth will always find a way to buy political influence," says Ross McClellan, who was a key adviser in the Rae government. In the hallway, McClellan tells me unions will also oppose proposals to have the next party leader elected in a one-member, one-vote system rather than the current arrangement, which awards unions a certain number of delegates (and votes). The new system would, for example, cut the size of the Steelworkers voting punch from more than 200 votes to fewer than 10, he predicts.
So after the good vibes in Montreal, there's trouble on the horizon. But disputes about future direction signal there's still something about the NDP worth fighting for. For a while there, we weren't sure.
And now for something completely different. The NDP socialist caucus gets its say on the party's future at an upcoming confab that caucus co-chair Barry Weisleder says will be bigger and more inclusive than the invitation-only event in Montreal. "It will be a rank-and-file conference, not loaded with party establishment," says Weisleder, who says caucus resolutions and candidates for party positions typically get the support of 20 to 30 per cent of delegates at NDP conventions. Not all participants at the June 22-23 conference at OISE (252 Bloor West) are members of the socialist caucus: Bud Wildman was a member of the Rae government, for which the Socialist Caucus had little love. Among the issues to be discussed are how to subject party leaders to recall by the membership, and the integration of social movements into the NDP. There will also be preparation for November's federal convention in Winnipeg. Info at www.ndpsocialists.ca. To register, call 416-535-8779.