It was called Re-Imagining Our Cities, but the summit was more about reimagining the NDP.
One of its first policy events since electing Tom Mulcair federal leader, the April 13 invitation-only conference hosted by the federal NDP and York U's City Institute at the Toronto Reference Library was about how to grow the city economy.
A roomful of Dippers in suits, jackets and ties sipping coffee from real mugs instead of church-basement styrofoam cups is a sure sign the party is moving on, hoping to fill a new political niche as tomorrow's economic growth managers.
The meet also included a handful of local councillors and various policy experts. But it was obvious the eight NDP MPs, plus party staffers, were there to firm up their new positioning as champions of an innovative urban manufacturing and knowledge economy, against Conservative cronies of foreign-based resource exporters.
These are not your grandmother's tax-and-spend New Democrats. The party was always about wealth redistribution, but now, in the midst of recession and austerity, it's busy developing proposals on actual wealth creation. The Conservatives have given them a unique opportunity to play this card.
Starving the public sector, especially in cities, is cutting off the economy's nose to spite the deficit's face, the argument goes. Smart public programs are only dispensable in an economy run for hewers of wood and drawers of oil and water.
The outlines of the developing narrative were laid out in an op-ed by NDP MP Matthew Kellway and City Institute director Roger Keil a few weeks back. The Conservative budget, they wrote, "makes the projection of the vanished middle class of our city all the more certain."
Before everyone broke into workshops, participants heard expert contributions. U of T political economist David Wolfe showed how the auto-based economy that brought prosperity to southern Ontario after the 1960s was "the child of government policy" that gave substantial subsidies to every new plant built after 1980. Today, Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo pin their hopes on what robust university research programs can do to bolster local medical, software and small manufacturing operations.
But Toronto, he says, must compete as a global city, vying with New York, London and Tokyo despite underfunded programs. The Conservative budget matches about $1 billion in spending over four years for research and innovation with an approximately equal amount of operational cuts in the same areas.
Economist Armine Yalnizyan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives followed with an advisory that southern Ontario's success depends on attracting the best and brightest immigrants, who stimulate demand for new homes, furnishings and food. The region is in competition for about 200 million footloose professionals and entrepreneurs from across the global South who are picking cities based on creative employment and good health care, recreation and housing.
Despite the innovation this discussion foretells, the new Dipper brand needs a little work on substance. The range of the discussion seemed unnecessarily narrow. It wouldn't hurt to have at least one word to say about the food sector, the scene of actually existing job-creating innovation across the spectrum of farming, processing, retailing and eating. And organizers might've invited someone from the fashion biz to share the limelight in a gathering a little too worshipful of biomedical researchers and software developers, or reps from NGOs or green or social innovators. Still, the NDP has a golden opportunity to lead on the economy, and it looks like they might take it.