Wanted: political saviour. Not being a member of the current NDP caucus a definite asset.
The unsurprising, long-awaited announcement by Howard Hampton on June 14 that he would not seek re-election as party leader officially launched what promises to be a soul- searching campaign for the leadership of a party on the edge.
Already mentioned as possible contenders are Toronto MPPs Cheri DiNovo and Michael Prue and Hamilton Centre’s Andrea Horwath. Twenty-year MPP Gilles Bisson from Timmins-James Bay is also considering jumping in.
And some are hoping federal MP Charlie Angus, also from Timmins-James Bay, will show some interest. While Angus has the disadvantage of a northern address, he’s considered attractive because of his lack of ties to the current caucus, his musical cachet and his strong Toronto roots.
But at this point, some insiders say, no one is likelier than Peter Tabuns, the member for Toronto Danforth and the party’s energy and enviro critic.
On the Monday after the leader’s farewell, Tabuns is off to Burlington to give a speech, and says what all would-be candidates say after they’ve decided to go for the top job but before they’re ready to make the official announcement. “I’m interested,” he tells me. “I’m talking to people about what the party needs and where it has to go.”
Certainly, few MPPs have more cred on the eco file than the former exec director of Greenpeace Canada. But he has his minuses, too. Not only is he a member of the shopworn caucus, but he also hails from the same riding as federal leader Jack Layton, unfortunate optics that may lead to charges that the NDP is in the clutches of well-to-do ex-hippies from Riverdale.
Tabuns and Layton go all the way back to their days on city council. It was then city councillor Tabuns who gave Layton a gig as consultant on the city’s building retrofit program after his disastrous run for mayor in the 1990s.
But perhaps the most important question about Tabuns is whether he has the ballot appeal to reconnect with a wider progressive constituency who see political parties as vehicles to get good things done rather than outfits to be unquestioningly supported.
Under old-school Hampton, the pitch often seemed to be “Leave your vote with us; we’re social dems.” For his part, Tabuns would put the environment front and centre. “I think we need to feature it far more centrally in our message,” he says.
Perhaps he can come up with the most thoughtful enviro reforms of all. But then again, the NDP always gives good policy. The problem is, Ontario voters no longer believe that a party so focused on its own survival has the wherewithal to turn program into reality.
Which is why the NDP desperately needs to stage a leadership race that captures the public’s imagination. By hanging on too long, Hampton may have spoiled the chances of that happening, since between now and the leadership convention in March 2009 there may well be a federal election that will suck up media attention and party volunteers.
Still, there may be a pot of political gold at the end of those trips on lonely provincial highways endured by leadership hopefuls of all stripes. On election day, little more than three years from now, the Libs will have been in power for eight years and voters will likely have grown tired of the tepid Liberalism of Dalton McGuinty and crew. The official opposition PCs will be embroiled in their internal feud between Red (John) Tory and social conservatives.
And the times could very well be ripe for a passionate pitch from a new, improved NDP. All of which puts a lot of pressure on discerning party members in the months ahead.