The ndp could have chosen to remain where it is (out of it) when its federal council met in Halifax last weekend, but instead it took a deep gulp and jumped into the unknown. On three crucial issues, the party showed itself willing to change old habits, even to the point of offending member sensibilities -- all good omens for turning the NDP into a party you don't have to feel embarrassed to belong to.The party approved leadership-candidate spending limits up to about three-quarters of a million dollars, decided to hold the convention in a city (Toronto) it no longer knows or understands and found the courage to do what no other party in Canada has dared to -- allow members to use the Internet to choose the next leader.
The decision to raise leadership spending limits to $500,000, not including travel and fundraising costs, (twice what was in the last leadership campaign) was highly controversial in a party proud of the fact that its leaders can't buy their way to the top, unlike the obscene spending seen in other parties. "People had major concerns," says one council member. "You're dealing with people from ridings where they don't spend $10,000 on election campaigns."
One member who has his misgivings is leadership candidate Pierre Ducasse, who says he supports the $500,000 limit but not the decision to exclude travel and fundraising costs, which are estimated to amount to another $200,000. "It opens a very big loophole, and I think the NDP should be held to a higher standard than that."
But council delegates were persuaded by the argument that with the one-member, one-vote system, candidates would have to communicate with the entire party membership, and the price tag for postage of a mailing that size is about $130,000.
In so deciding, the party gave a boost to the fortunes of Jack Layton, who came out of the meeting with just about everything he wanted and now is poised to officially enter the race in the next couple of weeks. The council also confirmed that the voting will be in Toronto, January 24 to 26, thus allowing enough extra time for a newcomer candidate to organize.
And the Internet vote gives yet another boost to the Layton forces, because unlike the mail-in ballot, which will also be used, it means the campaign will keep on going right down to the wire. "We're pleased," says Layton organizer Bob Penner. "It will be a better campaign -- better for the party and better for our candidate."
For a moment at the council meeting, it appeared that St. John's, Newfoundland, would be chosen over Toronto -- the result of an aggressive campaign by the down-easters. It appeared for a while that earnest delegates would deep-six T.O. An East Coast locale would show they weren't abandoning Atlantic Canada just because they were saying goodbye to their outgoing Atlantic leader. One Toronto delegate recalls thinking, "Good god, this is going to pass -- someone please shoot me."
Toronto prevailed because, although delegates would have preferred to hang out at the Ship Inn in St. John's, they knew they'd get more TV coverage if they held their event in the country's media capital. An elementary point, you might think, but remember, this is the party that chose as its last leader a woman who now acknowledges that she is not a "good communicator."
Perhaps the most encouraging decision to come out of Halifax is the inclusion of the Internet among the voting options. Of course there are those who are reluctant about the leap into cyberspace. Evelina Pan of Thunder Bay says the Internet is "elitist," and in rural areas many people aren't hooked up. But in the end the party voted to pay $204,000 U.S. to a company -- Election.com -- based in New Jersey so members can vote as easily for the next leader as they can gamble, shop or have sex online.
NDP federal secretary Chris Watson says they would have preferred to work with a Canadian company, but "no one in Canada had done an online vote for a political party." Amy Parker of Election.com says the company has found that Internet voting increases participation. In the Arizona Democratic presidential primary in 2000, 86,559 people voted (41 per cent of them from computer terminals), compared to a total vote of 12,800 in 1996.
Though several parties have switched to the OMOV system, no one has been able to make it exciting. After all, what could be more boring than opening envelopes and counting ballots? NDPers in ridings across the country are already talking about having their own local get-togethers while the main convention unfolds in T.O. -- drinking beer and joining in via the Net. Now that's a party.