Edmonton – Federal New Democrats moved to oust their embattled leader Thomas Mulcair on Sunday.
It was believed going into the convention, the first meeting of New Democrats after the disappointing showing in the last federal election, that Mulcair would need 70 per cent support to stay on as leader. In the end, it wasn't close. Fifty-two per cent of delegates voted in favour of holding a leadership convention to replace him.
The stunning result marks the first time that New Democrats have ever tossed their leader at a party convention.
"Don't let this divided vote, divide the party," an emotional Mulcair said on the stage as he accepted the results.
Although the party's constitution requires a leadership convention to be held within a year, delegates voted to postpone it until 2018. Mulcair said he would continue to work "tirelessly" in the House of Commons as the party searches for his replacement. He said that his successor would need to have the support from 100 per cent of members.
The vote was the climax of a tense convention that exposed deep divisions within the party, particularly between its prairie wing and members from urban centres over the future of pipelines and oil sands development.
The results were announced moments after Mulcair made an emotional plea to NDP members, taking responsibility in a speech to delegates for the party's crushing defeat in the 2015 election. “We made mistakes that cost us a victory in October, and for that I take responsibility,” Mulcair told the convention.
In his speech, Mulcair pitched himself as a fighter who would battle the growing gap between Canada's rich and poor.
“Wherever I go, I talk to families who work hard and do everything right, but feel like the deck is stacked against them," he said.
He also criticized a system that allows business executives to earn 200 times more than the average worker and use their stock options to avoid taxes. All this is happening while many Canadians are working 40 hours a week and living in poverty, he said.
Mulcair said that the Liberals and Conservatives accept this as “just the way things are. They will say this is the inevitable outcome of market forces, that nothing can be done.
“Well, allow me to be blunt,” said Mulcair. “This is complete and utter BS."
But delegates would turn away from Mulcair. Prior to the leadership vote, they endorsed a motion to pursue a review of the Leap Manifesto. The policy document calling for a rapid transition away from fossil fuel development, was a subject of much discussion at the weekend convention. Many in the party view the manifesto as a blueprint for NDP renewal.
But New Democrats from Alberta, including Premier Rachel Notley in her speech to delegates Saturday, characterized the document's goals as unrealistic and even a betrayal of Alberta voters who support oilsands development.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, told delegates that while he supports some of the ideas in the manifesto, he fears it will open the NDP up to attacks from its opponents.“In politics sometimes things become symbols and not policies, and that is what has become of the Leap Manifesto,” McGowan says.
As if on cue, Alberta's Wild Rose opposition immediately pounced the convention's support for the Leap.
“Premier Notley sold her carbon tax, coal industry shutdown and a cap on oilsands development to Albertans with the promise that it would provide the credibility we need to get opponents of pipelines on board – that these policies would get ‘social license,’" said Wild Rose party leader Brian Jean in a statement. "Today Premier Notley's social license experiment was put to the test and it failed. She wasn't able to get her own party’s delegates, in her home city, to drop their opposition to getting Alberta’s resources to market.”
Despite divisions within the party, Mulcair urged delegates to work together. He also referenced former leader Jack Layton's early efforts to recruit him to the NDP cause in Quebec.
A lawyer by training, Mulcair started his political career as a provincial Liberal in Quebec's National Assembly. He became the environment minister in 2003 under former premier Jean Charest's government. But he resigned from cabinet in 2006 and later left the party over a dispute with Charest over plans to privatize a portion of a provincial park in Quebec's Eastern Townships.
Mulcair would then join the NDP in 2007, winning a by-election in a Montreal riding and becoming the first New Democrat to win a Quebec seat in a general election in 2008. This set the stage for the NDP's stunning breakthrough in the province, three years later, when it won 59 out of 75 Quebec seats in the 2011 election. That number fell to 16 seats in the most recent federal election.
Daniel Rodriguez is a Venezuelan-Canadian journalist who covers the business, politics, and energy beats. A slightly different version of this story appears at nationalobserver.com.