Leadership Tilts to the Left

NDP Demands “Troops Out Now”

by Barry Weisleder

Impelled by majority public antiwar sentiment, delegates to the New Democratic Party’s 22nd federal convention, September 8–10, voted overwhelmingly to demand a “safe and immediate” withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan.

The nearly 90 per cent vote for the “out now” position, at a convention attended by more than 1500 delegates at Québec City, makes the NDP the first major political party in Canada (and North America) to call for an end to the imperialist military intervention in Asia.

Debate leading up to the vote revealed a division in the NDP parliamentary caucus. Nova Scotia NDP MP Peter Stoffer called the move premature. A delegate claiming to be a member of Voice of Women for Peace proposed referral of the issue to crosscountry consultation hearings. But the delay tactic was resoundingly defeated after delegates, including this writer, argued that years of protests by thousands in the streets is the consultation the NDP should heed.

Instead of backing the warlords and drug barons who dominate the Kabul regime, or catering to rich military contractors in Canada, the convention chose solidarity with the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Peace Alliance and other working class organizations and social movements urging people to demonstrate on October 28 for an end to the dirty war.

A speech to the convention by Afghan politician Malalai Joya, an MP from western Farah province, exposed the hostility of the Hamid Karzai puppet regime to women’s rights and democracy, and helped to isolate the NDP right wing. Federal leader Jack Layton’s emphasis on “Support our troops. Bring them home now” in his convention-ending address raises expectations that the NDP will mobilize its ranks for the October 28 protests, and beyond.

It should be noted that Layton felt compelled to go farther than his August 31 statement. Back then he proposed to withdraw Canadian soldiers only from southern Afghanistan and he committed to “re-construction” efforts elsewhere in the country. The new point of departure was not lost on the capitalist media, which promptly unleashed a barrage of attacks on the party and its leader.

For Canada’s largest circulation daily, the Toronto Star, the attack was double-barrelled. “NDP shows haste in rush to please,” cried the September 12 editorial. It castigates the party both for calling for an immediate military pullout, and for recognizing that a future simple majority vote by the people of Québec to leave the Canadian state, based on a referendum question approved by the Québec National Assembly, should be respected. The Liberal Toronto Star, steeped in state-centralist, Pierre Trudeau–War Measures Act nostalgia, suffers from a huge democratic deficit when it comes to self-determination for Quebec — a deficit which it now reflexively applies to Ottawa’s military enterprise in Afghanistan.

Today more than a hint of panic is apparent in Canada’s business media as the Afghanistan “mission” is beset by unpopularity due to rising fatalities and evident futility on the ground. NATO commanders’ pleas for more troops, which member countries are reluctant to supply, express the desperation that accompanies a doomed “mission.” Most observers agree that when troops from the Royal 22nd Regiment — the famed Van Doos of Valcartier, Québec — are dispatched to Kandahar, and some return in body bags to Québec, where opposition to the war is much higher than in the rest of Canada, the minority Conservative government in Ottawa will face a crisis that could be terminal.

The NDP leadership’s long delay in taking a clear, principled position against the war did not help the party attract antiwar support, or prepare it to deal with hostile media. Neither did its flipflops on the Clarity Act, the previous Liberal government’s antidemocratic law giving Parliament a veto over any pro-sovereignty vote by Québec. But Layton and company decided, in the wake of the sponsorship scandal and a sharp drop in support for the Liberals in Québec, to make a bid for an NDP breakthrough in the French-speaking nation. Holding the party’s federal convention for the first time in Québec City, the provincial capital, and adopting a policy for “asymmetrical federalism” that would give Québec more governing powers than other provinces, are modest steps in that direction.

Of the 1500-plus delegates attending the convention, only 180 came from Québec. Clearly, the NDP still has much work to do to overcome its image and practice as an English federalist party staunchly loyal to the Canadian capitalist state. An alliance with the new Québec leftist and pro-sovereignty party Québec Solidaire would be a positive break from the past — if only the NDP leadership would entertain it.

Protests Push NDP Forward

The impact of social protest movements on the NDP was also apparent in terms of Middle East policy. Two emergency resolutions, one on Lebanon and one on Palestine, were debated and adopted overwhelmingly, despite objections from Winnipeg MPs Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Pat Martin (reflecting another crack in leadership unity), and a handful of pro-Zionist delegates.

The Lebanon motion calls for an “immediate and complete withdrawal of Israeli troops” from the country, “from the Syrian Golan Heights and Lebanese Shebaa Farms” and states “Hezbollah is a recognized political party with democratically elected members in Lebanon’s cabinet and parliament.”

The Palestine resolution “oppose[s] Israel’s occupation of and unilateral plans for the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including settlement expansions and ongoing control of Gaza’s borders.” It proposes “a comprehensive peace process which includes addressing the Palestinians’ right of return issue,” and it calls for “financial support” to Gaza and the West Bank through “non-governmental organizations, and through the Palestine Authority as appropriate.”

To be sure, those resolutions are seriously flawed. They fail to support the Lebanese and Palestinian popular resistence to the aggressor Israeli colonial settler state, to its Apartheid practices, and to its imperial master in Washington. They foster illusions in the Canadian state’s supposed past “support of justice and international law.” They “offer Canadian troops to the UN mission in south Lebanon if approved by all parties” (an expedition aimed at disarming Hezbollah, not the agents of imperialism). They make the Palestinian Right of Return contingent on a global settlement, and uphold the discredited “two state solution,” a Bantustan-type arrangement designed to subordinate Palestinians, as the strategic goal.

Nonetheless, for the NDP to officially and publicly criticize Israeli aggression, to demand the release of prisoners on both sides, to condemn the 685-kilometer “barrier wall” and “settler-only bypass roads,” and to call for a resumption of aid to the (Hamas-led) Palestinian Authority, represents an important differentiation from the historically pro-Zionist policies of the party leadership and a partial victory for solidarity movements.

Delegates approved many progressive positions during the short time allocated for policy debate in plenary (that is, only 8 of the 23 hours in total, not counting meal breaks). The convention voted to condemn the Canada-U.S. softwood agreement, characterizing it as a Harper government sell-out to U.S. protectionism, a tax rip off and a subsidy to giant U.S. lumber interests. Delegates endorsed the Montréal Declaration, a sweeping affirmation of the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexual and transsexual persons, including to same-sex marriage, appropriate medical care and a ban on discrimination.

Policies that aim to enhance the rights of immigrants, raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour, reverse privatization of health and social services, and oppose, among other things, military exercises on the Great Lakes, are now part of the party programme. At the same time, radical resolutions calling for public ownership and workers’ control, often cited in media coverage, did not come to the floor for debate.

Attempts by delegates on the party right wing to dilute or forestall policies on environmental protection and conversion to alternative energy technologies were handily defeated. Though the center-left generally prevailed, it was not without repeated clashes with the party conservatives. An example of such a clash occurred in the foreign policy work shop.

For purposes of deciding which of the hundreds of resolutions submitted by riding associations, affiliated unions, youth clubs and party committees would be debated at convention plenary sessions, six simultaneous topical panels were convened on the Friday afternoon. Three and a half hours of precious convention time were spent debating the priority and substance of resolutions in these separate non–decision-making panels. This is the so-called “Saskatchewan model,” adopted in 2003 to replace the rule of the small, hand-picked Resolutions Committee. Purportedly to democratize the process, this “model” simply left less time for debates and votes in plenary, thus transferring the effective decision-making power over most of the submitted resolutions to the incoming 115 member federal council of the party.

In any case, at the foreign policy panel, with over 300 delegates in attendance, former NDP leader and current External Affairs Critic, Alexa McDonough, moved to kill a high-ranked resolution on Haiti, endorsed by supporters of the Canada Haiti Action Network, which calls for an investigation into Ottawa’s role in the overthrow of democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and demands the removal of Canadian police and an end to the ongoing foreign occupation of the super-exploited Caribbean country. McDonough’s attempt to substitute her own resolution, which sought to ignore the past and justify an ongoing imperialist “aid and reconstruction” presence in Haiti, was soundly defeated following a sharp 20 minute debate. No doubt, the leftist Haiti motion would have carried, had it come to a vote — a point certainly not lost on the party brass. Unfortunately, in the course of events, the “Saskatchewan model” succeeded in burying dozens of excellent resolutions, not just on Haiti, but on Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Palestine and militarism. There was simply insufficient time to debate these in the workshop, let alone at the plenary. The result tends to reinforce the power of the party establishment, albeit at a time when the latter is shifting a wee bit to the left in an effort to connect with social movements and alienated voters, and to register more support in Québec.

In the federal NDP, since 2002, the Leader is elected in a “one-member-one-vote” poll conducted only when a Leader resigns or a convention votes to hold a leadership race. The vote at the 2006 convention on whether to express non-confidence in the Leader and open a competition to fill the office showed that Jack Layton is firmly in control. 92 percent voted for Layton to stay on. Members of the party leadership’s slate for federal executive were either acclaimed or elected by a similar margin. The shift to the left by the dominant faction at the top meant that there was more to be gained by struggling for better policies on the convention floor rather than competing for seats on rubber-stamp councils.

Labour Link Still Strong

Prior to the convention some observers predicted an end to, or at least a further deterioration of the NDP-Labour alliance. Media pundits predicted other unions would follow the Canadian Auto Workers’ Union, which formally severed its historic ties to the party after the Ontario NDP expelled CAW President Buzz Hargrove for his union’s endorsement of many Liberal Party candidates in the 2006 federal election. Defying such expectations, unions and their delegates were strongly present at the convention. In future, labour delegate representation will be determined by the number of NDP members each affiliated union has, including those they can recruit at the work place, to enhance the union’s weight in the party. Corporate and union financial contributions to parties in Canada is now limited by federal legislation, but not curtailed.

Hassan Yussuff, a former CAW executive, once again is an Associate President of the federal NDP. Julie Davis and Lisa Blanchette are the official Labour Reps to the federal executive. Sixteen additional reps sit on NDP federal council. They represent the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers’ Union, the International Association of Machinists, the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, the Service Employees’ International Union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the United Steelworkers’ of America, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, joined by the new kid on the block, the National Union of Public and General Employees. Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti stressed in his speech to the convention his organization’s commitment to build the NDP as labour’s alternative to the parties of corporate Canada.

Some CAW activists were not deterred by the split of their union with the NDP, and made their way to the convention as delegates from local NDP riding associations. One CAW militant asked this correspondent to convey the following message widely: “The NDP is alive and well in Oshawa.” He was referring to the southern Ontario auto manufacturing centre 40 minutes east of Toronto.

Socialists Educate and Organize

The NDP Socialist Caucus (SC), which opposed the expulsion of Hargrove and the subsequent split, played a prominent role at the federal convention. Nearly two dozen SC drafted resolutions, endorsed by numerous affiliated NDP bodies across the country, filled the official resolutions book, captured media attention, and animated numerous policy discussions in work shops and plenary sessions.

Nearly one thousand copies of the SC’s eight page tabloid Turn Left were distributed to delegates. Several delegates requested additional copies for home riding distribution. (To download a copy of Turn Left, visit: www.ndpsocialists.ca). The SC sponsored five public meetings during meal breaks at the convention. About 45 delegates attended a presentation by Rezeq Faraj, co-chair of the Palestine-Jewish Unity Group in Montreal, and by this writer, on the topic “Canada’s role in the Middle East conflicts.” Another SC forum on the situation in Latin America, featuring Consuls General representing Cuba and Venezuela, a leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly, and a spokesperson from the campaign group Hands Off Venezuela, attracted over 35 delegates. Over thirty delegates heard Montréal-based author Yves Engler speak on “What is Canada doing in Haiti?” A lunch hour gathering on “Québec self-determination and the NDP,” with Montréal SC spokesperson Dr. Robbie Mahood and Québec Solidaire co-leader Amir Khadir, drew over 20. About a dozen attended another lunch hour talk by Oakville, Ontario SC member and author Tony Crawford on the topic “Identity theft protection.” Crawford’s new book “The Perfect Sting,” and his display table, which he graciously shared with the Socialist Caucus, attracted hundreds of visitors in the Exhibitors’ Hall. During the three day convention over 50 delegates signed up to join the NDP Socialist Caucus.

Social protest movements, including the Canadian Peace Alliance, the Canada Haiti Action Network, Hands Off Venezuela, the National Anti-Racism Coalition of Canada, Oxfam Québec, the Centre for Social Justice, the Council of Canadians, Mouvement autonome et solidaire des sans emplois (MASSE), Fair Vote Canada, the Canadian Federation of Students and the David Suzuki Institute held forums, staffed display tables, and distributed copies of their materials by the thousand.

Supporters of Marxist publications who participate in the NDP, including Socialist Action and Fightback, were very visible too. The positive response of delegates to radical literature was reflected in the sale of over 55 copies of SA newspaper — indeed more would have been sold, but the supply on hand was depleted due to high demand on Labour Day and at earlier protests against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

As the stunning September 14 by-election win in the Ontario provincial Parkdale-High Park riding shows, the often predicted demise of the NDP is greatly exaggerated. The party recaptured the downtown Toronto west end seat, long held by former Ontario Liberal Education Minister Gerard Kennedy. This occurred notwithstanding a last-minute, sleazy intervention by former NDP Ontario Premier Bob Rae, who like Kennedy is also a Liberal federal leadership candidate. The NDP catapulted from 16 to 41 per cent of the vote, from third to first place to win the seat.

Socialists share in that victory, and the gains made at convention, recognizing that only in the struggle, as part of the existing workers’ movement, does the promise of a better future reside. History shows that the working class does not abandon its labour and political institutions until it is capable of replacing them with superior ones. Perhaps the non-aligned left will come to recognize that the necessary fight for a socialist alternative inside the existing workers’ organizations has better prospects in the NDP now that the party has put itself in the forefront of the antiwar movement.

This article will appear in the October 2006 edition of Socialist Action newspaper. To subscribe to the monthly paper, send US $18 (US $30 outside North America) to: SA, 298 Valencia St., San Francisco, CA 94103, USA.