In The News

The tough road to renewal for the NDP and Conservatives

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Sixty seconds to debate whether Canada should join the fight in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State. Sixty seconds to make a point about the fairness of income-splitting. Sixty. Seconds.

‘The one-minute rule for caucus debate simply doesn’t allow meaningful discussion of complex issues,’ Conservative MP Mike Lake wrote in the extraordinary letter he sent colleagues as he was making his failed pitch to be interim leader of his party. ‘On many occasions, a lack of a good hearing within caucus led to the frustrated venting outside of caucus. Both scenarios are extremely corrosive.’

Of all the critiques that have emerged about Stephen Harper‘s authoritarian style, Lake’s candid revelation that MPs were limited to political haikus behind the secret, closed doors of caucus is, perhaps, the most devastating.

Of course, all parties come together publicly around policy; that’s understandable. And with almost 160 MPs and 60 senators, there was a genuine need for Harper to impose discipline on the debate, but Lake reveals that this was more than a matter of time efficiency. It was emblematic of what he called a ‘corrosive’ internal culture that finally ate away at Harper’s own team and, ultimately, his hold on power. The Conservatives now face a very tough road to renewal.

The NDP faces similar questions about renewal, and a more complex problem of leadership. This week, senior NDP members quietly met to go over their first post-election report on what went wrong. Will Tom Mulcair get to lead the party into the next election, or should he announce he is stepping down before the April leadership review?

Whatever NDP members say in public about Mulcair—that he ran a campaign of integrity, that he won 16 new seats, that he was the victim of a red surge no one could stop—privately, many say he has to go. He failed to fulfill the two critical pledges he made back in 2012, when he ran to replace Jack Layton. He promised to hold onto the huge Quebec caucus—he reduced it to a paltry 16—and he promised to lead the NDP to government. Instead, he turned 103 seats into 44.

They say all this with genuine sorrow. There is no culture of political fratricide in the NDP, but if its growth from the conscience of Parliament to a governing-ready political organization is to be believed, the NDP will have to come to terms with weaponry all parties sometimes need: the guillotine and the long knife.

An NDP leader has never failed to pass a leadership review. Layton always got more than 90 per cent. Senior party members tell me if Mulcair gets less than 75 per cent, he is doomed. For his part, Mulcair appears determined to stay on. He was in B.C. last week, rallying the troops.

In Rome, when the emperor wanted to kill a respected member of society, he would send an invitation to commit suicide. ‘We are in an era of leadership-driven politics. It is everything,’ said one senior NDP member. ‘Tom failed to be the leader Canadians wanted.’ Talking on background to NDP members, I get the sense the emperor’s letter is in the mail.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are making a costume change. Lake lost the interim leadership to Rona Ambrose, who immediately emerged to a waiting press corps and promised a new, more open Conservative party. She then took three short questions, turned her back and walked away. Ambrose’s new team of MPs was delighted and began enthusiastically chanting her name: ‘Row-na, Row-na!’ Obviously unpractised in these public displays of optimism, the well-meaning Conservatives badly mispronounced Ambrose’s name. It is, to be persnickety, not ‘Row-na,’ but rhymes with ‘Donna.’ Ah well. Maybe this new, off-the-cuff looseness is a sign that the jaw locks are really off. Tomato. Tomawto. They have bigger problems.

The former industry minister, James Moore—who, in the intervening 18 months it takes to find a leader may yet throw his hat in the ring—told me the party’s targeted tax policies and divisive electoral strategies destroyed the idea that the Conservative party had a national vision for all Canadians. ‘I think this breeds cynicism,’ he said.

How deeply the Conservatives decide to change is a question for the new leader, but already the forces of the status quo are out with their data. ‘Our focus-group research would suggest that this was not a dismissal of the Conservative party or its policies,’ says Will Stewart, a principal at Navigator. ‘Rather, it was a dismissal of Harper. There is still considerable support for traditional Conservative policy positions and the party itself. This is not a rebuilding of the Conservative party; it is a retooling.’

Stewart argues that while Conservatives ought to forget old fights such as same-sex marriage and abortion, they have to reject radical policy shifts. Better to stick to the political hamburger recipe: lower taxes, balanced budgets and tax credits. ‘This race is about a change in tone,’ he says.

Maybe tone. Maybe substance. Either way, it’s going to take a lot longer than 60 seconds to figure out their next move.