Parliament returned this week following the summer and a phenomenal
month of national mourning for NDP Leader Jack Layton. On Monday, the mood at the House of Commons was sombre during a moving
tribute ceremony for Layton, who was a constant electrical force in that
building until so recently.
By afternoon, MPs were all business,
in a House remarkably remade from last April — or even last June, when
the new crop of NDP MPs were as green as grass and visibly nervous. As
many as eight of the newbies spoke, all of them quite forcefully, in a
Question Period dominated as never before by NDP critics.
The new Parliament will look like interesting times on a run-away train
with Stephen Harper at the controls of a majority government stoppable
only by enormous public outrage.
This week, with the world economy in
crisis, he chose to introduce a draconian crime bill that will cost the
provinces billions and provide a breeding ground for hardened criminals
living in the kind of unescapable underclass to which so many Americans
have been consigned by "three-strikes" laws and mandatory minimum
In keeping with the theme of doing the dirty work
early, he declared he would take steps that will rapidly kill the
Canadian Wheat Board (CWB), despite a summer plebiscite of grain
producers who voted to keep it.
The NDP's Pat Martin (Winnipeg Centre) says only a huge
extra-Parliamentary struggle can stop what's happening. "The
Conservatives have tried every trick in the book to dismantle the Wheat
Board and they've been blocked in the courts," he told Straight Goods News.
"The legislation is clear. The government is not allowed to alter the
marketing of grain without a plebiscite vote of the majority of
In response to this year's plebiscite, Harper will now change the
legislation so he can unilaterally and arbitrarily dismantle its
marketing system, "and that means the wheat board will die, I predict
within three years," said Martin.
"The big agri-food consumers want to control the food chain from the
seed that goes in the ground... all the way to the final retail
product," said Martin. "That vertical integration of food supply
chain... will have a negative effect on both the producer and the
Instead of cooperative marketing by farmers, "big agri-food
giants" will have a monopoly, he said. "That's why I asked the Minister
today whose side is he on. They own the food supply in probably half
of the world, and it drives them crazy that they can't have this market
share. Well, these guys are just giving that market share back to them
for no advantage."
"Why is he doing the American Agrifood giants' dirty work for them?
Thirteen times they went to the WTO and complained that the Wheat Board
is so beneficial to Canadian farmers it constitutes an unfair trade
advantage, and 13 times the WTO ruled there is nothing unfair about
farmers marketing together. It's an ideological crusade and ...
disastrous for the Prairie economy."
The government continued to move at a familiar beat. Stephen Harper and
his ministers crowed that corporate tax cuts are all that's needed to
create jobs, and that he'd received a mandate to proceed on this basis.
"Cutting taxes to the ones that make the big money,
not the ones that are in trouble," said New Brunswick's Yvon Godin. "I
don't believe that to give a tax cut to the bank—where they made $20
billion last year and paid themselves $11 billion in bonuses—is the
right way to go. I don't believe by taking Service Canada and laying
off people is the right way to go. Canadians will not get the service
they should get."
Godin said that the jobs being created in his community are mostly
minimum wage. "You just have to see down home the jobs that are being
created. We didn't have those kinds of jobs before."
At a scrum, NDP Foreign Affairs critic and possible leadership contender
Paul Dewar had some sharp words for Harper's international approach.
On Palestinian statehood, he said "Most people would like to see a
government that's bringing the parties together to negotiate a two-state
solution. The Harper government, before anything was brought forward
said 'We oppose it.' It seems to be a legitimate process to bring
something forward through the United Nations."
Asked about the Saudis objections to advertising that suggests Alberta
oil is "ethical" compared with that of sources like their own product,
Dewar expressed skepticism. "When it comes to things like conflict
minerals, the same people who are suggesting that we have ethical oil
aren't promoting the idea of having corporate social responsibility in
the extractive industries in places like the Congo."
Amidst all this, the NDP is in the throes of a leadership contest that
could be exhausting, bruising, and divisive. Opposition House Leader
Thomas Mulcair met reporters on Monday morning to discuss the upcoming
session. He was, as usual, pointed and quick (One reporter, trying to
get attention, bellowed "In English," and Mulcair interrupted himself,
with a grin, and said "I am speaking English.")
When questions arose about the leadership campaign and why he, as a
potential leadership contender, was allowed to keep his Caucus duties
and speak on behalf of Caucus when others were not, his emotions may
have shown. "Because I was elected," he replied.
The race to succeed Layton will be interesting to watch, and daunting to
enter. The bar has been set high with the nearly immediate entry of
party president and career backroom worker Brian Topp into the fray.
Almost immediately after Layton's death, leaks appeared publicly that he
was considering a run or being asked to consider it.
Last week Topp launched his campaign in the company of former leader Ed
Broadbent and new Quebec MP Françoise Boivin, whose name had been
mentioned as leadership material herself.
In his Parliament Hill news
conference and in interviews across Canada, reporters were impressed
with his deep understanding of policy, his serious and credible style
and his often self-deprecating sense of humour. The question many ask
is whether he can win an election when he's never tried at any level
It is clear, however, that Topp has an overwhelming advantage. He was
one of the architects of Jack Layton's success as well as a confidante
of his. He has an impressive record of success electing the
unelectable, beginning with Phil Edmondston in 1990. From working with
Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan, he understands governing and power.
Finally, he's fluently bilingual and from Quebec.
And Topp has, quite evidently, the largely unspoken backing of a big
portion of the Party's changing establishment. Broadbent's endorsement
is intended to signal that, but the "establishment" only has so many
votes in a one-member, one-vote system.
Despite Quebec's recent Orange Crush, as Mulcair made clear in his
comments Monday, there's still a widespread perception that a Quebec
politician like Mulcair would be at a disadvantage because the party has
so few members in Quebec.
This expressed concern for Mulcair seems at
odds with enthusiasm for Topp, who is totally unknown publicly and also
from Quebec—with no reason to believe he would do any better in the
same situation. As for Topp never having run for office previously, his
profile isn't that different from Stephen Harper's in 1988—a high
energy political animal and strategy wonk who figured out, from working
in the game, how to win.
Perhaps a well-liked and well-known younger MP like Paul Dewar of Ottawa
or Peter Julian of Burnaby do better in an election determined by
ordinary, largely English-speaking party members? Or perhaps Mulcair
would so impress non-Quebec NDPers that they'd vote for him precisely
because they thought he could win, feeling that Canada needs a tough
son-of-a-gun to stand up to Harper.
The problem for all contenders is the enormous risk of entering the race
now that Topp has bolted to the front with such strong support.
Liberal leadership contenders from the 2006 race like Ken Dryden and
Stéphanne Dion (the winner) are still burdened by six-figure debt from
Few NDPes may feel they can afford such a risk. A candidate needs at
least $200,000 to get in the game, all of which has to be raised from
individual party members, most of whom are tapped out by provincial, as
well as federal elections this year.
So Brian Topp, at this point, has a
decided advantage and offers real promise to the NDP. It would be
unfortunate and unhealthy, however, for the party leadership to be
uncontested like the Liberals' in 2009 when Michael Ignatieff inherited a
legacy, which he soon squandered. (X)
Ish Theilheimer is founder and president of Straight Goods News and has been Publisher of the leading, and oldest, independent Canadian online newsmagazine, StraightGoods.ca, since September 1999. He is also Managing Editor of PublicValues.ca.