City & Politics

NDP’s Lethbridge Declaration is smart, cynical Prairie politics

It’s an image the federal New Democrats would undoubtedly like you to see.

Niki Ashton, a highly educated 30-year-old Member of Parliament for Churchill, sitting at a Calgary sports bar listening intently as a couple regular Prairie guys vent over a pint of beer.

The image was recently uploaded to the NDP’s “Prairie Breakthrough” Facebook page; the name of the party’s new grassroots initiative.

The party claims this “Breakthrough” is a broad-based consultation process—hosted by Parliamentarians in community halls across the Prairies—to help inform an eventual public policy document called the Lethbridge Declaration. The Declaration will then outline a policy vision salable to voters in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

However, the grassroots element the Dippers are emphasizing (and will continue to emphasize) is self-evidently exaggerated. It’s unlikely anyone other than party members, New Democrat supporters and a handful of wingnuts (there are always a few) will show up at community halls to talk policy with a gaggle of politicians.

No “average Joe Canadians” are likely to participate, and even the guys drinking beer with Ashton are wearing orange.

In short, the “Prairie Breakthrough” consultation process is really an early attempt to galvanize party members and supporters across the Prairies in preparation for the 2015 election.

Whatever policy discussions take place as a result of this process are valuable, but secondary.

The Lethbridge Declaration, though informed by the membership, will be drafted in the same way most policy is drafted by Canadian political parties—in the backroom by NDP strategists and powerful caucus members. But, in terms of cynical retail politics, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

I believe it constitutes a smart political maneuver to win back a once crucial electoral constituency.

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The NDP’s historic Orange Wave breakthrough in Quebec—inconceivable even a few days before the May 2, 2011, vote—has in part been attributed to the party’s 2005 Sherbrooke Declaration, which argues (among other things) that 50% plus one is a sufficient majority to proceed with negotiations around Quebec’s separation in the event of another referendum.

The Sherbrooke Declaration has been highly contentious. But it makes a direct, regional policy pitch necessary for political success.

Thomas Mulciar’s “Dutch disease” oil sands criticism accomplishes exactly the same task.

By blaming the oil sands for the lag in Ontario’s manufacturing sector, the NDP leader is attempting to exploit widespread post-recession unease among out-of-work factory workers in the province.

And by arguing for stricter environmental regulations to abate this “Dutch disease,” Mulcair is harnessing British Columbian opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline and using it to his advantage. Additionally, any principled stance on the environment is well-received in the increasingly leftist La belle province.

The primary pitfall of  both the Shebrooke Declaration and the NDP’s position on the oil sands—highly regional policies that manage to unite Quebec, Ontario and B.C. around crucial issues—is that both positions alienate the Prairies.

Prairie people, the founders of Canadian socialism as expressed in the former Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), have no patience for Quebec’s ongoing existential dilemma. And they rely on natural resources development for economic prosperity.

Firmly embedded in the bones of Prairie voters is the traditional NDP of Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles. And, though they are attracted to the rallying cry of Senate abolition and the modern NDP’s ongoing ties to the labour movement, those policies are not enough to return the party to its previous glory on the Prairies.

The New Democrats know this all too well.

The Lethbridge Declaration, by offering the facade of populist consultation and eventual (possibly substantive) policy for the Prairies, could go a long way toward reconnecting the party with its roots.


Ethan Cabel writes for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him at: @ethancabel1

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