Thousands of federal New Democrats gathered online Friday afternoon to kick off a three-day policy convention that has already exposed some internal party divisions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Thousands of federal New Democrats gathered online Friday afternoon to kick off a three-day policy convention that has already exposed some internal party divisions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

NDP convention targets inequality, as contentious planks threaten to steal spotlight

Barry Weisleder, who chairs the NDP’s unofficial socialist caucus, moved to amend the $15 minimum wage resolution to $20, calling the amount ‘outdated’

Inequality took centre stage at the federal NDP policy convention Friday as thousands of New Democrats gathered online to kick off the three-day event.

Party members had cast their votes to whittle down hundreds of proposed resolutions into a shortlist whose top policies include a $15 federal minimum wage and a call to “abolish billionaires” and for-profit long-term care.

Delegates also have the opportunity to insert the word “socialism” into the party constitution after members voted to scrub it from the preamble in 2013 under then-leader Thomas Mulcair.

The term, once a nearly taboo descriptor in federal politics, has surged back into discussion amid a widening wealth gap and the rise of avowedly social-democratic politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the U.S.

While the inequality motif is poised to rally New Democrats around a common theme this weekend, the lead-up to the convention exposed fissures between party brass and the grassroots as well as among MPs.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said this week he opposed a resolution from a downtown Toronto riding association to phase out the Canadian military, a proposal that failed to make it to the virtual convention.

But several controversial resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are among the top-ranked. One demands Canada suspend arms dealing with Israel. A second, endorsed by more than 40 riding associations, rejects a working definition of anti-Semitism set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance on the grounds it is used to chill criticism of Israeli policy.

The proposal found NDP lawmakers on opposite sides of a sensitive issue that threatens to distract from the message of unity the party aims to project.

“I don’t think it’s going to overshadow, because we’ve got a lot of really important and exciting policy debates on issues that impact people right now in the pandemic,” Singh said in a recent interview.

The proposals to be debated voted on and distilled into policies by more than 2,000 delegates will serve as de facto planks to construct a platform ahead of a possible election this year.

The party’s first television ad of 2021 will run Saturday, airing on Hockey Night in Canada as the Toronto Maple Leafs face off against the Ottawa Senators. Set to snappy, brass-driven music, the promo features shots of families and front-line workers and blares declarations that the COVID-19 pandemic “made the super-rich richer” and that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “is protecting their profits.”

Singh figures prominently in the ad’s photo slide show but does not speak. He told reporters Friday he is expecting — though not hoping for — an election soon, hence the pre-emptive TV strike.

“The thought that the Liberals wouldn’t commit not to having an election is so craven and so crass given the seriousness of what we’re going through — the third wave increasing and the variants increasing,” Singh said.

The NDP has nominated about 50 candidates so far, and “identified” more than 130 others, some 80 of whom are now being vetted, the party said.

Friday’s event vied for attention with a virtual Liberal policy convention happening simultaneously.

The NDP sought to link the Grits with financial elites, zeroing in on former central banker Mark Carney, who appeared at the Liberal convention to dip his toe publicly into partisan politics for the first time.

“We are the real progressives, not the progressives of bankers as the Liberals do with Mark Carney,” Alexandre Boulerice, the NDP’s sole MP from Quebec, said in French during an interview. “They’re still going to be there for themselves or their Wall Street friends.”

Carney’s CV includes 13 years at Goldman Sachs as well as his current role as head of the impact investing at Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management. Critics have rejected “greenwashing” his claim the company had achieved net-zero emissions because its clean energy portfolio offset its investments in fossil fuels.

Former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent helped kick off the gathering with a speech Friday afternoon, followed by addresses from the leaders of the Manitoba and Yukon New Democrats.

Broadbent drew comparisons between the Great Depression and the COVID-19 pandemic, saying both cataclysms offered an opportunity to rebuild social safety systems with government at the tiller.

“While working within a market-based economy, we must avoid becoming a market-shaped society. It’s the values of social democracy that must serve as our guide,” he said.

B.C. Premier John Horgan — the only NDP leader who currently heads a government — will address attendees Saturday, with veteran leader of the Ontario NDP Andrea Horwath taking the virtual stage later on.

Singh aims to rally the base with the keynote speech Sunday, hoping to convey a sense of rah-rah enthusiasm despite there being no convention floor to stomp nor walls to rattle.

The digital event saw several technical and procedural hiccups Friday. Missing microphones and delayed dial-ins by speakers occasionally held up the video conference. And one delegate’s point of order sought to carve out more space for policy discussion, but was voted down after she claimed the convention chair “cut me off.”

The perpetual tension over how far left the party can veer without losing its shot at power surfaced during policy debate.

Barry Weisleder, who chairs the NDP’s unofficial socialist caucus, moved to amend the $15 minimum wage resolution to $20, calling the amount “outdated.” The amendment carried, but not before another delegate warned that New Democrats “cannot run before we walk,” saying the move portrays Dippers as “idealists” who preach unpragmatic policies.

Resolutions likely to reach the floor for debate this weekend include pledges to cancel all outstanding student debt owed to Ottawa, mandate at least seven days of paid sick leave for federally regulated workers and enable cities to establish fare-free public transit within a year of an NDP government taking office.

Other high-priority proposals seek to set up high-speed internet in rural and Indigenous communities and implement all 231 recommendations to emerge from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2019.

Federal PoliticsNDP Leadership

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