New Democrat convention a dud

Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals are not the only ones who can successfully stage a Seinfeld convention after all. As it turns out, the NDP is more than up to the task of holding gatherings that will only be remembered for the interesting manner in which so little was ultimately done.

Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals are not the only ones who can successfully stage a Seinfeld convention after all. As it turns out, the NDP is more than up to the task of holding gatherings that will only be remembered for the interesting manner in which so little was ultimately done.

Listening to NDP spin doctors in the lead-up to last weekend’s Halifax convention, one might have been forgiven for thinking that the party was getting set for a watershed meeting.

For a few fleeting days, it almost sounded like the NDP was about to turn itself from the self-appointed conscience of the federal Liberal party into a Liberal franchise in its own right.

In the end, though, defining resolutions like the one that would have committed the party to phasing out income tax for small business were not debated. A proposal to change the name of the party never made it to the floor of the convention.

That was probably for the best. When it comes to branding, the NDP’s problem is not its name but the fact that the Liberals — even when they are mired in scandal or indecisively led — still have a stronger brand, at least in Central Canada.

In the absence of bold new content, switching to an unfamiliar label only months (weeks?) from a general election did not necessarily make for a promising marketing strategy.

Much like the Liberals last spring, the New Democrats emerged from their convention with little in the way of fresh policy ideas.

The previous NDP convention in 2006 in Quebec City was all about affirming Jack Layton’s will to pull Canada’s troops out of Afghanistan and in his closing speech to this convention on Sunday, he gamely asserted that only a strong NDP presence in Parliament would ensure that the mission to Kandahar would really end in 2011. But a string of minority Parliaments and two mission extensions later, it is hard to fathom how the NDP has influenced events to date or how it would do so in the future.

For the purpose of this column, suffice it to say that while Afghanistan was not the focus of the Halifax convention, nothing as edgy was put in the window in its place.

The Liberals went through a similar process last May, when Stephane Dion’s Green Shift was downgraded from platform centrepiece to policy footnote, a void that to this day remains filled with well-meaning platitudes.

Their contrary approaches to Afghanistan and climate change were the two policies that most differentiated the Liberals and the NDP from each other in last year’s federal campaign. But after the election, neither emerged as a deal-breaker in the negotiation of a coalition arrangement between the two parties.

A willingness to go the extra mile to get the NDP in the loop of power is what has most distinguished Layton’s leadership to date and, in the end, the weekend’s convention reflected that determination.

NDP strategists may publicly promote the long road to power but there is not one of them, including Layton, who is unaware that the next election could offer the party a shortcut to a government role.

With the two leading parties deadlocked in the polls, a return to power by the Liberals could rest on their capacity to come to governing terms with the NDP.

In the wake of a convention where talk of moving the NDP into power dominated the proceedings, less substance than ever stands in the way of a post-election flirt between the Liberals and the New Democrats.

Chantal Hebert writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.

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