Public debate is best

Canadians should neither be insulted by, nor distrustful of the New Democrat Party’s discussion of a merger with the Liberals and its debate over its socialist label.

Canadians should neither be insulted by, nor distrustful of the New Democrat Party’s discussion of a merger with the Liberals and its debate over its socialist label.

In both instances, the federal Opposition party members opted to maintain the status quo, but not before vigorous debate at the party’s 50th annual convention on the weekend.

In the case of a merger with the Liberals, the issue was voted down. The matter of the use of the word ‘socialist’ was referred back to party executive for further discussion.

We should, in fact, applaud the NDP for bringing contentious issues to the table and discussing them openly and thoroughly.

Just a week before, the Conservatives openly discussed such contentious issues as the selection of party leaders, same-sex marriage and getting tough on criminals.

It should be — must be — part of the ordinary process of political representation for leadership to discuss the contentious with each party’s grassroots and to look ahead with an open perspective.

It’s the sort of approach that has allowed the conservative movement in Canada to rebuild so thoroughly and successfully. Nudging, debating, discussing and lobbying, the centre-right of Canada’s political spectrum found its way through various shapes (Progressive Conservative, Reform and Canadian Alliance) and into a Conservative party that is both true to its roots and intent on not letting the past drag it down.

Conservative observers at the NDP convention thought they detected an “identity crisis” in the debate over the use of the word ‘socialist’ in the party’s constitution.

If so, it is not nearly as debilitating as the identity crisis the conservative movement faced almost 20 years ago, in the wake of Brian Mulroney’s ruinous governance and Kim Campbell’s brief and ill-fated period as his successor as Progressive Conservative prime minister. And the conservative movement in this country emerged with strength and conviction.

Certainly no such crisis of identity should afflict the NDP now.

NDP Leader Jack Layton says all this talk about ideological labels is all just semantics.

“These aren’t terms that I use. I don’t go around sticking labels on myself,” Layton said.

“I have found that it’s much more important to focus on the issues that matter to people.”

And Layton and his party would be wise to remember that they won 103 seats in Parliament last month — and drew 4.5 million votes, or almost 31 per cent of the popular vote, just eight percentage points fewer than the Conservatives — based on some heartfelt perspectives on the issues that matter to Canadians.

Whether Layton and the NDP can turn that into something more substantial — a government — in four years, remains to be seen.

But by being open to the possibility of change, and being aware of the pressures that will come to bear from other forces in the political field of play, the NDP will have a better chance of someday forming a government.

And the more honest they are about debating the merits of potentially convergent ideas, the better off we all are.

Canadians expect to go to the polls to make real choice.

We don’t want a homogeny of political parties. We want the perspectives on left to challenge those on the right, and those on the right to challenge those on the left.

We are a diverse people, with a broad spectrum of political beliefs. And we need a healthy cross-section of political ideologies represented by competing parties to reflect that.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.