EDMONTON – Rank-and-file New Democrats handed Tom Mulcair another ballot-box drubbing Sunday, voting to replace him as leader less than six months after a devastating election loss that dashed the party’s dream of forming Canada’s first federal NDP government.
A stunned silence fell over the convention floor at Edmonton’s Shaw Conference Centre as delegates realized that not only had Mulcair not attained a respectable level of support, he hadn’t even reached the 50-per-cent threshold – unheard of in a federal leadership review.
As a result, the man who less than a year ago was being touted as poised to become Canada’s first-ever NDP prime minister instead became the first federal leader ever to be rejected by a majority of delegates – 52 per cent – at a party’s annual convention.
“The only thing that’s important is that we leave here united,” a calm, resigned-looking Mulcair told delegates after the vote.
Mulcair said he’ll remain as leader until his successor is chosen, within 24 months.
“The person who replaces me must have the absolute and complete support of 100 per cent of the members of the NDP.”
He thanked his wife and the delegates, and urged the party to come together around his successor, whomever that turns out to be.
“We will always be the party that dreams no small dreams,” Mulcair said. “We will always be the party that thinks about the little guy.”
A bare-minimum 50 per cent plus one vote would have been necessary for Mulcair to stay on, let alone have anywhere near enough support for a confident mandate – a threshold some had pegged at closer to 70 per cent.
It was clear during Mulcair’s speech that he didn’t have the support of everyone in the room. But when the results were announced, incredulity descended over the delegates as the magnitude of his loss began to sink in.
It was a far worse result for Mulcair than even his fiercest detractors might have expected, the culmination of a festering dispute over the NDP’s future direction in the wake of an election defeat that robbed the party of more than half its seats and the spiritual core of its caucus.
“I’m saddened by the result but we live in a democratic system, we have a democratic party,” said British Columbia MP Peter Julian.
“I think we were surprised and saddened, there’s no doubt. There were tears, but we are very proud of what is fundamentally a democratic party â€¦ the delegates made up their minds. Everyone respects that.”
The party’s fundamentals remain strong, Julian added.
“Remember, this is a caucus and a party that lost our leader Jack Layton. I came into politics because of Jack Layton,” he said, referring to Mulcair’s predecessor, who died from cancer just months after leading the party in 2011 to official Opposition status for the first time in history.
“We have gone through what, in many other parties, would be extraordinarily difficult situations. In our party, we have a resilience so we get back to work. We went through the election result, we got back to work.”
Prior to Sunday’s vote, Mulcair made one last pitch to the New Democrat faithful to allow him to stay on as leader, urging rank-and-file members to stand with him.
In a speech some observers characterized as uninspired at times and passionate at others, Mulcair said he has accepted the blame for the mistakes of last year’s disappointing election campaign, but insisted he is re-energized, reinspired and re-engaged after six months of meeting grassroots supporters.
“We made mistakes that cost us a victory in October, and for that I take responsibility,” Mulcair said.
“I share your deep disappointment in the election results. That’s why we’ve held unvarnished debrief sessions across the country – to understand what went wrong, what mistakes were made, and how we can apply those lessons going forward.”
The speech also steered largely clear of some of the sore spots that have endangered his status as leader.
In particular, Mulcair made no mention of the so-called “Leap Manifesto,” a proposed policy pivot from the left-most factions of the party who want to see the NDP embrace some more drastic measures to combat climate change and aboriginal issues, among others.
Prior to Mulcair’s speech, delegates voted to adopt a motion to debate the manifesto’s ideas and proposals, including some classic left-wing proposals: a move away from fossil fuels, no new pipelines, higher corporate taxes and spending less on the military.
Billing himself as a hard-nosed political fighter, Mulcair said only New Democrats will continue to battle against income inequality, because the Liberals and the Conservatives are too loyal to their corporate backers and the status quo.
Last year alone, Canada’s big banks made a record $35 billion in profits, and handed out $12 billion in bonuses to their executives, all while cutting thousands of Canadian jobs, he said.
“We don’t accept that,” Mulcair said. “Liberals and Conservatives will tell you that this is just the way things are. They will say this is the inevitable outcome of market forces, that nothing can be done.”
The rift within the NDP over Mulcair’s leadership was evident during the speech. Some supporters jumped to their feet to applaud and express their support, while others on the convention floor stayed stone-faced and seated.
Mulcair said the federal Liberal budget proves that when it comes to child care and health care, the principle of universality – the cherished legacy of party founder Tommy Douglas – is in peril.
“Tommy’s vision is under threat like never before,” he said. “Creeping privatization and a Liberal budget that doubles down on Stephen Harper’s health care cuts threaten the quality of health services in Canada. Let there be no doubt: Together, we will fight like hell to protect universal health care, because there is nothing more universal to New Democrats.”
And he renewed a push for electoral reform, saying that the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has already started to back away from its promise to end the current first-past-the-post system, which he says effectively discounted some nine million votes in October.