New Democrats spent a weekend at the Battery Hotel, focusing less on big ideas, and more on nuts and bolts.
There was plenty of talk about government programs, public policy, and social justice, but the real focus of the party’s biannual general meeting was much more down-to-earth.
“In 2014 we’ll be one year away from the election; I want to be well on the road to building once again a strong team of candidates ready to be the government of Newfoundland and labrador,” NDP Leader Lorraine Michael declared in her Saturday morning speech to party delegates. “I want to know in 2014 that we will have the capacity to run full campaigns in every district in the next election, not just that we’ll have candidates, but that we’ll be able to give greater support to all of the candidates, not just some.”
The NDP is currently riding high; after a breakthrough result in the October 2011 general election which saw the party win five seats in the House of Assembly, the party saw its popularity briefly edge even higher than the governing PC party in a poll earlier this summer.
But underlying the enthusiasm of the weekend, there was a sense among party organizers that the current popularity is soft, and without a meaningful party structure, it could vanish as quickly as it appeared.
“Right now there are 11 active district associations,” said party president Kathleen Connors. “Leading into the election, we want to have 48 district associations out there.”
In the coming months, the party plans to hire a full-time paid organizer for the first time in more than 20 years.
“We can have all the ideas we want, but when you’re depending 100 per cent on volunteers, you just can’t do all that you want to do.” Michael said. “Lots of things fall between the cracks.”
Similarly, the party needs much more money. The party relies heavily on a system of monthly contributions from supporters; in the next couple of years, Connors said, the party leadership plans to push for those contributors to give more, and get more people signed up to donate money.
There is one area, though, where the party seems to feel that it’s already on solid ground: its ideas.
“We’re very strong on policy; it’s never been something we’ve been weak on. We know what our values are,” Michael said. “It didn’t take money to have good policy. It didn’t take money to have good discussion.”
The major workshops the party ran on Saturday dealt mostly with things like “fundraising” and “Building the NDP in your district.”
In debating policy resolutions, nearly all of the motions passed with overwhelming support, publicly backing the positions that Michael and the rest of the NDP caucus are already taking.
The party membership voted that the Muskrat Falls project should be referred back to the Public Utilities Board for a comprehensive review, that Bill 29 amendments to access to information legislation should be repealed, and that low- and middle-income senior citizens should receive a grant to help pay property taxes
Party members were also jubilant all weekend about the fact that the biannual convention was the largest one ever in the party’s history.
The party briefly dealt with online criticism after they required journalists to agree not to attribute quotes to specific delegates without approval during policy debate.
Party officials said the limits were necessary to protect government workers and regular people who feared reprisal for being politically active.
But critics online immediately seized on the irony of restricting what journalists could report, especially given that the party specifically passed a resolution criticizing the Dunderdale government for being “restrictive” when it comes to access to information.
By mid-afternoon, journalists were told that the whole thing was a misunderstanding, and that there were no restrictions on attributing quotes during the course of policy debate.
Around 200 delegates were registered to attend.
“This might be four or five times what I’ve been used to seeing, certainly more professional, more organized, the materials are better, and of course, that’s all building on the results of the past election,” said Jim Gill, a longtime member.
Another faithful party member, Sandra Perry, said that she was most struck by the number of young people involved.
“I think the youth and their knowledge of current events and their commitment to social justice are absolutely going to have an impact on how the party is going to function in the next few years,” she said. “They’ve got so much to offer, it can’t be overlooked, and they’re going to become, very quickly, the backbone of the party in my opinion.”