4 min

How the NDP screwed their own queer youth

Party brass dodges age of consent issue

Media reports coming out of the recent federal NDP convention held in Quebec City this month focussed mainly on issues such as withdrawal from Afghanistan. The media never picked up some of the most controversial debates at the convention, because they were held behind closed doors.

The policy convention was my first, after being a party activist, election volunteer, campaign worker and federal candidate over several years. I had high expectations that the party membership would be able to influence party policy on several fronts, especially in areas where the party’s leaders appeared to abandon queer communities and young people since the last election.

In particular, I was concerned about the NDP stance on the age of consent. Our justice critic, Joe Comartin, had shown strong support for Bill C-22, the Stephen Harper government proposalto increase the age of consent to 16 from 14.

But party maneuvering got in the way of democracy at the convention. A committee of party insiders set all policy resolutions opposed to the age of consent increase near the bottom of the priority list, meaning none of them would be discussed. Comartin’s resolution, which implicitly supported Bill C-22, was placed near the top.

Youth and queer party members opposed the blatantly biased prioritization at a closed-door resolution panel prior to debates on the convention floor. The Ontario youth wing, the Quebec section and two riding associations wanted to discuss leaving the age of consent at 14. They won a clear majority in a vote to amend the order of resolutions. The move caught the party brass off guard, and MP Denise Savoie ran up to a microphone shortly after the vote to voice her frantic opposition.

The party establishment did not even want the issue discussed in front of the media. This convention was slick and highly managed, and the potential embarrassment of queers and youth openly speaking against the party line was too much to risk.

Particularly painful was watching NDP chief of staff and former queer activist Bob Gallagher running around the room talking to MPs and messaging on his Blackberry to get people stacked into the room to vote against us.

By the time the age of consent resolution came up, he had brought in virtually a quarter of the NDP caucus to speak at the “con” microphones. The youth wing and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans committee had mobilized lines of speakers at the “pro” mic.

It was quite the sight: young people themselves, many of them queer, lining up to stop a bill that purported to protect them, while mostly old straight men refuted their claims with daddy-knows-best attitudes.

One after another, delegates gave reasons why the NDP should oppose Bill C-22. Queer youth talked about the silencing effect it will have on youth sexuality. Young women spoke about how the bill will affect access to reproductive and sexual health services.

One after another, MPs refused to debate the issue. They are only accountable to voters in their ridings, they repeatedly told us. Their remarks were especially insulting to youth delegates, many of whom had taken five days out of their first week of school, taken time off work, travelled long distances and paid hundreds of dollars in fees and expenses to attend the convention. We were essentially being told that we did not have a say in party policy, we had wasted our time attending.

At one point, Comartin approached the chair of the meeting. Then the chair allowed two more speakers, the second of which just happened to be MP Jean Crowder, who was rushed up to the microphone to make a motion to table the resolution. Tabling a resolution essentially places it at the bottom of the priority list, thereby ensuring that it will never be debated on the convention floor.

Crowder’s motion went to an immediate vote, which was close enough that a second standing vote was necessary. Whenever such votes are held, the rules stipulate that doors must be “tiled” to prevent anyone from entering the room to affect the result. Despite this rule, large numbers of people were ushered into the room to vote against the resolution, even as they went onto the second vote. Delegates ran up to microphones to call points of order on the blatant subversion of democracy, but the chair overruled.

Although supporters such as Libby Davies and Svend Robinson voted on our side, the motion passed by a slim majority and the resolution was effectively eliminated from debate. Many youth delegates and others who had seen what transpired began booing and crying out “shame” as about half of the delegates began pouring out of the room.

Comartin later admitted to, and tried to justify, the party organizing against us. He accused “the gay, lesbian, transgendered group and the youth, organized by their leadership” of “taking over” the panel. The vast gay conspiracy again!

After the way queers and youth were silenced at this convention, I have lost much of my faith in the NDP as a party that is willing to put principles and rational policy ahead of shortsighted electioneering.

The NDP and other political parties are more than happy to engage youth as young as 14 if they want to buy a membership, volunteer for a campaign or be used as props for a public event. But no one seems to think that these same young people should be genuinely consulted about legislation that affects them.

Similarly, the NDP has capitalized on its slightly superior track record on issues such as same-sex marriage in order to present itself as the only party to truly support queer equality. At the same time, party apparatchiks are shamelessly working against the interests of queer party activists.

It’s time for the lip service to end, and for all political parties to view queers and youth, and queer youth especially, as more than just tokens.