Federal New Democrats are meeting this weekend in Halifax for the party’s 23rd policy convention, dubbed HFX09 — the first in three years.
“This convention is a pre-election event for New Democrats,” says NDP national director Brad Lavigne. “We’re bringing together the best, not only in Canada but across North America in terms of organizing and getting ready.”
The significance of the provincial NDP majority win in Nova Scotia is front-and-centre at the convention, and the party hopes to use Premier Darrell Dexter’s win as proof that perseverance and incremental growth pays off.
Lavigne laid out five goals for the convention: to build on pre-election momentum, to showcase public policy ideas, training for campaign workers, strengthening the party apparatus, and celebrating the party’s achievements.
“There is a policy vacuum in Ottawa, and New Democrats are going to be discussing new and innovative ideas, as well as those ideas that Canadians have come to count on New Democrats raising day in and day out in Parliament,” Lavigne says.
Among those policy initiatives are a few aimed at the queer community, including one to reverse the organ donor ban for men who have sex with men.
“There are a couple of resolutions supporting human rights for transgendered and transsexual Canadians, and supporting my private members’ bill,” says gay MP Bill Siksay. “It’s great to see that interest in the party to maintain that position.”
That bill, C-389, is likely to be debated in the House during the fall sitting of Parliament, provided that an election does not take place in autumn.
“The major [resolution] related to queer issues is one calling for a comprehensive queer health strategy,” Siksay says, adding that its foundations were in the work of the Rainbow Health Coalition.
“[It’s] also calling for access to sex reassignment surgery for those trans folks for whom that’s appropriate, and full coverage of it under medicare programs. Again, reaffirming positions that I’ve taken as the GLBT critic for the party and that the health critic has taken as well.”
While Siksay says that he’s pleased to see these resolutions, given that the convention book contains 137 pages of different resolutions, there is no guarantee that these ones will reach the convention floor.
Siksay says that he is especially looking forward to the meeting of the party’s queer caucus. “Over the years, some of my favourite memories of conventions are associated with the caucus and the meetings, some of the social events.”
Siksay also hopes that those members who felt disaffected after the divisive issue around age of consent came to a head during the previous convention in Quebec City will see the progress that has been made.
“One of the frustrations with any convention is what gets to the floor and what doesn’t,” Siksay says. “It’s a hard job for convention organizers to prioritize what resolutions come in, and then it’s a hard job for delegates to challenge the prioritization and to make changes to that. And that was part of what went on at the convention in Quebec City.”
At the 2006 convention, queer and youth members were silenced in a debate about age of consent, reported activist Andrew Brett.
“There were some hard feelings coming out of that, that we didn’t have the kind of discussion or the kind of conclusion around the age of consent stuff that would have been helpful,” Siksay says.
Siksay notes that the party’s federal council later opposed an increase in the age of consent and supported lowering the age of consent for anal sex. But party leader Jack Layton required all NDP MPs to vote in favour of a Conservative omnibus crime bill — which contained the age of consent provision — when it came to a vote in Nov 2007. Siksay was the only NDPer to vote against party lines, and he was disciplined for doing so.
Of the other major discussions at the convention, Siksay feels some ambivalence toward changing the party’s name, dropping the “New” as has been proposed.
“I’m a little leery of being associated with being associated with the Democratic Party of the United States because I do believe that there is a significant difference between the New Democratic Party of Canada and the Democratic Party in the US,” he says.
The other major proposal is to move to separate membership lists for federal and provincial sections of the party. Currently when one becomes an NDP member, they become a member of the provincial organization and are automatically made a federal member.
“Anytime you do anything federally, you have to ask for permission of the provincial party for the list,” Siksay says. “I remember when I was campaign manager for Svend Robinson’s leadership campaign, it was hard to get the lists in place, and that was your voters list essentially. It was very frustrating and I was very frustrated at the time.”
“That being said, I think we’ve been really well served by the close connection between the federal and provincial sections, and New Democrats are New Democrats, where there hasn’t been that kind of distinction between federal and provincial,” he says. “Organizationally I think there’s some problems, but generally in broadest terms, it’s meant that we’ve been stronger — especially in places where we’re smaller. I think it’s served us well.”
HFX09 — the federal NDP convention — runs from August 14 to 16.