OTTAWA — Robert Fox, the New Democratic Party’s new national director, doesn’t gloss over the party’s challenges.
A past executive director of Oxfam Canada who wasn’t even an NDP member until he took the job leading the party in September, Fox offers a refreshing change from the usual political spin.
He notes that no one surprising has shown an interest in the party’s leadership contest. Fundraising is in free fall — from an unusually high level of support a year ago of $9.2 million raised to a drastic decline of $973,007, according to the latest quarterly returns this past September.
He even suggests that some New Democrats are happy with what they are seeing from the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“We have a lot of our supporters who, their initial reaction is: Let’s give them a chance. That makes perfect sense,” he said.
Over the past few weeks, however, Fox believes, the gap between what the Liberals promised during last year’s campaign and what they’ve actually done as a government — on pipelines or electoral reform, for example — has grown.
So he’s been on the phone calling the party’s major donors to gauge their temperature. Those who are paying attention, Fox said, are more concerned, but he leaves hanging the possibility that many donors, like many Canadians, really aren’t too bothered with what’s going on in Ottawa.
Three months into the job, Fox told The Huffington Post Canada he is currently in “sponge mode.”
Many New Democrats are still reeling from last year’s loss, he said.
“Many of them are still quite battered and bruised, disappointed at the outcome.”
Others are still processing what happened at the party’s convention in Edmonton in April, where delegates gave party leader Thomas Mulcair the boot, with 52 per cent saying they wanted a new leadership contest.
“Part of my challenge is to stop re-losing the last election and start winning the next one,” Fox said from his office in the party’s Jack Layton building in downtown Ottawa. “The leadership race is an opportunity for people to stop second guessing the decisions that were made last year and talk about what is our vision of the future of our country.”
Asked if he thinks the NDP can win the next election in 2019, Fox settled on: “Well, I think we can have a real impact in 2019.” A lot of New Democrats are having buyer’s remorse, he said, but admitted being unsure how widespread that feeling is.
Fox described himself as “not a joiner by nature.” He’s worked on NDP campaigns, even managed one once. But he has in the past resisted the “tribalism and the discipline of a political party.” He thinks many in the social justice-human rights-environmentalist movement are just like him.
"Part of my challenge is to stop re-losing the last election and start winning the next one."
The election of Donald Trump in the United States and what’s happening with many far-right movements in Europe, for example, however, gave him pause. And he said those events are giving other activists pause, too.
“It’s obvious to me that there are a lot of folk who are feeling very disenfranchised, disenchanted, and, right now, I’m seeing that too many of them are looking to the right as giving expression to that frustration, to that anger,” he said.
“We are at an important moment where those of us [who] felt more comfortable working on causes … now see how absolutely important it is right now that there be electoral expression to our politics,” he said. “That who is the government does matter and that if we are going to affect the systemic change we need to … get involved in party politics and not just cause politics.”
Because so many people feel they can’t exercise influence through politics or through activism, they are tuning out or being attracted to extremists and ever more radical tactics and organizations, Fox said.
‘Canadian Idol’ leadership race
“Too often, people’s anger is being turned against your neighbour, your co-worker, the immigrant, the other, and they are not the ones who are creating the inequality that you are suffering, or the sense of powerlessness that you are seeing every day in your life. It is powerful elites, it is corporate interests, it is the concentration of wealth and power in the country and in the world.”
The challenge for the NDP is to articulate a vision that is compelling and coherent, and which responds to the anger that people feel in their life, Fox said. “Because they have every reason, I think, to feel angry.”
The party has big plans to try to make the leadership contest interesting. Imagine a version of “Canadian Idol” but involving politicians.
In the fall, after the party’s leadership debates are over — four official ones are currently planned beginning in March — New Democrats will begin voting in rounds over the course of a maximum of five weeks.
Every week, the party’s members (currently about 65,000) will be able to vote for whomever they think should be the leader. Losers will drop off the ballot every week — one or several depending on how many candidates enter the race. A maximum of five will go on to round two. Members can change their vote week after week.
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“What we are trying to do is replicate the energy and dynamism of the old-fashioned leadership conventions where you would be able to see from one vote to the other, a candidate moving themselves, and hopefully their supporters, in behind another candidate,” Fox explained.
Defeated candidates can try to influence the next round of balloting by throwing their support behind someone or trying to prevent a candidate from winning. And those still on the ballot have a week to organize, mobilize, hold telephone town halls, have phone trees, public meetings or rallies, anything to demonstrate that they are in the lead and have momentum, Fox said.
“It actually brings back some of the drama and the dynamism so you can’t predict where this is going,” he said. “I think that’s very healthy for democracy, and it’s going to be very healthy for the party and it’s going to generate a huge amount of energy and excitement.”
Fox said he hopes the debates will be lively.
Leadership contenders urged to bring ‘edge’ to debates
“Sometimes we are a little bit too polite,” he said. “I’m not encouraging people to attack each other, but I do want them to be challenging orthodoxy and putting new ideas on the table and bringing some edge and some urgency to the race, because I think that is what the situation in the country demands, and I think that is what the membership are looking for.”
Fox said he isn’t concerned that no candidates have come forward with official bids yet. Two veteran caucus members, British Columbia’s Peter Julian and Ontario MP Charlie Angus, stepped aside to evaluate their candidacy. And despite Julian being registered by Elections Canada as the first leadership candidate in the race — he's still mulling a final decision to launch an official campaign.
The party’s perceived leaders-in-waiting, defeated MP Megan Leslie and popular MP Nathan Cullen, have said they won’t run.
“Part of my message to the party is: Take a chill pill,” Fox told HuffPost. If he had wanted to enter the leadership contest, he wouldn’t have declared this fall either, he said. When a candidate declares, they lose their critic role and lose the ability to have their face on TV often, he explained.
“They have to start reporting to Elections Canada, every five minutes and every five cents, so it makes perfect sense that they are waiting until January, February,” he said.
Strong field of candidates will emerge
He doesn’t expect 14 candidates as with the Conservative race, he said laughing. “There is a strong field of candidates circling, and they’ll be emerging, and we’ll have an exciting race,” he said.
The staff and NDP headquarters has been meeting with prospective candidates about streamlining membership and donations on their campaign websites. The party will take a 25 per cent cut from all the donations raised, so “their success is our success.
“The more memberships they sell, the more funds they raise for their campaigns, all of that is to our advantage in terms of reaching out and bringing new people into the party. Expanding our base and extending our reach.”
The party’s leadership contest will begin in mid-March. July 3 is the cut off date for nominations. The contest entry fee is $30,000. There is a $1.5 million cap on expenses.
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