A clash of memorable speeches: first Notley, then Lewis

Next up at the 2016 NDP convention? Tom Mulcair
Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 10.50.00 PM
Former Ontario New Democratic Party leader Stephen Lewis speaks during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton Alberta, April 9, 2016. Jason Franson for Maclean's Magazine.
Former Ontario New Democratic Party leader Stephen Lewis at the 2016 NDP convention. (Jason Franson for Maclean’s)

It’s not often Canadian politics serves up two finely crafted, expertly delivered, frankly opposed speeches in the space of a few hours, but that’s what Rachel Notley and Stephen Lewis did on Saturday at the NDP convention in Edmonton.

The immediate topic in dispute—although the discord between the two speeches goes deeper—is how the NDP should position itself on cutting greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. Notley’s speech early today jolted the delegates at what had been a drowsy affair into full wakefulness, with an impassioned defence of Alberta’s oil industry.

“There’s no climate-change-denying, science-muzzling, regressive Tory government here any more,” said the Alberta premier, whose NDP victory last spring ended decades of Conservative rule in the province. Having asserted her true-orange NDP credentials, she went on to ask the non-Albertan social democrats in the room to respect her province’s desire for new pipelines to the Atlantic and Pacific.

“We need to be able to get the best possible world price for the oil we produce here,” Notley said, “at the level of production that will be responsibly allowed under a climate change plan that is focused effectively on reducing the amount of carbon in each barrel of oil.”

Lewis was slotted as the day’s final speaker. How directly would he take on Notley was a subject of convention corridor debate. Lewis is a revered party elder statesman—an intriguing foil to Notley, who has been seen by many New Democrats, since her landmark election triumph last spring, as the embodiment of their current aspirations.

A former Ontario NDP leader and onetime Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Lewis is, at this convention, equally notable for being the father of Avi Lewis—most prominent proponent of what’s called the Leap Manifesto. As part of the manifesto’s broad, left-wing policy agenda, it calls for absolutely no new infrastructure aimed at extracting non-renewable resources, including oil and gas pipelines.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley speaks during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton Alberta, April 9, 2016. Jason Franson for Maclean's Magazine.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. (Jason Franson for Maclean’s)

Stephen Lewis defended that Leap vision in personal and policy terms. He spoke of his high-level involvement with international talks on climate change going way back to 1988, and of his concern, at 78, for “what our grandchildren will face.”

Acknowledging that the manifesto causes many in the NDP distress, including the premier of Alberta, he framed the danger of global warming in the extraordinary language. “I’m obsessed by the subject,” he said. “The damage we’ve done to the planet, and our refusal to confront that damage, constitutes nothing less than a monumental crime against humanity.”

Against Notley’s plea for Canadians who live far from the oil patch to realize that the plunge in the price of crude has cost thousands of Albertans their jobs, Lewis held up the prospect of a “crusade” to develop wind and solar power as a “greatest job-creation program on the planet.”

As if their collision over climate change wasn’t enough, Notley and Lewis also gave New Democrats fodder for thinking hard on more fundamental terms about how they come at politics. The premier made the case for the discipline of power: “We’re acting, really acting, on the basis of a concrete plan that is actually being implemented. That is what you get to do when you move up from manifestos to the detailed, principled, practical plans you can really implement by winning an election.”

But Lewis didn’t let that stab at manifestos go unparried. “The Leap Manifesto is a radical document,” he said. “I’m attracted to the idea that it could become a centerpiece of constituency debate over the next couple of years, the kind of proposition that re-energizes and reanimates, through a lens of determinedly left-wing analysis, a social-democratic party that’s searching for renewed vision.”

The roughly 1,700 delegates to the NDP convention should have soaked up enough quality rhetoric to fuel arguments, not only for the weekend, but for months to come. For NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, though, the competing Notley and Lewis performances present a more immediate problem: He is scheduled to deliver his own speech to the convention at 10 a.m. Sunday, and now has two tough acts to follow.

Soon after Mulcair speaks, delegates vote on his future, and while the party rules say he needs only a bare majority to avoid a formal leadership review, it’s generally agreed he must get 70 per cent or better to keep his job. One way to listen to his speech will be to assess what blend of Notley and Lewis notes he’s figured might give him the best chance of survival.