November 28, 2006

How will N.B.'s NDP get something from nothing?

How will N.B.'s NDP get something from nothing?
Allison Brewer's resignation raises questions for the party, and the rest of us.

Most physicists will say that, "you can't can't get something from nothing." The principal, sometimes referred to as the 'Carnot rule' when applied to thermodynamics, presents what should be an insurmountable challenge for the Province's New Democrats.

Last week, party leader Allison Brewer was forced to resign because, like many on the left, she couldn't afford her bills.

The NDP doesn't hold any legislative seats, so Brewer was leading the party as a volunteer.

"Brewer's resignation speaks to the overwhelming difficulties small parties face," said UNB political scientist Don Desserud. "There wasn't a chance of her gaining support in the short term. The plan was that after a couple of elections they (the NDP) would be able to build some support. But how can you afford to wait that long when you can't even afford to pay your leader?" wondered the Saint John based academic, a frequent talking head on matters of provincial politics.

Commentators of all political stripes lamented the lack of differing views between Grits and Tories in the last election. So why can't New Democrats make a break through in New Brunswick the way they have in Nova Scotia, where pseudo-socialists in orange are the official opposition?

Dr. Desserud thinks it boils down to a question of history. "In the 60s and 70s you had very charismatic left wing Liberal party premiers in both New Brunswick and Newfoundland." Louis Robichaud and Joey Smallwood established the Liberals as a party of the left, while the NDP was building support in other provinces, says Desserud.

New Brunswick's New Democrats may not have developed during the tumult known as 1960s, but that doesn't mean the party can't get off the ropes, according to Lyndsey Gallant, the NDP's provincial secretary.

"There was a time when the NDP in Nova Scotia was where we are now," said Gallant. " It just takes a lot of work." The party is planning a leadership convention for the fall of 2007.

If the NDP is to 'rebuild' or more accurately, build something from nothing, it should follow the example set by one of its own: Acadie-Bathurst MP Yvon Godin.

"The NDP doesn't pay enough attention to what Godin does in his riding," says Dr. Desserud. Godin, who won his federal seat by a large margin in the last election, built a name for himself around the economically marginalized north shore by fighting hard on bread and butter issues that resonated with his constituents, like accessibility to unemployment insurance.

EI should be an issue for the NDP to capitalize on nationally. Because the federal government made it more difficult for workers to obtain EI, the program posted a massive surplus between 1993-2003, some economists think workers were over-charged a whopping $40 billion for an insurance scheme they couldn't access. The feds, under the Martin Liberals, simply took money out of EI coffers and lumped it back into general revenue. This is a major reason for the budget surpluses that made Paul Martin famous, before that whole Gomery thing.

But the NDP has been unable to arise serious indignation on the EI file and at the national level, the party is headed for rough waters.

"At the risk of over-simplifying, the NDP's problem has been where on the political spectrum to put themselves," says Desserud. In the past, that meant heading towards the political centre, to lure left-leaning Liberal voters.

But with Elizabeth May leading a reinvigorated Green Party, the NDP now has competition on its left flank.

In the New Brunswick context, current party building plans have more to do with practicality than ideology. "Our membership support is in Fredericton, so we are starting (to rebuild) where we are strongest," said NDP secretary Gallant. "There aren't many members on the north shore, unfortunately."

The lack of membership in north shore communities speaks to another historical problem the party has yet to reconcile: "the NDP has never had much to say about language," says Desserud. He's literally correct on that one, as Allison Brewer can barley speak French. She was inaccessible to more than a third of the Province.

"Language and class were always intertwined in this province," says Desserud.

The rule of physics stating that something cannot be created from nothing has one major exception: the black hole. Inside these tiny spaces, which often spell disaster for any nearby matter, none of the regular rules apply.

According to Desserud, the best chance for ending the Grit/Tory strangle-hold on the province would be, "some major disaster in the established parities." Maybe that's exactly what we need right now?

Chris Arsenault's column will return in December;

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