By TIM NAUMETZ
The Hill Times online
June 27, 2011
Several NDP MPs, without disclosing any details of what went on inside caucus that led to overwhelming support for a government motion to extend the mission, made it clear in interviews that it was a hard pill to swallow for many of them. A subsequent bombing that resulted in the death of Libyan citizens would only have been salt on the wound.
There is little doubt dyed-in-the-wool peace supporters and anti-war activists in the NDP at large must also have given their heads a shake.
Robin Sears, an NDP national director in his youth and now one of the most prominent political commentators and consultants in Canadian federal politics, said though he also was not privy to what went on inside caucus, the incident is an example of the kind of party discipline Mr. Layton (Toronto-Danforth, Ont.) knows he has to exert as he carries out his plan, gradually over the next four years, to convert his government-in-waiting into a realistic alternative to the Conservatives.
When he was directing the party through turbulent moments in the 1980 federal election, with the party split over a decision by then NDP leader Ed Broadbent to support the U.S. in opposition to a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Mr. Sears said he had to enforce the kind of discipline Mr. Layton now appears to be impressing upon his new 103-member caucus, the majority of them political rookies from Quebec, over the party's position on bombing in Libya.
"I had a similar point of view on the issue of party and caucus discipline as they are having to impose, so I'm not critical of them for doing it, I think it's an inevitable way of ensuring that they limit the number of bozo moments, as it were," Mr. Sears told The Hill Times. "I had to say the leader will be the one who says anything on the subject, anyone who contradicts him will be subject to rather severe discipline."
Mr. Sears added internal unity has long been a problem for social democratic parties and, with issues like the bombing campaign, it will be no different for Mr. Layton, who, from the moment his party ousted the Liberals as official opposition on election night, May 2, has injected a new degree of control over caucus, party and communications management that was not present in the past Parliament.
"It has a long history of being challenging for social democratic parties and it's not going to be less challenging in the future," Mr. Sears said. "The ones that are successful manage it well, the ones that don't aren't. Jack takes the issue of caucus management very, very seriously. On the broader philosophical question of how the caucus and the party will cope with preparing for government in the context of foreign policy and most especially security policy or the role of the military or Canada's approach to the use of military force, that sort of combination of issues, it's never going to be easy."
The sensitive nature of the party decision on continued participation in the Libyan bombing—led by NATO and supported by the UN on grounds of protecting civilians in the clash between Libyan pro-democracy rebels and dictator Moammar Gadhafi—was illustrated by Edmonton MP Linda Duncan's (Edmonton-Strathcona, Alta.) original reaction when a Hill Times reporter asked about reported division as she entered caucus last week.
"I'm not going to speak to that," she said, turning to enter the caucus room, stopping again only after the reporter asked how she felt personally.
"I know there are lots of opinions on it, and it's a tough decision to make, especially for those of us who are very peace oriented and believe the military could be doing other things peacekeeping," she said.
Ms. Duncan added that her vote in support of the motion was based on the fact there is a significant community of Libyan-Canadians in Edmonton and "I'm the only MP who has showed up at their rallies to support them and to bring their message to Ottawa."
Asked again how she felt personally as she voted in favour of extending Canadian participation, effectively, in a war, she said: "A person always feels terrible about it, I feel terrible about it, and I'll tell you, I feel very strongly that we need to be pushing, we need to be pushing for a ceasefire and to get out of there. Basically we got some good conditions (amendments to the government motion), you know they're a majority government, so the best that we can do is to try to curtail our engagement, very limited, and if it becomes clear it's a civil war, well, then the government doesn't have our support."
NDP MP Alex Atamanenko (B.C.-Southern Interior, B.C.), another MP who holds strong views in opposition to war and use of force, also reluctantly acknowledged division in the caucus over the bombing vote.
"We've had some discussions on this, and we always had good discussions and we've all chosen to support the decision of our leader," he told The Hill Times. "It's no secret, I'm concerned, but we'll see how things play out, and hopefully things will work out. We'll see in three and a half months what happens"
Asked how he felt after the civilian deaths only a few days later, Mr. Atamanenko replied: "I know, and I'm worried about that, it bothers me a lot. I'm sure that we'll be discussing this, and we'll see how we go, unified. The key is to remain unified on this."
NDP MP Jack Harris (St. John's East, Nfld.), the party's defence critic who has never been shy in interviews on a range of topics, also exposed sensitivity to questions about caucus unity.
"We have a full discussion within caucus, we have a full debate, we look at all sides of the question, all sides of the issue, everybody has a chance for their input and a decision is made, that's the nature of caucus and I don't think it's right for us to talk about," he said. "We had terrific solidarity on our position."