This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 23, 1995
McDonough Wins NDP Leadership
New Democrats took all the conventional wisdom last weekend and threw it soundly and convincingly on its head. The party's leadership convention to select a successor to Audrey McLaughlin was supposed to go two ballots. It went one. B.C. MP Svend Robinson and Saskatchewan's Lorne Nystrom were the front-runners, and one of them was expected to win. Wrong, and wrong again. The party would not elect another woman to replace McLaughlin, it was thought, and would not choose someone who had never before held a federal seat - and has no easy prospect of winning one. So when Alexa McDonough, the former leader of the Nova Scotia NDP, stood on the platform of the Ottawa Congress Centre to make her acceptance speech as the party's fifth leader, the surprise was universal. "It is for me an unbelievable dream," she said.
McDonough, 51, takes over a party that has lost official status in the Commons and seems out of touch with the mainstream politics of deficit reduction and global commerce. But she managed to pull off the upset because the delegates bought her argument that she alone could bridge the differences between the left, represented by the maverick Robinson, and the right, represented by Nystrom, a former Saskatchewan MP. It was a victory made sweeter by how it played out. After the first ballot, she led Nystrom by 52 votes and trailed Robinson by less than 100 votes, 655 to 566. Then, Robinson did the unthinkable, leaving delegates and observers stunned with disbelief. In the name of party unity, and fully aware that he would be unable to hold his lead on the second and final ballot, Robinson conceded. Moments before the voting was to resume, he walked across the convention floor and told McDonough: "You don't have to wait for the second ballot. You'll be a great leader." And then, he graciously asked the more than 1,700 delegates to make McDonough's election unanimous. He knew that Nystrom's supporters would have shifted their 514 votes almost en masse to McDonough. Still, for the convention ballot leader to concede was a move without precedent in modern Canadian political history.
For the past month, card-carrying New Democrats across the country have been voting in a series of primaries intended to revitalize the party and to officially nominate the candidates. The primary results were clear, but misleading. Nystrom, 49, a 25-year veteran of Parliament before his defeat in 1993, held a big lead over Robinson, 43, the controversial Vancouver-area MP who was the country's first openly gay parliamentarian. McDonough, a social worker by training, came in a distant third. But while Nystrom and Robinson put their bigger, richer organizations to work on the primaries, McDonough made a virtue of her more limited resources and concentrated on delegate selection and convention strategy. So while Nystrom and Robinson began the convention as the front-runners, McDonough's campaign team knew the primary numbers did not tell the entire story. "We came into the convention in a much stronger position than people realized," Judy Wasylycia-Leis, a former Manitoba cabinet minister and McDonough's savvy campaign manager, told Maclean's.
But McDonough's winning card was her promise that she could unify the party, which has been scarred by its near decimation in the 1993 federal election - when it gained just seven per cent of the vote and dropped to nine seats from 43 in the Commons - and by the bruising battle in Ontario between the former NDP government of Bob Rae and the usually supportive labor movement. It was fitting then that Rae and much of the Ontario establishment supported her. "People were frightened about people fighting with each other," Wasylycia-Leis said. Floyd Laughren, finance minister in the former Ontario government, came into the convention undecided and left as a satisfied McDonough supporter. "She had the rather intriguing combination of the others' strengths without their liabilities," Laughren said.
McDonough, who is separated with two grown sons, says she would prefer to try for eventual election to the Commons on her Halifax home turf. But in the short term, she sees herself on the road, trying to rebuild the party. Her priority, she said in a post-victory interview, is to "re-establish ourselves as a clear alternative voice." But there is no magic in getting that done, she says with the experience of 14 years as party leader in Nova Scotia. There, she was unable to translate her personal popularity into more than three seats. "There aren't any quick fixes," McDonough adds. "It's tough slogging and patient persuasion."
Born into a wealthy family, but not the daughter of a millionaire as is often reported, McDonough acknowledges she grew up in an environment many Canadians are unable to share. "The voice of ordinary working families, the poor and everyone else has been silenced," she told the convention. While the deficit must be tackled, she said, "it can be done our way, with innovation and fresh ideas, with compassion and respect for the needs of people." And she paid tribute to her parents, both pioneer socialists, especially her late father, Lloyd Shaw.
Just after 6 a.m. on the morning of the vote, McDonough was playing her customary early morning game of racquetball with a supporter from her home town. She lost, 21-15. Some people would have taken it as an omen. She did not. And to those who say now that she faces a nigh-impossible task, McDonough can point to her own campaign as proof that, sometimes, the impossible happens.
Maclean's October 23, 1995