POLITICS

NDP Leadership Convention: Party Going Big With Massive High-Tech Gathering In Toronto

03/23/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 05/22/2012 05:12 EDT
HuffPost Canada
TORONTO - When the main stage at an NDP leadership gathering is something called the "three-quarter thrust," well, what's next? Champagne rooms?

Tens of thousands of card-carrying New Democrats are poised to choose the federal party's next leader this weekend at a multi-media, high-tech convention in downtown Toronto that is expected to attract attention well beyond the party's old family circle.

Music, audio-visual presentations and flash will accompany the serious business of choosing the leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition — and a putative prime-minister-in-waiting.

With close to 4,000 delegates expected to attend, almost twice the total of the last party leadership convention in 2003, and nearly 700 media accredited, it is by far the biggest leadership showcase in NDP history.

And when the newly crowned leader takes centre stage at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre sometime late Saturday, he or she will be, literally, centre stage.

A catwalk leading to a circular stage in the middle of the convention floor — the three-quarter thrust — is just one of the event's theatrical devices.

"Not to be too effusive, but it's not your mom and dad's convention, basically, in terms of look and feel," Sally Housser, a party spokeswoman, gushed this week.

With 102 seats and official Opposition status, a fresh byelection win in their back pocket and at least one poll showing them neck-and-neck with the governing Conservatives, New Democrats feel like they're stepping out in style — and expect Canadians outside the party tent to take notice.

It's been nine years since the NDP last chose a leader — the late Jack Layton, whose death from cancer last August sparked the long, seven-month race — and the last time around the party had just 14 MPs and was fourth among five parties in the House of Commons.

"Little New Democrats Lost" said the headline above a column in the Globe and Mail that January weekend in 2003, when Alexa McDonough passed Canada's socialist torch to Layton on the first ballot.

That convention was held in the shadow of the larger Speedorama Car Show next door on Toronto's barren, windswept exhibition grounds. It attracted a total of 45,000 ballots, a number already surpassed Thursday in advance of Friday's 11 a.m. ET deadline for online and mail-in voting.

But the biggest change is the frame of reference.

"It requires an enormous degree of self-hypnotic optimism for an NDP member to believe that in casting a ballot he or she will be choosing the next prime minister, or even the next leader of the opposition," opined a Toronto Star columnist in 2003.

The analysis ultimately proved overly pessimistic, but it was hardly outside the norm. Today, the default for giddy New Democrats is that government awaits, while curious non-partisans are sitting up and sniffing the political winds.

"I think there's a recognition that the next election faces a real prospect of a change of government," said Robin Sears, a former national director of the NDP who now works as a communications consultant with Navigator Ltd., in Toronto.

"The question is: will it be the Liberals led by Mr. (Bob) Rae or the NDP led by somebody unknown? We haven't really thought that was a prospect for almost 10 years now."

Sears says he actually attended the NDP founding convention in 1961 as a young child (although he remembers it only from the history books) and figures the '61 convention "is the closest to this one in terms of the level of expectation and the sense of historic moments and the importance of the decision."

Ten years later, the party had another convention with "a sense of collision and importance" when David Lewis prevailed against the ultra-nationalist Waffle faction that split the party.

Beyond the glitz and taste of power, that's another dimension at play this weekend, says Sears. Like 1961 and 1971, the whiff of division is creating a media buzz, with front-runner Thomas Mulcair clearly opposed by the party establishment.

"I think you have to go a long way back to get to a convention in the party's history where both the participants and the country are looking at this as something a little bit out of the norm, a little bit more than usual," said Sears.

For anyone accustomed to the understated, low-budget affairs from the NDP of old, a glimpse at this week's preparations offered a multitude of double-takes.

Deep in the bowels of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, workers buzzed around a small circular stage at the centre of a cavernous hall, beneath a high-tech circular LED screen showing the image of a waving Canadian flag. Four giant TV screens flanked the convention floor to give participants a view above what are sure to be the placard-waving delegates at the foot of the stage.

Even the hall's support beams are wrapped in LED screens.

Large mobile platforms rumbled back and forth across the floor as workers put on the finishing touches, while audio technicians bellowed into microphones located strategically around the arena. Slick orange-and-grey graphics were in place to help steer delegates to the voting stations.

In all, there are 120 moving lights, more than 450 interlocking LED panels, nine high definition projectors and six stacks of "line array" speakers to wash over the crowds.

"Razzle dazzle is not a word that you would associate with (NDP conventions) historically, I think it would be fair to say," said Sears.

"Boring, more often. And I had to sit through many."

— With files from James McCarten

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