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NDP, Liberal Party Conventions This Weekend

THE CANADIAN PRESS — OTTAWA — It will be a tale of two political conventions this weekend and the contrast couldn't be more stark.

For the federal NDP, it's the best of times; for the Liberals, it's the worst of times.

Exultant New Democrats will converge Friday in Vancouver for a three day celebration of their electoral triumph last month, in which the party scored more seats than ever, propelling it into official Opposition status for the first time in its 50-year history.

Humbled Liberals, meanwhile, will hold a special convention via the Internet on Saturday to consider a proposal that would give their battered party 18 to 22 months to pull itself off the mat before choosing a new, permanent leader.

Michael Ignatieff resigned after leading the self-styled "natural governing party" to its worst-ever defeat in the May 2 election, in which he lost his own seat and the Liberals were reduced to a third-party rump.

As if to rub salt in Liberal wounds, New Democrat delegates are scheduled to debate a resolution Saturday calling on their party to rule out any suggestion of merging with the Liberals but to "extend a warm welcome to all former Liberal supporters who wish to join the genuine anti-Conservative opposition — the NDP."

And in a twist of the knife, the anti-merger resolution is being proposed by the NDP's association in Toronto Centre — the riding represented by interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, a former New Democrat premier of Ontario. Rae mused on election night that merger discussions were inevitable but he was compelled to drop such talk — along with his long-term leadership aspirations — as a condition of taking on the interim post.

Ascendant New Democrats, who eagerly solicited coalition talks with the Grits only three years ago, clearly believe they no longer need the Liberal party to eventually win power. Their talk this weekend will be all about supplanting the Liberals.

"This 50th-anniversary convention is a time to celebrate our achievements but, more importantly, it's a time to map out the next steps to form the next government," says NDP national director Brad Lavigne, who'll be taking over as NDP Leader Jack Layton's new principal secretary once the convention ends.

"We've been talking for months and years how we've been building for this breakthrough. The breakthrough appears to have come. ... We have 31 per cent of Canadians now. We need to consolidate that new base and we need to reach for the next tier, we need to invite the next tier to come and join us as the alternative to the Conservative party."

Lavigne adds: "The planning for the next election campaign starts this weekend.

The Liberal convention, by contrast, will be about taking the first tentative step in determining whether the party even has a future. Even the most optimistic Liberals assume it will take at least two elections — that is, eight years of painstaking rebuilding — before the party is back in contention for power.

But while the Liberals are sorting themselves out, the NDP will be making an aggressive pitch for the 19 per cent of centrist voters who stuck with the Grits on May 2. And that pitch starts with further shedding of some of the NDP's ideological baggage.

Delegates to this weekend's convention will be asked to eradicate the word "socialist" from the NDP constitution. A proposed new preamble touts the party's "social democratic principles" of economic and social equality, individual freedom and responsibility and democratic rights — replacing the current preamble's dedication to the principles of "democratic socialism," which include "social ownership" and a pox on making a profit.

Lavigne says the proposed change is simply part of a "modernization" of the constitution, begun two years ago, getting rid of out-moded phrases that no one uses anymore.

For his part, Layton declines to explain the difference between social democratic principles and democratic socialism.

"I couldn't give you a quick primer on that. I've offered lengthy courses on the topic over the years," he said earlier this week.

"What I find is remarkably few people are as concerned about that and the order of adjectives and nouns as they are concerned about whether or not they've got food on the table, whether or not their pension is secure, whether or not their kids are going to get a decent education and whether they have family medicine.

"These are the issues that have driven our party for so many years and we're going to stay very much focused on those."

And there will indeed be plenty of resolutions on all those subjects approved at the convention.

But Rae warns voters not to be fooled by semantics into thinking the NDP no longer adheres to its socialist roots.

"It's not about words. It's about real, deep understanding of how the world is changing and, when you look around the world, you will find that there are many formerly socialist parties who have gone through a radical transformation. The Labour Party in the United Kingdom is probably the leading example but there are many others," he said this week.

"What is that transformation? First of all, it's an embrace of the marketplace. Not a reluctant admission but an embrace of the fact that lessons have to be learned, that in fact allowing markets to work, allowing companies to do well, allowing businesses to succeed, not attacking, quote, the corporation, not attacking corporations as if they're enemies but understanding that a modern economy requires successful banks, successful companies, successful enterprises."

Rae said there's been no such transformation in Canada's NDP.

"I see the same, frankly, the same tired approach and this real reluctance to embrace modernity and to embrace the modern economy."

Indeed, the NDP resolutions do include some staple big bank- and corporation-bashing, calling for a cap on credit card interest rates and fees for automated teller transactions, for instance.

Still, if voters compare the two conventions this weekend, they're unlikely to conclude the NDP is the party that looks tired.

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