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Alexa McDonough and the Third Way

McDonough began and ended her time as federal NDP leader presiding over the defeat of a left challenge

Canadian PoliticsLabourGlobalization

Alexa McDonough’s record with the Third Way was not one of resistance or subversion, writes Doug Nesbitt, but of alliance and collaboration with the steady rightward march of the party. Photo by Tannis Toohey/CP.

Former NDP leader Alexa McDonough died on January 15. She was 77. McDonough has been celebrated for breaking through and breaking down the male-dominated Nova Scotia legislature and federal parliament. Not being discussed is McDonough’s role as federal NDP leader from 1995 to 2002.

McDonough led the Nova Scotia NDP from 1980 to 1994, and in 1995 she won a surprise victory in the federal NDP leadership race. She defeated Svend Robinson, standard-bearer for the party’s disenchanted left, and Lorne Nystrom, a long-time Saskatchewan MP and party establishment candidate. McDonough only managed to get on the convention ballot by winning the leadership race’s Atlantic primary.

At the 1995 convention in Ottawa, Robinson won the first ballot. McDonough surprised everyone by squeezing out Nystrom for second place. With Nystrom’s team preparing to back McDonough, Robinson conceded before a second ballot to the anger of many supporters. McDonough had become federal NDP leader by winning 18 percent of all primary votes and 33 percent of convention votes.

McDonough wasn’t the preferred establishment candidate, but her backers included the recently defeated Ontario Premier Bob Rae and the Steelworkers union leadership. The Steelworkers’ machine played a critical role in pulling labour votes behind McDonough despite her third-place finish in the labour primary.

After the collapse

McDonough presided over a federal party on its death bed. In the 1993 federal election, the party collapsed from over 20 percent to under seven percent of the popular vote. The NDP lost 35 seats, and with them, official party status in Parliament. It was the worst NDP performance ever. It was also worse than any result registered by its predecessor party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.

The collapse was driven by the right-wing austerity turn of provincial NDP governments in Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Of the 39 seats won in these provinces in the 1988 federal election, only seven were returned in 1993. The NDP was wiped out in Ontario. The party also suffered for its role as Brian Mulroney’s junior partner in advancing the Charlottetown Constitutional Accord. The Accord was rejected in a national referendum in 1992.

Only 18 months after becoming leader, McDonough led the NDP into another federal election. Scoring 500,000 more votes, she led the party back to official party status with 21 seats. She also spearheaded an eight-seat breakthrough in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. However, the NDP was shut out of Ontario again, and only one more seat was gained in BC.

With Jean Chrétien’s Liberals enjoying another massive majority in the absence of any united opposition party, McDonough’s new task was to solidify new support in Atlantic Canada and rebuild support in the old NDP heartlands of BC, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

Advancing the Third Way

Despite the electoral recovery in 1997, fractures and splits festered within the party. Much of it was fuelled by the Rae hangover, Glen Clark’s stalled populist turn in BC, and Roy Romanow’s unapologetic “Third Way” rule in Saskatchewan.

The right-wing of the NDP had found a new champion in Tony Blair’s “Third Way” breakthrough in Britain in 1997. The so-called Third Way was sold as a rejection of both free enterprise capitalism and social democracy. It was a conscious strategy of social democratic and labour parties accepting permanent austerity through balanced budgets, retreating from universal social services, and abandoning full employment in favour of “competitive” business-friendly policies.

NDP socialists and many labour activists bristled at the Third Way which was often wrapped up in the language of “modernization” and “moderation.” However, their opposition proved insufficient. At the NDP convention held shortly before the 1997 federal election, McDonough and the party establishment abandoned opposition to corporate free trade. The policy of abrogating corporate trade deals like NAFTA was replaced with a policy of renegotiating them with “stronger” labour, environmental and human rights provisions.

Turmoil and scandal

The next federal NDP convention was held in Ottawa in late August 1999. It was shaping up once more to be a messy political battle between left and right, and a divided house of labour. In September 1998, McDonough toured the country by train. Joined by Nelson Riis, the NDP’s most right-wing pro-business MP, McDonough spoke of the NDP’s need to recognize the role of business and the private sector, and realigning the party as Blair’s Labour Party had done in the UK.

The NDP left was furious at McDonough’s appeal to the business class. Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers, publicly denounced McDonough for abandoning labour and the NDP’s founding principles. Citing the party’s unwillingness to reject Rae’s policies, the Canadian Auto Workers’ Canadian Council met in December 1998 and voted in favour of anti-Harris strategic voting for the 1999 Ontario election.

Disorder and disarray continued to reign within the NDP. In March 1999, the “Casinogate” scandal erupted as RCMP searched the home of Glen Clark. Only weeks later, Saskatchewan’s NDP Premier Roy Romanow rammed through strikebreaking legislation against Saskatchewan nurses. Nurses defied Romanow’s law for over a week. Romanow was furious, and delayed his June election plans.

Just days before the NDP convention, Glen Clark resigned as BC Premier over Casinogate. Although later cleared of charges, Clark’s fate hung over the convention as delegates gathered in Ottawa. McDonough’s NDP languished at ten percent in the polls.

The 1999 convention

Delegates at the 1999 convention were split over the policies coming from McDonough and the party establishment. A resolution in favour of balanced budgets passed in part because it was rolled in with tax cuts for lower and middle-income Canadians. It also sought a GST cut. Convention debates over working-class tax cuts signalled a deep confusion in NDP ranks. Only a decade earlier, the party was firmly opposed to the GST and sought to shift the tax burden away from working and poor people and on to the rich and corporations.

Delegates did rebel and defeat a resolution in favour of public-private partnerships, and threw out a job creation policy that was considered too weak in supporting public sector jobs and defending the right to strike.

The balanced budget policy, however, was seen as a victory for the Third Way and its practitioners, such as Romanow and his finance minister Janice MacKinnon. It was also a repudiation of those within the party who attacked Rae for abandoning deficit spending in hard times.

Another indication of right-wing advance was the convention’s approval of a policy to build alliances with small and medium-sized businesses. The new effort was predictably spearheaded by Riis.

In her speech closing the convention, McDonough focused on social issues such as poverty and avoided discussion of fiscal policy and taxes. Svend Robinson believed the speech confirmed the NDP was a “clear democratic socialist party that says the market is not God.” Few were convinced.

Defeat at the millenium

By early 2000, the “anti-globalization” movement had burst onto the public scene. Major demonstrations against corporate trade deals and international capitalist institutions began to forge an international movement that was challenging the prerogatives of capital. The left-wing “Pink Tide” in Latin America also began to offer inspiration for a new left in Canada.

Amidst these protests, Chrétien called an early election in the fall of 2000. The Liberals won a third huge majority thanks to the failed “Unite the Right” effort of the Canadian Alliance. The Alliance was contained to western Canada and helped split the vote with the Progressive Conservatives in the eastern provinces.

The Liberals were also aided again by a disastrous NDP campaign. The gains of 1997 largely evaporated. The popular vote fell to 8.5 percent and the caucus was cut down to thirteen seats. Support fell in every province but Manitoba. Half the party’s Atlantic seats were lost, and while the party won its first Ontario seat since 1988, the heartlands of BC, Saskatchewan and Ontario produced only five seats.

It was said McDonough had been unable to establish a national profile as a leader. There is little doubt that sexism and media bias hurt the NDP, but that was never the whole story. The NDP had no national advertising campaign during the election. McDonough’s campaign was fought almost exclusively around health care to the detriment of a broader program. Efforts were concentrated on 25 ridings. The campaign goal was to maintain official party status of 12 seats. They won 13.

During the campaign, McDonough focused her attacks on the ruling Liberals and big corporations. Tax cuts were also attacked as undermining spending needed for health care. But the threat of the Canadian Alliance had many previous NDP voters casting ballots with the Liberals. McDonough also had to contend with Saskatchewan’s NDP Premier Roy Romanow talking of a Liberal-NDP merger only weeks before the election at his retirement press conference.

The 2000 election confirmed the collapse of the NDP’s social democratic base. For three straight elections, the NDP’s traditional labour and farmer strongholds in BC, Saskatchewan, and Ontario had disintegrated.

The New Politics Initiative and NDProgress

The 1999 convention, a disastrous federal election, and the anti-globalization movement were important factors in the formation of the New Politics Initiative. The NPI was formed in the spring of 2001. MPs Svend Robinson and Libby Davies and prominent leftists Judy Rebick and Naomi Klein played a leading role. The Canadian Auto Workers’ leadership was also highly supportive and CAW Economist Jim Stanford was a prominent NPI partisan.

The NPI sought to dissolve the NDP and reform it as an explicitly anti-capitalist party. Events across the country rallied support and some riding associations and union locals endorsed the NPI. The NPI also employed an “inside/outside” strategy of recruiting party and non-party members. It was considered a means of linking the NPI to “social movements.”

But the NPI wasn’t the only organized force seeking to build a new party. The pressure group NDProgress was formed after the 2000 election with the aim of constituting the NDP as a new independent federal party. NDProgress’ four-point plan for the 2001 convention included severing ties with the provincial NDP parties, severing formal ties with organized labour, ending financial support from unions, and having “one member, one vote” for the party leadership. After achieving these goals, they would move towards dissolving the NDP and relaunching a new party.

The organization was comprised mainly of party insiders, caucus and staff. Its leadership met regularly in Ottawa and its founder and leader was Halifax MP Peter Stoffer, first elected in the 1997 Atlantic breakthrough. Dominic Cardy was the NDProgress spokesperson. The organization modeled their project on what Blair had done with the UK Labour Party. However, NDProgress deliberately avoided open talk of the Third Way.

Other supporters included Saskatchewan NDP cabinet minister Chris Axworthy. Les Campbell was another prominent supporter. A senior advisor to Gary Doer (elected Manitoba’s NDP Premier in 1999) and McDonough’s predecessor, Audrey McLaughlin. Campbell had connections with Tony Blair himself.

The 2001 convention

At the convention, their proposals to sever the party from labour and the provincial parties flopped. However, with support from McDonough and even NPI supporters, NDProgress succeeded in winning “one member, one vote” for leadership elections. NDProgress believed this would weaken both unions and the left within the party.

By contrast, the NPI’s radical resolution was defeated by almost two-thirds of delegates. Labour support included delegations from CAW, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

NDProgress formally dissolved itself after the convention and McDonough resigned as party leader only a few months later. A leadership race was underway and within a few weeks of McDonough’s retirement, Robinson and Davies had endorsed the candidacy of Jack Layton. The NPI’s grand post-convention plans of ongoing organization sputtered and died. Layton spoke at the NPI’s final event in early 2004.


McDonough began and ended her time as federal NDP leader presiding over the defeat of a left challenge. McDonough’s record with the Third Way was not one of resistance or subversion, but of alliance and collaboration with the steady rightward march of the party. Rather than mend ties with organized labour, she made an open turn to the business class. When both right and left sought to dissolve the party, concessions were made to the right.

After a decade of disaster, the NDP remained in the firm control of a party establishment which had made peace with permanent austerity and the Third Way. All that was needed was a new leader to declare it morning again in the party.

Doug Nesbitt is the editor and co-founder of the labour news and analysis website He is currently writing a book for Fernwood Publishing on organized labour, Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution in Ontario. Doug lives in Kingston.


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