Covering the NDP Convention

I like to do different things from what I normally do for this "Exploits into the Unknown" feature. Well, this was different, all right. I was in Saskatoon for the New Democratic Party's provincial leadership vote.

I figured - well, why not? After all, the newspaper had been covering this leadership race from the beginning, including profiles of the candidates and coverage of that leadership all-candidates forum at the Western Development Museum.

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That was an important part of the process as well, but this was the weekend of the most important event yet - the actual convention itself.

For anyone who is a political junkie, a political leadership convention is something you will definitely want to go to at least once in your life.

But the process has changed over the years. For the longest time in this country, riding associations would pick convention delegates who would then head to the convention hall for the balloting to pick the leader.

These "delegated conventions" were great fun, packed with rumours about deals and dramatic moves that influence the voting delegates in the hall. You would have situations where candidates would withdraw from the leadership race and then dramatically walk over to endorse other candidates. On the other hand, there would be other instances where you would have people going over to beg other candidates to drop out, to help their own candidates win. It was great television. The media loved these conventions.

A number of years ago, however, the political parties across the country decided to move away from delegated conventions to a model where party members would cast their votes directly for the leader.

The Parti Quebecois went this route in Quebec in 1985, the Ontario PCs and Alberta PCs soon followed, and the new format quickly spread to other provinces and to the federal parties. The Saskatchewan NDP have been following this format for three leadership contests in a row.

But here is the problem: regardless of the party, having all the members vote is not as exciting. You don't have deals or rumours to report on, or dramatic movements of supporters from one campaign to another on the convention floor.

The fact is the media loved covering delegated conventions. How do you replicate the excitement of leadership conventions under this new format?

The answer: by holding a convention anyway. The parties have kept many of the old convention elements - the tribute to the departing leader, the candidates' hospitality suites, the candidates' speeches, even the announcement of the results.

At this NDP convention, there were delegates attending who cast their vote directly inside TCU Place, but most party members actually voted before the convention by a preferential ballot. In fact, 71 per cent of the voters cast their votes in advance. So a candidate could have gone on stage on Saturday morning and given the worst speech ever, and it would not have had much impact on the final result.

Saturday morning was reserved for the candidates' speeches, or the Showcases as they were called. Each candidate was given a brief time to deliver their final pitch on why they should be elected leader.

Leadership candidates Cam Broten, Ryan Meili and Trent Wotherspoon, in that order, gave their 20-minute "Candidate Showcase" presentations.

A few things stood out. What struck me about Cam Broten's showcase was not his speech, but the video presentation before it. It showed footage of former great NDP leaders giving speeches - Tommy Douglas, Allan Blakeney, Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert.

The video then cut to clips of Broten in the legislature roasting the Sask. Party government in Question Period.

I found that approach interesting. The message, clearly, was to show Broten was following in the footsteps of all these other glorious NDP leaders, and to portray him as the next great NDP leader to return the party to glory.

A couple of things struck me about the Ryan Meili presentation. The first was a speech by Erin Weir to introduce Meili. Weir, of course, was a candidate in the leadership race but withdrew before the convention to endorse Meili.

Weir held up a green Ryan Meili t-shirt, and joked "I endorsed Ryan Meili and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."

At one point in his speech, Meili lost his voice when he mentioned Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party - at which point he quipped "it's hard to even say the name." That was a good recovery in what could have been an embarrassing situation.

The Wotherspoon speech was the last one, and what struck me was the long lineup of nominators he had, including his wife Stephanie. Wotherspoon's background in education stood out in the presentation, in contrast to Meili's medical background. You might say Meili, a doctor, was the "health" candidate while Wotherspoon was the "education" candidate.

The speeches set up the delegate voting and the long wait for the results while the ballots were counted.

Usually this is the least exciting part of any convention, but the NDP made sure to keep things moving by bringing out one of their heavy hitters during the wait for first ballot results - federal leader Thomas Mulcair.

Mulcair came out swinging against the federal Liberals and especially the federal Conservatives. The main tone of his speech was opposing Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his policies on health care, the NEXEN takeover and other issues.

It was obvious, though, Mulcair was walking into a lions' den of sorts just by setting foot in Saskatchewan. When he met reporters in a media scrum later in the afternoon, he was peppered by questions about oil, energy and "Dutch Disease" - in reference to Mulcair's previous comments on those topics.

Reporters were openly skeptical about how his message would play with voters in the province. Mulcair did his best to look reasonable by saying he was in favour of "sustainable development," but I don't know if he convinced these reporters.

After the convention ended, Mulcair went to Washington D.C. where he spoke against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which I'm sure raised more eyebrows here at home.

I got a sense reporters have a hard time believing the NDP will come back in Saskatchewan - certainly not as long as Premier Brad Wall is around. There were reminders everywhere at the convention about the NDP's diminished standing, with the hall filled with big-name people who were a "former" this and a "former" that.

Sitting in front of the main stage in the hall were former premiers Lorne Calvert and Roy Romanow and former cabinet minister Pat Atkinson. I saw former MP Lorne Nystrom walking in the hallways, and at one point I spotted former MP Ron Fisher in the room. Now, that's a blast from the past if there ever was one. (Interestingly, though, former NDP leader Dwain Lingenfelter was nowhere to be found.)

Young people and new faces were also well represented, and the leadership contest itself was seen as a generational shift with all the leadership candidates under the age of 40. The atmosphere promoted a sense of a party looking to turn the page towards the future, but also a feeling they still have a big rebuilding job ahead.

The first ballot results came in around 1:30 p.m. and showed Meili with a more than 400-vote lead over Broten, but no one had reached the 50 per cent plus one required for victory.

Under the rules, the first candidate removed from the ballot was Weir as the fourth-place finisher, but he had already withdrawn from the race.

"You are probably wondering why you are hearing from me twice today," Weir told the audience. "But this leadership campaign is sort of like the Hotel California - you can check out any time you like but you can never leave."

Then came the most dramatic moment of the convention - Trent Wotherspoon's departure from the leadership race. He went up to the podium to give his concession statement before a standing ovation, with many of his supporters in tears.

"Listen folks, if you really felt that way about me " he began, adding jokingly that "looks, brains and personality have lost out once again."

Wotherspoon pledged to support whoever was elected leader, refusing to come out with a preference for either Broten or Meili. That put to an end any "kingmaker" possibilities for Wotherspoon, though the reality was with so many people casting preferential ballots ahead of time there was little he could do to sway the result.

The general feeling in the hall was that Broten would pick up the bulk of Wotherspoon's supporters and possibly catch up to or even pass Meili on the second ballot. The sense was that Meili's support had peaked going into the convention. But we really had no idea what to expect. I did notice the Meili people looked worried. They clearly needed a better first ballot showing than what they got.

In the wait for the second ballot results the convention heard another speech, this one from Life of Pi author Yann Martel.

A video just prior to Martel's speech featured a number of NDP supporters who spoke about why they were behind the party.

I was up in the second row of the press area next to all the other big media reporters. Among those sitting in the media section was none other than Tammy Robert, the former John Gormley radio producer.

One of the "supporters" in that video caught her attention in a big way. Immediately, she made sure everyone on press row, and on Twitter, knew that one of the people on that video was none other than Ashu Solo.

That's right. Ashu Solo, the same guy who was fighting the City of Saskatoon for putting "Merry Christmas" on the buses, was being openly promoted on screen as a supporter of the NDP.

It's safe to say Christmas came early for Tammy Robert.

She clearly thought this was a gaffe on the NDP's part, putting this polarizing figure up there on the screen. I thought this was a good example of how even the slightest detail gets magnified in politics. Just showing someone in a video can be enough to get people excited.

After Martel's speech, the second ballot results came in quickly.

The final results were Broten 4,164, Meili 4,120. And with that, Cam Broten became NDP leader by just a 44-vote margin of victory.

What happened after was pandemonium as all the candidates got up on stage. We heard Broten's victory speech and saw the candidates raise their arms together in a show of unity.

It was a successful convention by NDP standards. Not only was it a dramatic final ballot, but the convention had managed to stay right on schedule, which is important.

Unfortunately, it also meant the hall was empty when the TV stations broadcast live for the 6 p.m. news, but at least nobody had to stay all night, unlike other political conventions we have seen.

It was a good thing it ended early. I had to hit the road for my flight to Rome to cover the papal conclave vote at the Vatican. Of course, I am joking.

Actually, there was still one more Sunday session to go at the convention, but the main focus of the weekend- the leadership contest - was now in the books. I could scratch another item off the journalistic bucket list. "I covered an NDP leadership convention, but all I got was a lousy T-shirt."

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