New Democrat MP and leadership contender Paul Dewar says a "Western agenda" would be a key ingredient in growing his party so it appeals to more Canadians and can win the next election.
Dewar, the MP for Ottawa Centre first elected in 2006, sees the leadership race as an opportunity to grow the NDP's membership and voter support that shouldn't be wasted. His party won 103 seats in the May 2 election and became the Official Opposition for the first time in its 50-year history. He says he has a vision for his party's future so that next time Canadians go to the polls, the NDP will form government and that it's all about "doing politics on the ground."
"We've had incredible success, historic success, but what we need to do is we have to build the ground. The only way to take on the Conservatives is to build the ground. I have not only a vision of that, that’s what I’m doing right now in my leadership contest," Dewar said in a recent interview.
Dewar doesn't think the NDP has to shift its policies along the political spectrum from the left more to the centre to appeal to more Canadians, but he says it needs to "expand" its policies, and the number of people hearing about them.
"We have to move our message to people who haven’t been hearing it," he said, giving Western Canada as a specific example of where the NDP has struggled to break into the Conservative-dominated territory. There is not a single NDP MP in Saskatchewan, only one in Alberta and two in Manitoba. In British Columbia, its seat count picks up again, to 12.
NDP needs a 'western agenda'
"The orange wave stopped in Manitoba," Dewar said, referring to the NDP's colour. The popularity in the last election of the NDP, then led by Jack Layton who died of cancer in August, was dubbed the "orange wave" and the "orange crush" in Quebec where the party won 59 seats, up from one.
"What we need to do, we have to do, is have a western agenda," Dewar explained. The agenda would tell voters there what the NDP would do for them. It's a blank agenda right now, because Dewar says he's in the process of gathering views from people on the ground. "The last thing we want to do is to tell the West what they want, that's part of the role of a leader."
Developing sets of policies for targeted areas was a strategy used in the 2008 election for northern Ontario, and Dewar said it worked and that it needs to be done for other parts of Canada in order for the NDP to keep riding its success.
The bulk of that success came from Quebec, and Dewar is well-aware that the NDP risks being associated too closely with the province. His idea of doing on-the-ground politics and developing regional agendas would help the NDP avoid becoming known as a Quebec party, he said.
"We have to have more people on the ground to bring more people in and to show that we aren’t just going to be protecting 59 seats in Quebec," he said, "And that’s an investment for the party and that's what I'm committed to."
The NDP will remain focused on issues that are important to Quebec, he said, and many of those issues are the same ones that are important to other Canadians.
In addition to Western Canada, the Ottawa native also plans to go after another Tory stronghold – the suburbs. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives swept the suburbs of Canada's largest city in May, known as "the 905" region around Toronto. Many of the ridings had been held by the Liberals and the Tories have spent years laying the groundwork to steal them away.
Dewar, 48, doesn't see the suburbs of Canada's cities as off-limits to the NDP.
"In the suburbs, I am convinced, I know that we have a message that can resonate and I’m someone who I think can relate to people in the suburbs," he said.
Dewar rules out merger with Liberals
Appealing to a broader base of voters won't require monumental changes to policies, even to attract the Bay Street business crowd, according to Dewar. And victory in the next election also won't require a merger with the Liberals, he said. Chatter about a Liberal-NDP merger began immediately after the election and Dewar dismisses it as "inside baseball" talk. He's focused on getting the Conservatives out of power by making his party a more attractive offer to Canadians than the current government.
"And why in God’s name would you have a merger with a party right now that really doesn't know what it stands for," he adds.
Dewar is up against eight other candidates, so far, in the race to succeed Layton and six of them are colleagues in the NDP caucus. He's had to give up his role as critic for foreign affairs according to the rules set by interim leader Nycole Turmel and admits it's hard to withdraw from a file that he is passionate about.
He says the NDP's next leader should be someone with experience in Parliament, and it should be someone that can connect with people. He fits the bill on both counts, the former school teacher says.
When Dewar entered politics in 2006, he was following an example set by his mother Marion, a former mayor of the nation's capital from 1978 to 1985. She was briefly a Member of Parliament for Hamilton and had strong ties to the NDP, also serving as its president. Dewar's mother died in the midst of the 2008 campaign.
Politics may continue to run in the family, Dewar says his two sons, aged 16 and 13, are helping with his campaign.
Dewar has rolled out a few policy planks since beginning his campaign on October 2 including ones on jobs, the arts, and cities, and he's been on the road a lot.
"I enjoy people. When I’m out connecting with people I not only love it but I also generate a lot of ideas and I think what we need to do is be able to have a leader who can continue to do that," Dewar said.
While foreign affairs has been a specialty of his, Dewar says the environment, energy and the economy are all important to him too and that he sees all three as very connected.
Dewar acknowledges his French is a weakness, but he says he can speak it and understand it, and it's getting better.
He isn't afraid to engage in debate with his fellow candidates, in fact, he's calling for more debates than the six that are currently scheduled. The first one takes place Dec. 4 in Ottawa.