Politics·Analysis

In masterful oration, Stephen Lewis reminds NDP convention what left-wing means

Stephen Lewis is probably Canada's greatest living orator, and his speech on Saturday to the NDP convention was a limpid glass of perfectly chilled water. That's not to say it wasn't partisan. It was. Was it ever.

Former Ontario NDP leader can tell a truth like an axe splitting firewood

In his speech at the NDP convention Saturday, party luminary Stephen Lewis aimed his trademark blend of eloquence and startling bluntness at the Liberals and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Neil Macdonald writes. (Codie McLachlan/Canadian Press)

There seem to be only three types of political speeches nowadays: pandering demagoguery (Muslims are barbaric, welfare stops Tuesday), painstaking triangulation (just about anything Hillary Clinton says), or the gooey treacle, pioneered by Barack Obama and channelled by our current prime minister, that some find so inspirational (hope, change, mutual respect, the strength of our diversity is the diversity of our voices, etc., etc.)

But Stephen Lewis's speech on Saturday to the NDP convention in Edmonton was limpid, a glass of perfectly chilled water.

Anyone who's ever covered Lewis knows his polemical abilities; no phony anger, no condescending vulgarity, no gauzy platitudes, no wheedling. His speeches are beautifully crafted mixtures of magniloquence and startling bluntness, combined for maximum rhetorical impact. He is probably Canada's greatest living orator.

That's not to say it wasn't a partisan speech. It was. Was it ever.

Lewis is a socialist, and said so, in case anyone needed reminding.

Actually, Lewis and his son Avi and a clutch of other prominent party militants think the NDP does indeed need reminding, after Tom Mulcair's inauspicious triangulating during last fall's election campaign, and this past weekend, they tossed the leader out the door.

Anyway, Lewis can tell a truth like an axe splitting firewood.

With Mulcair sitting up front, either smiling or grimacing (it's hard to tell), Lewis brutally undressed the $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia negotiated under Stephen Harper and now protected by Justin Trudeau.

Touchy subject

This is a sensitive subject for New Democrats. Mulcair declared during the election he too would allow the deal to proceed. UNIFOR, the union representing Canadian workers employed by the project, wanted the deal honoured, and one of the union's top officials told Mulcair to just shut up about it.

Lewis began by describing Saudi Arabia's current war in Yemen as "the wholesale and indiscriminate slaughter of civilian populations. … It's also a country where beheadings of dissidents rivals the madness of ISIL.… We're talking about a regime whose hands are drenched in blood."

All objectively true.

Stephen Lewis, right, greeted NDP Leader Tom Mulcair on the election trail last fall. On Saturday, Mulcair was either smiling or grimacing during Lewis's speech. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

He then addressed Canadian law:

"We're not supposed to be sending armaments to countries that have a 'persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens.' Saudi Arabia is the embodiment of the meaning of the word 'violations.' And the government of Canada refuses to release its so-called assessment of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. So much for the newly minted policy of transparency."

Again, all fact, except for the last sentence, which is not an unreasonable conclusion.

As for the Trudeau government's claim (echoed by Mulcair) that such a contract, once signed, cannot be cancelled, Lewis asked:

"What do you mean you can't break the contract? What you mean is that you won't break the contract, and with the greatest respect, that's just nonsensical claptrap. As is the proposition that if we pull out, others will fill the gap.… Well, let them. What kind of twisted logic is it that says we should cozy up to murderers because if we don't, others will?"

He capped it off by pointing out that Justin Trudeau — "it's a huge pleasure to have a prime minister who unselfconsciously calls himself a feminist" — is selling weapons to a regime "steeped in misogyny."

Well. All righty, then.

Former Ontario NDP Leader Stephen Lewis on why he supports the Leap Manifesto 10:02

No sense arguing

There really is no sensible arguing with any of this. And Lewis actually understated the government's lack of transparency. After a few menacing grunts when he took office, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion retreated behind utter secrecy. He won't even talk about why he refuses to talk about it.

Not that the NDP or Conservatives are pushing him on the issue, which was the subtext of Lewis's message.

Lewis did acknowledge that cancelling the contract would cost jobs, and his solution was a socialist one: Spend money to create new jobs.

Well, that's a worldview, and, frankly, not one entirely out of line with the new government's.

Former Ontario NDP Leader Stephen Lewis delivers a rousing speech at the party's convention, taking the Liberals to task for some early policy choices. 0:45

Lewis also had a few predictions, most of which had a ring of prescience, coming from someone with his experience.

Bill C-51, a law detested by a good swath of Canadians, is likely to live on as it is, he said, despite Justin Trudeau's promises of significant changes.

"This piece of hoked-up anti-terror legislation, so excessive in tone and content, so contemptuous of civil liberties.… You have to smile, a grim, tight-lipped smile."

Electoral reform? Don't expect this government, which promised to abolish first-past-the-post, to do much more than a little tinkering. The current system, Lewis pointed out, does after all benefit the Liberals.

He denounced the government's rhetoric on climate change as a "superfluity of twaddle," and the new Paris accord as a nonbinding failure. Lewis is actually an expert on the subject, and he predicts "hallucinatory climatic convulsions" between 2030 and 2050.

Expect deep cuts, Lewis says

Lewis has always shunned the ad hominem attacks so popular in today's politics; he described Trudeau as "a prime minister of amiable disposition and appearance."

"Sure, he's riding high in the polls today, but that's the most ephemeral thing in the world. The test comes on policy, not aesthetics."

And already, the government has tried to suppress budget numbers suggesting a drastic decline in funding for several programs after a few years. Expect deep cuts down the road, reminiscent of the Jean Chrétien years, Lewis says.

"I absolutely know what's coming, despite all the folderol of sunny ways and sunny days."

Lewis has to be the first prominent figure on the political left to characterize Justin Trudeau's happy talk as "folderol," a word my conservative father loved.

But of course Lewis is 79 years old. In "his dotage," to use his own words. The speech was his "last hurrah."

There was nothing doting about that speech, though.

In the short time he was at that podium, he was leading the Opposition once again.

Former Ontario NDP Leader says TPP will be disastrous for Canada, Trudeau should reject ratification 1:54

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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