Exit Helen MacDonald

Though she didn't intend it that way, the opening lines of Helen MacDonald's resignation statement yesterday explain why her leadership of the Nova Scotia NDP was doomed from the start.

"I belong to the NDP because we are a party of ideas and ideals, not personalities and power," she said. "Whether we are first, second, or third, we keep working to make life better for Nova Scotians."

Wrong.

The NDP is not a philosophy club, a reading circle, or a discussion group. It is a political party, one that, in the two years before MacDonald assumed its leadership, had seriously challenged for power in this province.

At its best, the NDP is a party of ideas, ideals, and power, though its reputation as a source of original ideas rests too heavily on events three decades in the past.

The people who fashioned MacDonald's upset leadership victory understood the imperatives of power. They knew that many in the party liked Helen personally but didn't believe she possessed the requisites for the job. So, they carefully positioned her as a compromise choice that could come up the middle.

They correctly divined that many party veterans regarded rival Maureen MacDonald as too doctrinaire and imperious. Others saw Kevin Deveaux as too young, too willing to compromise ideologically, and too dominated by a group of macho operatives.

To win as everyone's second choice, Helen had only to ensure enough first ballot votes for her survival to a second round of voting. The power play worked beautifully.

Party supporters had good reasons for misgivings about Helen. She was an indifferent speaker and had been a lacklustre MLA until her ignominious upset at the pugnacious hands of Brian Boudreau. What does it say about a candidate's political strength if voters prefer the chronically embarrassing Boudreau?

Last month she placed third in a by-election on her own turf, a riding where she had taught school for thirty years. Most New Democrats understood the meaning of that devastating one-two punch: MacDonald's continued leadership was untenable. But the message was lost on Helen and her inner circle.

By longstanding tradition, the NDP gives party members responsibility for setting policy. MLAs are expected to follow policy directives established at conventions. All candidates must pledge to abide by this rule, which is enshrined in the party constitution.

MacDonald's supporters were furious at what they saw as the rival leadership camps' refusal to accept the results of the leadership vote.

On Saturday, Cape Breton Centre MLA Frank Corbett placed a call to one member of that inner circle, John Hugh Edwards, the St. Francis Xavier extension worker who had successfully managed Helen's leadership campaign. Corbett, a friendly member of caucus, warned that six less friendly MLAs were planning to approach Helen and ask her to step down.

With only eleven MLAs, six constitutes a majority.

The likely suspects: Kevin Deveaux, John MacDonell, Howard Epstein, Maureen MacDonald, Jerry Pye, and either John Holm or Bill Estabrooks, both of whom deny membership in the palace coup.

Some of MacDonald's supporters urged her to force the plotters into the open, to insist that they insert the knife personally. But MacDonald, a lifelong NDP-CCF loyalist with deep roots in the coal mining communities of Northside Cape Breton, is a decent person whose lifelong concern for the welfare of those around her inspires intense loyalty among her friends. She had had enough humiliation.

Without even bothering to ask who was involved, MacDonald determined to step down, immediately. The rest of the weekend was spent preparing her acerbic resignation statement.

So the NDP must begin the leadership exercise again, less nine months after the last leadership convention, and with deeper internal divisions than ever. The swift turn of events raises doubts about the party's chief of staff, Dan O'Conner, who has now had two leaders resign abruptly on his watch.

O'Conner is a smart strategist who deserves much of the credit for the NDP's consistently superior performance in the legislature over the last three years. But his excessively cautious approach to the last election, and the party staff's atrocious mishandling of the Lord's Prayer issue, call his continued role into question.

O'Conner acknowledges that he serves at the leader's pleasure, and a new leader may have different pleasures.

The prescription for the party is not complicated. It needs new ideas and a leader capable of communicating them persuasively enough to attain the power required to implement them. In the end, the job requires ideas, ideals, and power.

Originally published by The Daily News. All rights reserved by the author. To contact Parker Barss Donham, e-mail him at pdonham@fox.nstn.ca.

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