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NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel, in Ottawa on Sept. 8, 2011, tells reporters the party has confirmed that its leader will be elected on a one-member/one-vote system. (Fred Chartrand/Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)
NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel, in Ottawa on Sept. 8, 2011, tells reporters the party has confirmed that its leader will be elected on a one-member/one-vote system. (Fred Chartrand/Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Federal NDP rejects special role for unions in selecting leader Add to ...

The NDP is moving away from Canada’s biggest unions, rejecting a push by insiders to provide a privileged role to the labour movement in the selection of the next party leader.

The ruling, quietly made by the party’s executive this week, puts an end to a brewing battle between the perceived front-runners in the race to replace the late Jack Layton.

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The decision is a victory for NDP House Leader Thomas Mulcair, who had argued against the plan to set aside a portion of the vote for unions at next year’s leadership convention. Mr. Mulcair said he encouraged union members to participate in the leadership contest, but that all progressives, such as members of the environmental movement, had to be treated equally.

On the other hand, NDP president Brian Topp, who currently leads ACTRA in Toronto, had argued for a continued role for unions in the leadership contest. Mr. Topp called the labour movement “a foundational partner” of the NDP and said ties to unions were part of the party’s DNA.

In the 2003 leadership race that saw Mr. Layton take the party’s helm, the NDP set aside 25 per cent of the vote for union members. The party decided in 2006 to go with a system of one member/one vote, but a number of party officials argued in recent weeks that a portion of the vote could still be awarded to unions by the NDP federal council.

However, interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel told reporters that a final decision was made ahead of Friday’s federal council meeting, which will set the final rules of the leadership convention.

Ms. Turmel acknowledged there had been confusion surrounding the issue since Mr. Layton’s death last month, but that the matter was now resolved.

“Our constitution is clear, it’s one member/one vote,” she said at a news conference, adding that the issue is no longer on the table.

Party insiders said the NDP is looking to pick its new leader in March or April, which would give the winner time to face off against the Conservatives before Parliament breaks for the summer. Given that recent NDP conventions were held in Vancouver and Halifax, the party is expected to hold the event in a big city in Ontario or Quebec.

The actual date will depend on the availability of convention centres, as the NDP is moving swiftly to organize a leadership race following Mr. Layton’s death.

While some NDP officials had mused about a January convention, there is now a consensus in favour of a longer race to allow all candidates to become better known. Another key concern is a desire to sell memberships in Quebec, which is home to 59 MPs but only a tiny fraction of the party’s overall membership.

At its meeting on Friday, the federal council will also have to set a spending limit for the race. In 2003, the ceiling was set at $500,000, but legislative changes in 2004 banned union and corporate donations to political parties.

Some NDP officials are worried that a high spending ceiling could force candidates to rack up significant debts, which happened to Liberal candidates in that party’s 2006 leadership race.

“Without question, we’re living under different laws of the land,” a senior NDP official said. “Will the federal council learn from the experience of the Liberal Party?”

The NDP charged a $7,500 entry fee for the 2003 race, but the amount is expected to be higher this time around, given the winner will become the Leader of the Official Opposition and get to live at Stornoway.

In addition to Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Topp, potential candidates include NDP MPs Françoise Boivin, Robert Chisholm, Nathan Cullen, Peter Julian, Meagan Leslie and Peggy Nash.

The Conservative Party has launched a number of attacks against the NDP over its ties to the union movement. In a series of talking points issued on Thursday, the Conservatives accused the NDP of setting the rules of its leadership contest in secret backroom meetings.

“All we do know is that the process allows affiliate members like union bosses to have a direct say in the process while ordinary Canadians are locked out,” the Conservatives said. “The influence of big unions and special interests in the NDP is yet another worrying example of their big government union agenda.”

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