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NDP trumpets new policy - in the same socialist vein

NDP leader, Jack Layton, delivers his keynote speech to conclude the the New Democratic Party National Convention in Halifax, Sunday.

Tim Krochak

Jack Layton says he is offering Canadians a new way of thinking.

But the policies approved at the NDP conference in Halifax this weekend are not new to New Democrats.

The more than 1,000 delegates endorsed action to prevent violence against aboriginal women. They endorsed enshrining childcare into law.

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They endorsed investment in environmentally friendly jobs. They endorsed ending rules that prevent homosexuals from donating organs.

In the end, there were more than 50 policies approved. But there was little to raise the eyebrows of the party's socialist founders.

The NDP Leader told reporters at a closing press conference Sunday afternoon he is extremely excited that the party has approved policies that would bridge the gap between the environment and the economy.

"And also that we want to help out small business," he said, "because that's where so many of the jobs get created these days."

But the proposal to phase out income tax for small business never made it to the convention floor.

Nor did the delegates get the chance to debate a controversial proposal to drop the word "New" from the party's name. Like the small-business-tax resolution, a motion to begin consultations on a name change was not high enough on the priority list of resolutions to make the cut.

"I wish we would have had a full-out discussion on it," said Brian Masse, the NDP MP from Windsor.

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"But this issue has been raised so significantly the party is going to have to deal with it. So it doesn't just evaporate in this particular instance here."

Mr. Layton - who did not voice support or opposition to the proposal - agreed.

"I think the conversation certainly got started. This idea has come before previous conventions," he said.

"I think at the end of the day, what the delegates felt was that the critical situation that we are facing with the economy - the situation so many Canadians are facing in their own lives - that that was more important."

Certainly there were many delegates who argued the proposed name change was nothing more than a distraction - an issue of far less substance that the social policy they were asked to debate. Some said they were also upset that the policy sections were cut short to make room for conversation about how to craft a victory in a federal election.

But there were others who said that the main point of the convention was to find a way to eventually install a New Democratic government in Ottawa.

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Mr. Layton and the party brass organized sessions with the successful NDP premiers of Manitoba and Nova Scotia as well as members of the team that helped get U.S. President Barack Obama elected to the White House.

Many acknowledged that winning the hearts of the mainstream in Canada could require a slight shift from the left to the middle of the political spectrum.

As Mr. Layton left the podium after his closing speech - after winning the support of 89.25 per cent of the delegates - the loudspeakers blared a song that urged the departing crowd to "change, but be yourself."

However, Mr. Layton acknowledged at the press conference that he is counting, not so much on a change in the NDP as a change of heart by Canadians.

"The old thinking of the old parties hasn't worked," he said. "Now I think people are coming increasingly to that conclusion after this economic crisis and they are saying 'What's the new direction?' We've laid it out."

He and the party's small-business critic, Bruce Hyer, said the issue of phasing out small-business income tax would not be allowed to die.

Mr. Layton said it would be put to the party's federal council, and Mr. Hyer said he would find a way to introduce it in the House of Commons when Parliament resumes in the fall.

But Liberal MP Geoff Regan, an observer at the convention, said he didn't see much of a shift toward the centre on the part of the New Democrats.

"As far as the delegates are concerned," he said, "they seem more keen on sticking to the same old 1970s ideology that we've heard from them for years."

But Alexa McDonough, a former NDP leader, doesn't see the need for a dramatic twist.

"The foundation of this party is rock solid, the roots are deep, they're strong," she said. "Of course there needs to be change as the world changes around us. But what isn't going to change is our basic values, and most of our policies simply build on those values."

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