NDP risks stagnating, Nystrom warns

By Kim Lunman

Toronto -- The federal New Democrats risk stagnating in the polls as a protest party if either of the front-runners wins the leadership on Saturday, candidate Lorne Nystrom said Tuesday.

Mr. Nystrom, a veteran Regina MP considered to be in third place, said NDP House Leader Bill Blaikie is "a candidate of the status quo," while Toronto City Councillor Jack Layton is "totally off base" on some of his economic policies.

"He does not have a program. How does the party know where he stands on the issues? He is a candidate of the status quo. He's not offering anything new."

Mr. Nystrom, who has focused his campaign on fiscal policies, also criticized Mr. Layton's financial policies. Mr. Layton said Tuesday he disagrees with Mr. Nystrom's plan to hold off paying down the national debt for the next two years.

"We've already paid down our debt," Mr. Nystrom said. "We do not need to be paying down the debt for the foreseeable future. People don't panic and pay down their mortgages right down to zero."

Said Mr. Layton, "I know lots of people who panic about their mortgages. He's totally off base. That's why this party doesn't do well."

It is widely believed that Mr. Blaikie, who has represented Winnipeg-Transcona since 1979, is in a tight two-way race for the leadership with Mr. Layton, a high-profile civic politician who has gained numerous endorsements, among them that of former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and the band the Barenaked Ladies.

Windsor MP Joe Comartin, Quebec party organizer Pierre Ducasse and Vancouver activist Bev Meslo are also running.

Mr. Nystrom said a recent poll that shows the federal NDP at 13.5 per cent -- in third place, ahead of the Canadian Alliance and nearly tied with the Tories -- shows that the party must develop a strong fiscal platform so it can run for government, not opposition, in the next election.

"The window is opening," said Mr Nystrom, who lost the leadership to Alexa McDonough in 1995. "We're doing very well. I'm challenging the party to take the path less travelled. If we're interested in being government, we have to pull our heads out of the sand."

The NDP has been struggling to make an electoral comeback over the past decade. But it has never been able to recapture its glory days under Mr. Broadbent in the 1970s and 1980s, when it reached 44 seats in Parliament. The NDP made marginal gains under the outgoing leader but has only 14 seats.

Mr. Blaikie dismissed Mr. Nystrom's suggestions Tuesday. He said the party should have a role in shaping the NDP's policy. "The party makes policy. To some degree, Lorne has been acting as though he's in a general election. I think this is somewhat presumptuous."

There has been little dissent in debates, although the candidates differ on some financial issues and defence spending and Ms. Meslo urged the party to take a greater turn to the left.

All oppose a war in Iraq, are pro-choice and favour proportional representation and abolishing the Senate. One of the leadership contest's final televised debates will be in Toronto tonight and broadcast on CBC.

Mr. Layton is the only candidate calling for a freeze on defence spending at $12.3-billion a year. "Jack has tried to make this into a wedge issue, when it really isn't," Mr. Blaikie said. "New Democrats need to decide what it is they want the Armed Forces to do."

Mr. Blaikie has the most support of the NDP caucus. He counts among his supporters Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton, Manitoba NDP Premier Gary Doer and Shirley Douglas, daughter of former NDP leader Tommy Douglas.