The Leap Debate We Need: Two Thoughtful Takes
After weeks of attacks, the caricatured, ugly mainstream debate about the Leap Manifesto is finally giving way to a more thoughtful and civil progressive exchange. Here, we’ve paired two pieces that exemplify this emerging conversation. At the top is a process critique from Bronwyn Bragg, a community-based researcher whose hometown is Calgary, Alberta. After that, you’ll find a respectful, sharp response from Ontario labour activist and community organizer Miles Krauter that sets some of the record straight. Both pieces appear at rabble.ca.
We hope the explosion of the Leap Manifesto into the mainstream in Canada will provoke much more discussion of precisely this kind. (Heads up to our international readers that both of these pieces get somewhat into the Canadian political weeds.)
In the days since the Leap Manifesto Resolution passed at the NDP convention in Edmonton, there has been a lot of talk about who precisely is most harmed by the fracturing of the NDP along pro- and anti-Leap lines. I want to argue that we are all hurt by this moment.
I write as a born and raised Albertan, a member of the NDP, and a woman who campaigned for Rachel Notley. I have read the Leap manifesto and support much of what it stands for. With many progressives across the country, I share a belief in the need for a national conversation on climate change and for radical proposals that help move us away from extractive oil and gas development and toward renewable energy.
I also believe that the rollout of the Leap Manifesto at the NDP convention and the ensuing debate has harmed efforts to build solidarity among progressives across the country. The Leap Manifesto is deeply problematic. It fails to attend to the different regional, political, economic, and social realities of communities across Canada.
A question of process
As a long-time community organizer, I have learned that the best way to have difficult conversations about controversial issues is not by setting out the terms of the debate before people get to the table. This is especially true in the middle of a devastating recession 11 months into the precarious tenure of Alberta’s first non-Conservative government in 44 years.
I am not saying that now is not the time to have that conversation; I am saying this is the wrong way to have it. It is a question of process. It is a question of how we build a social movement in a way that respects and honours the complexity of people’s lives. While Alberta is currently the focus of this debate, this question is applicable to all regions in Canada where people’s livelihoods are tied to extractive industries.
The Manifesto’s call for no new infrastructure development ignores the political, economic and social realities in Alberta. I may question pipelines as much as the next progressive, but the way to build a broad base of support for the climate justice movement is not to start with pipelines. To do so kills the possibility of debate over these issues before they have begun. At a basic level, it asks people to come to the table with a gun to their head. How can communities become energy democracies if they are not full participants in the decisions that shape their lives?
The Leap manifesto fails when it neglects to take seriously the process required to have authentic, honest, and transformational conversations that open the door to the radical kinds of change it espouses. Placing the manifesto into the political machine of the NDP both opens the door for the opposition to bash the NDP in Alberta, but also further alienates the climate justice movement from those who work in the energy sector, as well as the families and communities of those workers. It is precisely these communities that we need at the table for conversations about energy democracy. It is precisely these communities that the Manifesto disavows.
The NDP did not win the election in Alberta
To understand why some Alberta progressives were apoplectic following the passage of the Leap Manifesto Resolution, it is helpful to understand the context of the NDP in Alberta.
The national perception of an “orange revolution” in Alberta following the NDP victory last May is inaccurate. The NDP did not win the election — the Alberta Progressive Conservatives lost it. It took 44 years, but the PCs had finally lost the political support needed to form government.
The province remains a very conservative place and Rachel Notley has been carefully nurturing a very fragile social contract with Albertans from the moment she was elected.
Yet, Notley’s election put on the table things that had been politically impossible just months before: a climate change strategy, a tax on carbon, an accelerated phase-out of coal. That none of these go far enough is a political reality that many of us are concerned about. The question is how we effectively build public support for the more radical change we are all seeking.
Community organizing requires careful listening and a willingness to leave empty-handed. It requires time. I understand that this is time the climate justice movement feels it does not have. I would suggest, however, that if we want radical change, that change will have to come from the grassroots, it will have be to led by communities, and it will have to engage the actual people who work in the sectors that need to be transformed.
One of the lines I learned working in community was the following: “Alone we go fast, together we go far.” As a progressive movement we need to find ways of bringing people together so that we can work toward the social change so many of us hope for and believe in.
Since the recent NDP convention in Edmonton, at which New Democrats — myself included — decided to debate the Leap Manifesto, there has been a flurry of articles both dismissing and defending it. Unfortunately, those levelling criticisms against the manifesto in particular have often leaned heavily on ad hominem and strawman arguments.
One recent exception was an article that appeared on rabble.ca by Alberta-based community organizer Bronwyn Bragg. Bragg raises concerns over the process through which the manifesto was released and the procedural restraints the manifesto supposedly places on New Democrats moving forward.
Due to the respectful tone and thoughtful nature of Bragg’s criticism I have decided to respond to her concerns, from one community organizer to another.
First, Bragg’s article, like many others, does not acknowledge that the Manifesto was written by a committee of diverse representatives from six different provinces, including Alberta. NDP Electoral District Associations (EDAs) from British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec — not the manifesto’s numerous authors — brought the Leap to the convention. They would be the natural targets of Bragg’s criticism here, but they go unmentioned.
A prioritized and amended resolution — a combination of the Vancouver-East and Toronto Danforth resolutions that was cognizant of the distinct “needs of various communities” — made it to the convention floor via the panel process. A significant majority of delegates (a group in which host Alberta was over-represented) voted in favour. In short, grassroots NDP members followed the only process that was available to them.
Bragg makes the claim that the best way to have difficult conversations “is not by setting out the terms of the debate before people get to the table.” But who is policing these ostensible boundaries? Who is preventing our EDAs from proposing any resolutions they want for the next convention?
It seems to me that a significant majority of NDP delegates voted to debate the Leap Manifesto; they did this despite arguments from Alberta cabinet ministers and others that we should not even have a debate due to fears that the right-wing media would dismiss the NDP as a result (presumably more than they do already) and turn voters against the NDP.
Bragg echoes this argument when she claims “placing the manifesto into the political machine of the NDP both opens the door for the opposition to bash the NDP in Alberta, but also further alienates the climate justice movement from those who work in the energy sector.” She seems to suggest that the climate justice movement is further alienated from energy sector workers simply by talking about climate change seriously. Is Bragg saying that the climate justice movement should avoid the NDP?
She continues, arguing that we need energy workers “at the table for conversations about energy democracy,” but that the manifesto “disavows” them. This ignores not only who wrote the manifesto (a group that included those who work in the energy sector), but also what its proponents have been saying.
Take, for example, Avi Lewis who emphatically stated to Albertan workers during his impassioned speech from the convention floor that “we will never abandon you!” This is far from a disavowal. It lies in stark contrast to the oil and gas industry that has already abandoned so many Albertans — and will continue to do so even if we build a million pipelines.
Bragg makes an argument similar to the one made by the Alberta NDP, namely that the Leap’s call to halt infrastructure development “ignores the political, economic and social realities in Alberta.” First, let’s be clear, the manifesto only talks about projects that “lock us into increased extraction decades into the future.”
Second, the reality of climate change has been overwhelmingly established. There is no such thing as a morally coherent argument in favour of the expansion of tar sands production that acknowledges the scientific reality of climate change. Period. All the criticism around Leap studiously avoids this fact.
We need to move beyond arguments based on what is politically palatable within the current boundaries of the discursive spaces contrived by private centres of power in our society. The NDP ought to be willing to push those boundaries on this issue. To fail to do so is to be a limp bystander in the face of a rapidly approaching apocalyptic event — an event that will amount to a crime against humanity (to borrow some language from Stephen Lewis).
Here’s a fact that has been conspicuously absent in all of the debate so far: global civilizational collapse is possibly already inevitable at this point (and could happen as soon as the next couple of decades according to various climate experts). Many choose not to dwell on this fact, and for good reason I think. Optimism is a good strategy. But I was proud of Stephen Lewis for referring to this reality during his speech at convention.
Bragg concludes her article with a clever line: “Alone we go fast, together we go far.” It’s a nice line, but it cannot change the reality: if we go slowly, billions will die; if we go fast, that might happen anyways (but it might not!). Pipelines are being pushed right now by industry, the federal government, and the Alberta NDP. They are not waiting for the conclusion of our debate, no matter how grassroots, cordial and procedurally enlightened it is.
It is extremely hard to simply state the reality openly and honestly, but the science is clear: we must demand the nationwide transition to green energy and green infrastructure that can save our climate and our economy now. We have to abandon the actual radical plan, which is to further lock humanity into a death spiral via tar sands expansion.
The fact is these difficult conversations were not being taken seriously within the Party until now. We obviously cannot always control how it is that debates break out, but when debates do arise we should make productive use of them.