Former MP Ryan Cleary reflects on party discipline and toeing the party line
The following article — the third in a special series — was published in last week's Newfoundland Herald (Feb. 7-Feb. 13th).
Ryan Cleary served as NDP Member of Parliament for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl between May 2011 and October 2015. Third in a special series.
I’m not sure what rattled me more — the ridiculous charges levelled against me, or being stripped of my speaking privileges in the House of Commons.
Regardless, I ended up storming out of a “disciplinary meeting” held in early November, 2013 while Tom Mulcair’s then chief of staff, Raoul Gebert, was still in mid-sentence.
“I’m not sitting here listening to this,” I told him over my shoulder as I stormed out of the Opposition Leader’s Office, or OLO as it’s referred to on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. “You’re way out of line.”
The meeting began with Gebert expressing the party’s deep displeasure over concerns I had shared with the media regarding the tentative Canada/European Union free-trade deal.
More specifically, a Globe and Mail article in which I had outlined my fear that Newfoundland and Labrador was “giving away its fishery” by surrendering Minimum Processing Requirements as part of the deal. MPRs dictate that fish landed in the province must be processed here, in the interest of protecting local fish plant jobs.
“I have to stand up for my province when I see something that could have such massive impact on rural communities,” read my Globe quote. “Giving up Minimum Processing Requirements is a big deal, but it’s being treated like it’s not.”
The next paragraph was crystal clear.
“Mr. Cleary added that he supports his party’s position to remain neutral on the draft Canada-European Union Comprehensive Trade Agreement (CETA) until a final text is released.”
In other words (and this is critical in party politics), I was careful to toe the party line.
Only the chief of staff didn’t see it that way.
Gebert told me I should have gotten express permission from the NDP trade critic before opening my mouth to the national or local media (I had also related my concerns on VOCM’s Open Line). The party was paranoid of being seen as against the EU trade deal when it had been branded as “anti trade” for opposing most trade agreements in the past.
Meantime, further down in the same Globe article a Quebec MP said he was also concerned over the potential impact the EU trade deal could have on his riding’s dairy industry. Only the Quebec MP wasn’t being disciplined — just me, the Newfoundland MP.
I was furious at the double standard, but managed to keep my cool (and seat), until Gebert brought up what I was later told was the real reason for the disciplinary meeting.
He raised the issue of the public meltdown in late October, a week or so earlier, of the Lorraine Michael-led provincial NDP back home in St. John’s, inferring that I had a hand in it. All four members of the provincial NDP caucus had signed a letter calling for a leadership convention, a move that would require Michael to resign. The letter was leaked to the media and Michael went public, saying she felt blindsided and betrayed.
It was at that point in the disciplinary meeting that I tore out of the room. The last words I heard were that my speaking rights in the Commons were being suspended by the party for the remainder of the session.
I was fit to be tied.
I knew of unrest within the provincial NDP — MHAs Dale Kirby and Gerry Rogers had both informed me, on separate occasions, of their concern that the NDP couldn’t find credible election candidates with Michael at the leadership helm.
I hung out in NDP circles — it was impossible for me not to hear dissent in the ranks. Clearly, someone from the provincial NDP had contacted Mulcair’s office to inform them that I was a ring leader, and I should be put in my place.
Which was just wrong — I had nothing to do with it.
Then, just as the fire in the provincial party was dying down (Michael had agreed to a leadership review), the Newfoundland Herald published a cover story quoting me as saying that I had ambitions to become premier.
In fact, a Herald reporter had interviewed me prior to all hell breaking lose in the NDP caucus and asked me directly whether I would ever want the job. My response was that any politician worth their salt would consider it.
Then NTV ran with the quote, contacting me by telephone in Ottawa to ask whether I would consider running for the NDP leadership if it ever became vacant. “Absolutely,” was my honest response, adding that my support was 100 per cent behind Michael as long as she was leader.
Next thing I knew I was summoned to Mulcair’s office and disciplined by his chief of staff.
Over the next few weeks I gave serious consideration to quitting the NDP.
I couldn’t accept that my speaking privileges in the Commons had been revoked by the party for such ridiculous reasons. I complained bitterly within caucus and the discipline was scaled back. In the end, I was permitted to give speeches and statements in Parliament for the remainder of the session (which was only a few weeks), but I wasn’t allowed to participate in Question Period.
Needless to say, the damage had been done. It was a shit show all the way around.
The battles I had within the NDP (federal and provincial) were often more vicious than the confrontations outside the party. At least you could see the partisan attacks coming, and understand the motivation behind them.
In the spring of 2014 I was heavily involved in an attack against the Stephen Harper government for severe cuts to shrimp quotas.The federal Conservatives stood by the controversial last-in, first-out (LIFO) policy, which protected offshore quotas at the expense of small-boat, inshore fishermen.
All parties in the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery agreed that the northern shrimp quota had to be reduced to protect the stock, but the NDP took the stand that it was wrong for inshore fishermen and their communities — who had suffered more than their share — to shoulder the burden alone.
Conservative Senator Fabian Manning took to the CBC’s Fisheries Broadcast to launch an attack against me.
“Ryan Cleary and others in opposition … have as much influence on fisheries policy here in Ottawa as I have with foreign policy in the White House — absolutely none. Even his own laugh at some of his antics.”
I responded to Manning a few days later with a statement telephoned into the Broadcast. (The then host, Jamie Baker, never did interview me over the course of my term in office, even though I was the only MP from Newfoundland and Labrador to serve on the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, but then media biases are another story.)
At the time, Manning served as Chair of the Senate Fisheries and Oceans Committee, and I said the best thing he could do to spark a revolution in federal fisheries management was to resign.
“Nothing would draw attention to the broken fisheries like his resignation from the Conservative Senate of Canada,” I said. “He could force the fisheries to the front of the media spotlight and we could begin to fix what’s broken.”
Of course Manning ignored me publicly. (Privately, in airports flying to and from Ottawa where we regularly ran into each other, we always got along.)
In the spring of 2015, months prior to the federal general election, Manning pulled me aside at the St. John’s airport to tell me that Small Craft Harbours would be announcing up to $1.5 million to rebuild a wharf in Petty Harbour, a fishing community in my riding.
Manning gave me the heads up so I could take credit. The Harper Cons knew they didn’t have a chance in my riding of St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, and considered their real competition — at least on the national front — to come from the Liberals.
“I don’t agree with the NDP on a lot of things,” he told me. “But I want you to win a lot more than the f—king Liberal.”
The enemy of my enemy was my Conservative friend. Politics makes for strange bedfellows.
Next week: My decision to join the provincial PCs.