Alexa McDonough: Visibility without the photo op
By ALLISON DUNFIELD
Globe and Mail Update
During the campaign, Alexa McDonough won't be riding jet-skis or whitewater rafting to gain attention for the New Democratic Party.
As its leader, Ms. McDonough has shown no patience for gimmicks or photo ops. She has doggedly stuck to the issues that are at the core of the country's left-of-centre party - improved health care, employment, solid funding for post-secondary education and environmental protection.
Having headed up the federal left-wing party since 1995, Ms. McDonough has hammered away at Liberal policies and, more recently, the Canadian Alliance's platform on tax cuts, debt reduction and smaller government.
Ms. McDonough, 56, will focus on several key issues in the campaign. She has consistently tried to champion health care in the House of Commons. Just before the election call she criticized the mini-budget, saying it was too focused on debt repayment, which she says isn't as important to Canadians as health care or social security.
The NDP's $10-billion-a-year strategy for health care includes new national programs for pharmacare and home care - more than what was offered at the first minister's meeting in September when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and the premiers agreed to inject an additional $23.4-billion into health and social programs over five years.
“You can't save health care without a plan,” Ms. McDonough said before the September meeting. “I'll be darned if I let Jean Chrétien pass himself off as the health-care saviour of Canada.”
The party also plans to fight for education funds and open a dialogue on the impact of globalization and world trade on everyday Canadians.
The party under Ms. McDonough pressured the House of Commons to hold public hearings on the international Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which was subsequently cancelled in 1998. It also and influenced the Liberal government to reject the merger of Canada's four largest banks into two.
Since 1995, the NDP leader has championed society's poor and disadvantaged. As the daughter of late millionaire brick baron Lloyd Shaw and Jean MacKinnon, Ms. McDonough had a well-heeled upbringing, although her father was a financial researcher for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. He later helped fund the NDP after it succeeded the CCF in 1961.
Born Aug. 11, 1944, in Ottawa, and raised in in Nova Scotia, she was strongly influenced by her father's commitment to social democracy, and earned a bachelor of arts from Dalhousie University in Halifax and went on to complete a master's degree in social work in 1967.
Ms. McDonough worked in the United States as a social worker for two years before returning to community development for the Nova Scotia Department of Social Services.
She has said that working south of the border solidified her commitment to decreasing the gap between the rich and the poor in Canada that she saw as widening.
“Those experiences continue to drive a lot of my energies because of what I came to fully appreciate ... was that Canada - because of the existence of a social democratic electoral force - was very different from the States,” Ms. McDonough told the Canadian Press.
She entered politics in 1979 and 1980 as a federal NDP candidate, losing in both elections. But in 1980 she took the Nova Scotia NDP leadership, and in 1981 won a seat in the provincial legislature. For three years, she was the only New Democrat and only woman in the provincial assembly.
After replacing Audrey McLaughlin as federal NDP leader in 1995, she brought the party back to official party status in 1997 with 21 seats, since reduced by two as a result of defections. It had nine seats after the 1993 elections.
One of the frequent criticisms about the party is that it is “invisible” in the media and to Canadians. Ms. McDonough's goal in the upcoming election is to gain more of a national profile for the party - and more federal seats. The NDP holds only 19 seats.
Ms. McDonough has said she realizes the party has an uphill battle. Various pre-election polls show the party at either 9 or 10 per cent nationally, virtually tied with the Bloc Québécois and the Progressive Conservatives.
But Ms. McDonough, who stays in shape by playing tennis, racquetball and swimming, says she is prepared to fight.