The NDP Leadership Debate in Toronto
The packed crowd (people had to be turned away) listened to candidates who agree, violently, on what government should do. Grow the economy sustainably, help the downtrodden, ensure equality, and so on.
The disagreements, with one exception, were subtle. They were either about political strategy, or about implementation. Everyone may agree on what to do, everyone does not agree on how to do it. But with only a minute or 30 seconds to answer each question you had to listen sharply to hear the differences.
With that one exception. Cullen proposed open primaries for all non Conservative parties with only the winning candidate running, so that there would be one candidate in each riding to oppose the Conservatives.
The hissing was immediate. A heartbeat later, the clapping began. Because the NDP wants to be government, wants it bad. They’ve been in the wilderness for too long, and they sure don’t trust the Liberals to do the right things. But NDP supporters also understand that Harper is a transformational Prime Minister–in the worst way possible. He is making a Canada which is less equal, less prosperous and far, far meaner. He is undermining medicare, undermining small farms and plans to center Canada’s economy around resource extraction of the kind which leaves behind only a legacy of ruin. (Every resource boom ends. Every single one.) So defeating Harper is important.
That aside, there was so much agreement that I began doing what I prefer not to do in American politics: I started considering electability.
There were only three candidates on that stage, in my opinion, who had the raw charisma and polished speaking skills necessary to lead the NDP to victory. Thomas Mulcair, Nathan Cullen and Peggy Nash. The NDP cannot afford a leader who is not charismatic, and the others simply don’t have the ability to hold attention. Nash and Mulcair are bilingual, Cullen’s french is weaker, but getting better.
Below I’m going to go through my observations on all eight, starting with the three I feel have the charisma for the job.
Mulcair has a reputation as a firebrand, but the man I saw on the stage was calm and in command of the facts. Able to switch easily between rabble rousing and policy, he also showed a clear command of the actual policy levers, as when he commented that the CMHC (the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation) was the key to affordable housing, or when noted areas of provincial jurisdiction. He was also the strongest opposing voice to Cullen’s suggestion of open nominations, making a passionate case that the NDP can win as the NDP. I didn’t go in with a very favorable impression of Mulcair, but I came out with one. He would be vulnerable to attacks on his strong support for Quebec provincial jurisdiction, and I’d like to hear his current views on the role of the federal government in areas on Provincial jurisdiction, but his charisma and command of the issues made a strong impression in the debate. His point about youth engagement being key to victory was also well taken, and I’d like to hear more about how he plans to increase the youth vote.
Nash was the most relentlessly rah-rah of all the candidates. Her answers were much more often pep talks and rally the troop moments than any other candidate. She reliably commanded the crowd. Her rhetoric on issues of social equality was very skillful, making the point that if some people are better off (union workers who have pensions, for example) the solution isn’t to take those pensions away, the solution is to make sure everyone has good pensions. Of the three candidates with charisma Nash left me coldest, but I was in the minority in the crowd. She didn’t demonstrate the same ready command of the nuts and bolts of issues as Mulcair, Cullen and Romeo Saganash but given the format of the debate and her background, I would assume she is just as knowledgeable and she certainly has enough policy proposals out. I like to hear her plans for winning the next election, and holding on the the gains in Quebec.
I should confess first off that Cullen said many of the things I like to think I’d have said were I up on the stage, and said them the way I’d say them. He was the most combative of the candidates, and he was the one to call for specifics, and to call BS. The open primary suggestion was the main point of conflict in the debate, but he also made the point that when it comes to professional associations recognizing immigrant’s qualifications, “dialogue” isn’t going to cut it. He showed a ready understanding of the actual dynamics of power and how parliament works. And he was a smooth and clean speaker with charisma. As with Nash or Muclair, he commands attention. I don’t know his ideas on how the NDP should win, if the Liberals reject his open primary idea (which I’m pretty sure they would), but I’d like to hear them. As with all candidates not from Quebec, I’d like to hear how he plans to maintain the NDP’s success in that province, as well as grow outside it.
Ashton has a tendency towards mushy talk. The solution to too many things is apparently dialogue. We need to “talk” about everything. Certainly right on the issues (but so is everyone) but I didn’t get the impression she was ready for the leadership spot yet. She didn’t demonstrate the ability to make the case in a short, pithy, commanding way, and in our media environment, that’s disqualifying.
Comes across as likeable. The bloke you’d want to have a beer with, which so many political reporters seem to think is important. Good on the issues, like everyone.. Kind of forgettable otherwise. Nothing stands out from him in my mind other than “such a swell guy”. Of course that can go a long way in politics, and if Dewar were fluently bilingual his likeability could pass as charisma. As it is I think he’s a good candidate for the leadership in the next race, if he fixes his french.
Romeo isn’t a good public speaker. I winced when he made his introductory speech. But he grew on me through the debate. He had an excellent grasp not just of the details of how government works but of what is most important. He made the single most important policy point in the entire debate – that the government has almost 200 billion dollars worth of tax loopholes, subsidies and so on. (He gave the exact number, but I didn’t note it down at the time.) The 5 billion in tax cuts for the rich which could be rescinded is just the top of the iceberg. That money means that if the NDP is serious, it can remake Canada. And his record in Quebec, bringing Quebec Hydro to heel and making it work for everyone in Quebec, is impressive. In any NDP government I’d want to see Saganash in a senior ministerial role. He impressed me as a man who could turn good intentions into policy which worked. He wouldn’t make a good leader, because he’s not a man for the soundbite era, or a great giver of speeches. But for the actual work of government, he’d seemed perfect.
I think Singh knows he isn’t going to win. But he kept making the same point and it’s well taken: Canadians trust the NDP on social values, medicare and so on. They know the NDP will do the right thing. The sale which needs to be made is that the NDP can handle and grow the economy. I think that his point, and Nash’s combined, are the argument the NDP should go with: that Canadians don’t have to be mean to each other to grow the economy, but that we can all be prosperous together. Make that case, and the NDP wins. Fail to make the case, and the NDP can only back into power if Canadians hate Harper and see the NDP as the alternative. The other candidates, and the eventual leader, should listen to Singh on this.
Another likeable man, though he doesn’t come across quite as personable as the immensely likeable Dewar. I get his mail, and he or whoever writes his pieces is a great writer, who hits all the right emotive spots. His policy papers are smart. But he came across flat and wasn’t a significant presence in the debate.
It’s important for the NDP to elect a leader who can win, and who if he or she becomes Prime Minister will do the right things, and do them effectively. Eight years of a Harper majority will change the country dramatically, and when adding in his years as minority leader, will make him one of the longest serving PMs in our history. Incredible damage will be done to the country as Harper’s policies strip mine resources and largely ignore the rest of the economy, leaving Canada in great danger when the resource boom ends, as they always do.
I don’t know enough about the candidates to make an endorsement, I will simply say that electability and ability to govern are the two things which I believe matter most. The candidates who struck me as having the necessary charisma, administrative chops and sheer bloodymindedness required were (in alphabetical order), Cullen, Mulcair and Nash.
There’s more I’d like to hear, including some big ideas. Instead of “increased sustainable housing” something like “in 10 years, every building in Canada will be energy neutral”. Or “we will roll make university tuition $2k a year, and student aid will be 80% grants.” (Oh, and bankruptcy from student loans will be allowed again). “We will overturn everything Harper has done.” Big things. The vision thing. Not “tax rebate for X”. Ten point plans are all very nice, but they won’t win the election, a clearly different vision for Canada will.
In the era we’re going into Canada has a lot going for it, not the least of which is that we have oil and other resources in a period when resources are scarce and prices will stay high for a while. Offhand I can’t think of a country better positioned to prosper over the next generation. But resources can destroy us, annihilating the other sectors of our economy, including manufacturing, so that we become nothing but hewers of wood and drawers of oil. When the eventual resource crash happens, we can become Argentina north. The grab the money and run strategy of the conservatives is incredibly shortsighted.
So the Conservatives must lose. The NDP must win. And having won, it must govern effectively. For the sake of Canada, may the NDP choose the right man or woman for the job.
(View the Toronto NDP Leadership Debate yourself.)
NB: corrections made. I used the word Sovereigntist sloppily with regards to Mulcair. He has never been for Quebec independence, he does have strong views on the role of the Federal government in Quebec which could be charitably characterized as asymmetrical federalism. Nathan Cullen is not fluently bilingual, but does speak French.