Not much omph at the NDP leadership debate

Thomas Mulcair at the first NDP debate

Photo:Justin Ling

The next phase of the New Democratic leadership race limped out of the starting gate Sunday afternoon in Ottawa.

The nine hopefuls vying to replace Jack Layton spent most of the two hours “agreeing violently,” as Nathan Cullen put it. From the dire situation in Attawapiskat to the manufacturing sector and green collar jobs — the candidates agreed, agreed and agreed again.

One of the only sparks came early on in the debate, when Brian Topp went after Paul Dewar for not having detailed how he would pay for his economic plan. Dewar parried by pointing out that the question had been on climate change.

While the exchange surprised several in the audience, as it was rather feisty by New Democratic standards, the rest of the debate remained quite tame.

Its format lent itself to some criticism from the audience and the candidates alike. Topp quipped to reporters that he had more time to answer their questions afterwards than he had time to speak during the debate.

Who said what

Thomas Mulcair, once considered a logical successor to Jack Layton, largely flew under the radar during the debate. The firebrand Montrealer snuck in a few bits of economic and environmental policy — like suggesting the government find a way to make the tar sands sustainable while tackling the inflated dollar to breathe life back into Canada’s economic sector — but otherwise shied away from any excitement.

Brian Topp, the perceived frontrunner, touted his two policy planks that have been released thus far — his plan to increase taxes on Canada’s highest earners, and a plan to focus on a social democratic form of government. His goal appeared to be to set himself up as the man with a dream, and the plan to get there. He also iterated his wish to win on New Democratic values and repeated what has become his mantra: “We are not Liberals.”

Peggy Nash, who is seen to be picking up momentum referred in passing to her freshly released policy document  (that’s missing real meat-and-potatoes policy) and largely stuck to rhetoric. Maintaining that the current economic system isn’t working, she argued that reforming the current economic system should be the party’s goal.

Niki Ashton appeared to defy expectations and come out with a strong debate performance. Touting her “New Politics,” which had a few people scratching their heads, her performance was rhetoric heavy, emphasizing the need for diversity and equality. Ashton, the youngest candidate in the race, also mentioned reducing tuition fees and engaging young voters as important parts of her campaign.

Paul Dewar, who had the hometown advantage, branded about his job-creation policy as the main focal point for the debate. Staying on a narrowly-focused message, he talked about his plan for a permanent infrastructure fund and an east-to-west energy grid. Right out of the gates, Dewar set himself up as the “grassroots” candidate, pointing to his longtime roots in the party.

Romeo Saganash, through a hoarse voice (he had bronchitis,) talked about his experience as a small-business owner and as a representative in the Grand Council of Crees. Saganash fell back on his experience actually signing trade agreements and dealing with various resource-development companies operating in northern Quebec.

Nathan Cullen, seen as a long shot to take the leadership, seemed to exceed the expectations set out for him. Pegged by some as a bit of an outlier, having so far endorsed Liberal-NDP-Green joint nomination meetings and abolishing the monarchy, he held his own on the podium.

Robert Chisholm, having set up his campaign focused around leadership, spent most of the first half of the debate playing to his experience as a leader of the Nova Scotia NDP.

Martin Singh, a the least known candidate, with no real roots in the party establishment, iterated the need to make the NDP business-friendly.

The francophone question

This was one of the first chances that the candidates had a chance to showcase their French — or lack thereof.

Out of the gate, Mulcair made his bilingualism quite evident, choosing to do his opening statement in both languages. In what may have been a calculated “slip,” he later reverted to English during the second half of the debate before catching himself and returning to French.

The only one who wasn’t smiling at Mulcair’s slip-up was Robert Chisholm. The Nova Scotia-native stared rather blankly. During the French portion, an earpiece relayed him real-time translations, and he responded to the questions in English. Some members of the audience audibly clicked their tongues. During his closing statement, a prepared speech delivered in stopping French, he made clear his commitment to become bilingual.

Topp’s French was fluent, as is to be expected from the Laval-native. Nash’s French may have been correct, but her very slow, deliberate, dialectless delivery, which she picked up at university — garnered a few raised-eyebrows from some of the Quebecois in the audience and online.

Cullen and Singh both spoke with English accents, but their French was passable and confident. Paul Dewar and his broken French appeared to be the surprise on the stage, as his bilingualism had been bandied about leading up to the debate.

The candidate’s second choices

The most interesting bit of the afternoon came when the candidates were asked who would be their second choice as leader. While most of the candidates refused to answer, the others offered some interesting insights. Dewar said that, after himself, he’d choose Saganash as leader, while both Nash and Topp would go with Ashton if they were to pick someone else. Cullen said Peggy Nash would be his second choice.

The next debate will be in January, in Halifax.


This article was originally posted on Rabble.

Categories: NDP Leadership Race


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