Ottawa NDP Leadership Debate Thoughts
Dec 4, 2011

Ottawa NDP Leadership Debate Thoughts

The debate was good. Exciting even. After several months of being forced to sate my political appetite on the Republican leadership contest, the NDP leadership debate in Ottawa provided a refreshing Canadian contrast. Overall there was far more homogeneity between positions than there was difference.

The tone of the debate was very friendly and respectful. Candidates would compliment the policies and comments of each other and even in the one-on-one question period the questions were barely even adversarial. For instance, Peggy Nash complimented Niki Ashton's stance on the Canadian Wheat Board even though that issue had never been brought up in an exchange between the two of them. Partially this is because it is the first debate with most Canadians would be just getting to know most of the candidates so everyone wants to appear inclusive and welcoming, but I think it also represents a closer shared vision and attitude of working together than is true for the GOP.

Mulcair, Topp, and Nash:
All three of the top tier candidates of Thomas Mulcair, Brian Topp and Peggy Nash came off very well. They spoke well, they spoke passionately, and I think managed to accomplish what they needed to do: establish their legitimacy as top tier candidates in the debate setting. Peggy Nash was probably the best speaker on the stage and much of what she said was tied in to core NDP values. Even though she didn't explicitly mention the Occupy movement as she did when she announced her candidacy, she did make quite a passionate appeal along the lines of wealth and social inequalities.

Topp and Mulcair both gave a somewhat more technocratic approach, offering details about how economics worked and things of a more pragmatic than idealistic nature. For example, Mulcair made a point about how we were not going to eliminate tar sands development but needed to instead internalize costs with user pays; okay, a fair point, but a technocratic one opposed to a more idealistic platitude about the need to save the environment. Topp was probably the worst of the three in terms of debate performance coming off as somewhat hesitant; perhaps this is just due to experience given that he has never run for political office before.

Ashton, Singh, Cullen and Dewar:
I will broadly lump these four as the second tier candidates, but my ranking system is anything but precise. Niki Ashton was really energetic, passionate, and well spoken, achieving what must have been her first goal as establishing herself as a serious candidate despite her young age. She mentioned "new politics" many times which appeared to be an appeal to a more respectful and inclusive form of politics (I wonder what association, if any, it has to the defunct New Politics Initiative) I think that Martin Singh made a tactical error by often answering a question by instead referring people to see his website or platform for the information. His major unique identifier was advocating for a national Pharmacare plan. Paul Dewar was the candidate who probably most promoted a unique policy idea, namely the idea of an East-West electricity grid to combine Canada's trio of different grids in a way that would pave the way for green energy projects. The most adversarial portion of the debate came in a back and forth between Dewar and Topp with the latter challenging the former to find how he was going to raise revenue for his spending plans (which Topp complimented) and Dewar quite noticeably failed to answer the question. Nathan Cullen really emphasized his small business experience and talked economically about corporate tax cuts, adding value to raw materials and the like, but less from the social progressive side of things.

Chisholm and Saganash:
The two candidates with the worst performances, imo, where Robert Chisholm and Romeo Saganash. Chisholm essentially committed seppuku by only being able to answer the French language half of the debate in English which essentially disqualifies him from the race; the only mystery was why he bothered. Saganash wasn't this bad, but his English language performance was the worst on the stage. He often came off as very out of breath and provided a stark contrast from the passionate eloquence of a speaker like Peggy Nash. It will always be a challenge for the Quebec NDP members to win the nomination given how the overwhelming majority of registered NDP members and NDP establishment powers are outside the province, and with Mulcair being a frontrunner from Quebec he always had a steep hill to climb and needed a knockout in the debates opposed to being close to the bottom of the pack. However, as a native Canadian, I do think his participation is a benefit to the NDP and helps to ensure that the NDP is the party that best caters to aboriginal concerns.

Themes and issues:
While the candidates were not at all negative towards each other, they certainly didn't hold any punches back from bashing Prime Minister Stephen Harper. I suppose this is to be expected, but it really mirrored the GOP debates where every candidate feels the need to make a couple mentions of anti-Obama expressing just how terrible it is; the same was true here with them all tripping over each other to express how terrible Harper and his policies are. Dewar probably went the furthest in this going from just platitudes to comments about the jet program and crime agenda of Harper.

I think the three major issues were the economy (the topic of the debate), the environment, and social equality. Often the candidates would get a question about one of these issues and really tie in the other two issues into their answer; Nash was particularly good at this. There was definitely a strong corporations vs small and medium sized businesses up to and including statements as strong as "corporations that don't create jobs". Many advocated for raising the corporate tax rate and providing a range of incentives for small and medium sized businesses.

One common economic theme was about the need to provide more higher value processing of raw materials. Topp was perhaps best at explaining how a raw resource economy has a trade off which is a high dollar that hurts manufacturing, but they all advocated for rather vaguely stated (given the time constraints) policies to keep various processing in Canada opposed to just shipping out raw materials.

A note on format:
There were four main sections of the debate: 1) everybody answered the same question in 60 seconds, 2) divided into groups of three to have a short mini debate on a specific question, 3) 15 second speed round of asking differing questions down the line, 4) a period where one candidate could ask another candidate a question with follow up. The second and fourth parts of the debate were by far the best. The speed round was simply too short, it is impossible to get anything other than a very brief platitude out in 15 seconds and it really hurts the ability for substantive policy debate. Often asking direct questions between candidates can be very adversarial, but I think because of the really respectful ambiance the questions were actually pretty good and yielded some of the best answers. Ultimately, an hour per language is really short for 9 candidates and I would have loved to see more but the time constraints really hinder it.

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