The following is various reactions and analysis of the Halifax NDP Federal Leader debate on January 27th. Previous NDP debate commentary: Dec 4th Ottawa Debate | January 18th Toronto Debate part 1 | January 18th Toronto Debate part 2 (Issues and Themes).
The third English language debate largely followed the themes and style of the first two debates.The inclusion of a Question & Answer period, analogous to the one done in Parliament, provided some of the most interesting back and forths yet seen the debates which have typically been pretty full of agreement with an agreeable tone. The moderator, Dan Leger, was excellent in providing some comic relief as well as (appropriately) following up on questions and poking the candidates to speak more in terms of specific details.
Winners and Losers:
When it comes to endorsements and polls, the frontrunners in the debate are known to be Mulcair, Nash, Topp, Dewar probably in more or less that order (Topp has more endorsements but worse polls so it is debatable). Ashton, Saganash, Singh are decidedly bottom tier candidates and Cullen is the joint nomination referendum enigma. If we were to just look at debate performance, however, I think the top tier would be something like Cullen, Nash, Dewar, Mulcair in that order.
In the last two debates I have tended to lean towards Nash as the winner. She was good today, among the best, but not quite as good as in previous debates. The crowd was very quiet in the debate, and Nash's skill of being very good at working with a crowd (especially her home crowd in Toronto) didn't come out. Some of her answers were flat and not the typical rousing and passionate populism that we have seen before. Cullen was humorous, well spoken and had a lot of interesting things to say that he was able to effectively convey and somehow managed to be the center of many of the different exchanges. If this was just a personality contest, he might win. Mulcair was more assertive and engaged this debate.
Topp still struggles and while I think he is actually getting better at debate performance he has a significant problem with conveying enthusiasm, authenticity, and likeability. His history as a behind the scenes organizer and not a front line politician certainly shows. Dewar is also very good and I think has risen into the top tier (previously just of Mulcair, Nash, and Topp) based on his consistently solid debate performances. He peppers us (sometimes too much) with anecdotes, policy details, name dropping of other politicians and the like - a stark contrast to Nash who emphasizes far more on emphasizing core NDP values. But Dewar passes the 'electability' test and is as good if not a better speaker than someone like Mulcair and certainly better than Topp. So he is in this race.
Weak opening statements:
I was surprised by how weak the opening statements were from a few of the candidates. There is nothing unexpected that excuses someone from being anything less than perfectly prepared for this. Mulcair was excessively reading off of hits notes; why did he not more or less memorize his one minute intro? Topp did the classic high school debate or valedictorian speech of starting the entire debate by quoting the Webster's dictionary definition of hypocrite (in reference to Harper). Come on, just say Harper is a hypocrite don't dance around it with an feckless dictionary definition allusion. Nash chose to open her debate with a pop culture reference contrasting the Leave it to Beaver sitcom and Modern Family. Her point about viewing families as all kinds of different people is good, but I hardly see how beginning a debate to be the next Prime Minister by giving a mid century US pop culture reference is helping her. Cullen, Dewar, Singh and Ashton had good intros.
Mulcair gets angry:
The most contentious moment in the debate occurred when Dewar challenged Mulcair on his history regarding bulk water exports. Mulcair seemingly took quite a bit of exception to this charge and aggressively defended himself (for the record, he agreed with Dewar that he was against this) saying the attack had failed under the Liberals because it was simply not true. I have often heard it said that Mulcair has this side of him that he does get inflamed and angry, but this was the first sign of it yet in an English debate. It is somewhat interesting that he would let this get to him this way because most people in the audience probably do not know of the history of this particular disagreement and so it seems out of place. That said, I don't possibly see how it helps Dewar to ask this question - given the viscous response that makes it seem like Dewar was being unfair. Mulcair also struck out when Cullen painted Mulcair as a Liberal passionately noting that the Liberals were the only federalist party at the time and that he was a dedicated NDP supporter who ran for NDP when it seemed there was no chance he could win. I am not sure whether it helps or hurts Mulcair to respond in this fashion; it is a liability, but sometimes the display of anger can come off almost statesman like and having an ability to get dirty in debates with Harper could be an advantage.
The issue of allowing Joint Nominations with the Liberals, proposed by Nathan Cullen, has sequentially gotten more and more attention as the various debates have progressed. In the first debate it was barely mentioned. In the second there was a couple minute back and forth focused on it. In this debate, Cullen actually made a (veiled) reference to it in his opening remarks which he had restrained from doing before and then got repeated questions on the topic that he responded to at some length. I was amused that Singh, who had chastised Cullen in the last debate for talking about this issue and ignoring the moderator's question, chose to ignore the moderator's question at the first group discussion opportunity and attack Cullen on this issue. Cullen really ought to spend 20 or 30 seconds at some point early in the debate and explain precisely what the plan is. It doesn't come out clearly and when he won't even say "joint nomination" when he alludes to it in his opening remarks he is not helping his case. It is like he is almost hiding from the issue while he spends the rest of his time as if he is campaigning to be the candidate regardless of it. That said, his defense of it in terms of the need to beat Harper, and the ability of people to work together and come together across party lines, and letting local ridings be the ones that determine whether to do the joint nomination or not was articulate and I can see how it would be persuasive. Mulcair's response of "why shoot for bronze" may also hit a chord.
The core division between the candidates is almost certainly on this issue of jurisdiction, and how much the candidates do or do not support the federal government extending to the provinces. This is probably one of the issues that people should vote one way or the other based on how they see this issue. Topp framed it as the Liberals thinking the provinces didn't exist and the Conservatives thinking the federal government doesn't exist, but the NDP could do something in the middle. Mulcair is the firmest in the anti-federalist leaning where power should be from the provinces and gives the example of the CPP/QPP model whereby the government can propose something and the provinces can, if they wish, do something else. He talks about things like Quebec's strong childcare policies moving across the country from province to province but not "from the top down". Cullen, in the federalist camp, mentions the need to pass Legislative acts like the Canada Health Act to give a necessary legislative impetus. By and large, however, how exactly to achieve the middle ground between federalism and provincialism was not exactly articulated. It is also not clear just how much options they even have to change the federal/provincial relationships; the Supreme Court, for instance, has not restrained from vetoing Harper's attempts to create a federal securities regulator.
Last debate it was almost a right of passage to make frequent mentions to Jack Layton as a sort of demigod vs the evils of Harper who also gets extensively mentioned. This debate, however, Layton was barely mentioned but past leaders like Alexa McDonough and Tommy Douglas were extensively mentioned. It is also worth noting that the Liberals are barely mentioned (except when talking about the joint nomination business). To hear the debate we might think this was a two party system; this is not a horrible tactic.
Framing the debate vs the Conservatives:
Almost all of the NDP members use the same basic framing when comparing the NDP to the Conservatives. Namely, it is about a difference of priorities and not a question of the role of government. Everything is cast as a quid pro quo. Instead of prioritizing fighter jets, prisons, corporate tax breaks, and oil subsidies, they are prioritizing seniors, youth, health care, etc. They argue that they have the better, more appealing set of fundamental values and priorities. I think this is a good framing with which to win and one they are much more capable of winning than if the framing falls more along the lines of Harper's framing of a roll of government that prioritizes economic freedom than social values.
Often, they don't address the costing and expenses of this program (as Singh charged Dewar), but this debate there was some attempt to do so. Nash noted how a dollar invested in housing in Quebec results in a growth of $1.44, so these things are real investments. Mulcair expanded the typical source of funds (raising corporate taxes) to include talking about getting money from Cap and Trade in a program he notes was endorsed by Nobel laureate Andrew Weaver. Topp defends the need to raise personal income taxes for the rich. But they will still face significantly challenges on this front from the Conservatives.
It is nice to have Ashton in race because she does bring up important positions and groups that sometimes can be forgotten. For instance, she is probably the most vocal in terms of fighting for youth (with things like tuition cuts) and for women, passionately arguing how about things like a National Child Care program actually increases our economic potential as well as being equitable. She also made the only foreign policy comment of anyone on the stage in the last two debates, calling out Canada's contribution to a "foreign war machine". I think having her voice on the stage to energize the next generation is really good and I expect big things for her as time goes on and this candidacy is an excellent way to gain attention and move into cabinet positions somewhere down the line.
Last debate I commented that Martin Singh myopically turned every single question into an answer about focusing on small businessmen and his small businessman experience and how that was needed, to the exclusion of making any other meaningful point in the debate. In this debate he continued the trend, but added his specific call for a National Pharmacare program and experience as a Pharmacist with all comments being addressed in terms of either the business or Pharmacare framing, often both. I am reminded of Herman Cain's inability to respond to any question in the GOP debates with anything other than his 9-9-9 tax plan. I believe that Martin Singh is really looking to increase his prominence within the party more than necessarily winning the leadership and identifying that he has these couple issues that he is really strong with and thus could take shadow or real cabinet positions because of them.
Don't forget to vote!
All in all, it was a worthwhile debate and I would recommend people get involved and watch the next one (not to dissuade you from just reading my blog after the fact). I recently got my first NDP membership (it is only $5 dollars for students, underemployed or <26yr people) to allow me to vote in the election and I would strongly encourage everyone to do this as well. Remember it has to be done before Feb 18th to be able to vote which can be done online.
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