Issues and Themes in the Toronto NDP Federal Leadership Debate
Jan 20, 2012

Issues and Themes in the Toronto NDP Federal Leadership Debate

Part one of this blog's coverage of the Toronto NDP Federal Leadership debate on January 18th gives an overview of the various candidates more on the side of personality, debating skills, speaking skills, and the like. This second post takes a look at the dominant themes and issues raised in the debate.  

Violent Agreement:
For the most part, the candidates agree with each other. Part way through, Nathan Cullen joked that as a parliamentarian he was getting uncomfortable by all this agreement. After that, the fact that they were all "violently agreeing" with each other on question after question became something of a recurring joke. On the more rhetorical and values side of things, they are about as similar in their core appeals to egalitarianism, sustainability, and assistance for the downtrodden as the GOP candidates are homogeneous in their appeals to capitalism, deregulation, and freedom.  When it came to talking about specific policies, the candidates might take an opportunity to mention a specific policy they supported, but rarely would attack a policy someone else brought up. Conflict between them was largely of the form of agreeing with the other person's point but wanting to add something new (which all probably would have agreed with as well). It wasn't all agreement, however, and I will note some of the points below. 

Naming dropping Harper, Ford and Layton:
Politics will probably never change. When speaking to one's base, whether that is the NDP or GOP, one of the most common place effective tactics is to make a complete villain out of the other side's incumbent leader. For the NDP, there was repeated calls across the entire stage again Stephen Harper. Whoever could denounce him and call for change the loudest and strongest appeared to be the winner. The GOP does the exact same thing with Obama who is endlessly name dropped in their debates. An interesting variant in this debate, which was in Toronto, was also name dropping the much despised mayor Rob Ford. Left leaning councillors, buoyed by an extensive outpouring of popular support, have recently won a key series of budget victories; this model of progressive citizen action being incorporated into the Orange Wave was mentioned repeatedly. 

Conversely, Layton is deified and also name dropped extensively as a way to show support for the party. Much the way that Reagan is a de facto hero for the GOP and they all struggle to demonstrate how they are most Reagan-like or associated to Reagan to score points, the NDP is doing the same for Layton. Even when they advocate positions quite significantly different to Layton (a fact that is never mentioned) they will appeal to Layton in many ways. Granted, riding the wave of emotional momentum is probably clever politics, and I have little bad to say about Layton, but I think we should always be careful not to create rhetorical pedestals. 

Topp vs Mulcair:
One narrative in the campaign, that is being pushed by Topp, is that he is the Layton heir apparent, while Muclair is really more of a centrist Liberal and would transfer the party away from its core values. Noticeably, neither directly referenced the other in this framing, but in their opening remarks both pushed on this framing; Topp with talking about Layton and how the NDP did not need to become Liberals, Muclair by addressing the centrism issue and claiming he wants to move the center to the NDP not vice versa (and then again in his closing remarks).

Are we proud of Canada? 
I was surprised that there were few if any appeals to the great values that Canada has. There was a definite sense that the values of the NDP were good, but they were progressive values and not necessarily deep seated Canadian values that have formed why Canada is so good. It is an interesting dynamic because the NDP has been on the sidelines of shaping Canadian politics for much of its history. Where as parties who consistently win will often appeal to the greatness of their country as if the greatness is in fact their own, the NDP just seems to be quiet on Canada as a cultural entity. Contrast this with the GOP (admittedly in a country that pays more frequent lip service to patriotism in general) and half their answers in debate will work in about how great and awesome the US is. 

A national everything:
In terms of specific policies to be put in place, the answer to everything seemed to be a national program. A national childcare program, a national Pharmacare program, a national infrastructure program, a national housing etc. The only dissenter was Muclair who spoke about jurisdictional issues and provincial empowerment which these national programs would have problems with. There should be no confusion that almost any of these NDP candidates absolutely see, rightly or wrongly, an increase in the scope of the federal government in its ability to act on a wide range of issues. 

On immigration:
The most contentious of the five minute segments (outside of the one Cullen co-opted to talk about the joint nomination issue) was on a question of immigration between Cullen, Topp, Singh, and Dewar. They all agreed that immigrants were really important to support, and there were significant problems with things like foreign credentials not being recognized. However, there was a lot of disagreement on just how one might actually fix this (Dewar noted that other countries are far better, but didn't say what they did differently). Interestingly, the conversation was quite muddled despite the raised tones and excessive cutting in; it was not clear to me precisely what the different proposals we if they had any. This is an important issue, and so I hope a more detailed look into the platform on these issues will make it clearer (on my blogging ToDo list). 

On rights: 
All of the candidates agreed wholeheartedly on the issue of housing and the need to increase the provision of it to the poor. Cullen stood out with an impassioned speech about the need to make basic housing a fundamental right. Saganash noted that it is in the universal declaration of rights and freedoms. There was also talk about the need to declare in the Charter the right to clean air. 

Assorted other issues raised:
Nash: Deisel vs Electric trains; Midwives, especially in rural and aboriginal locales; increase minimum wage; increased CPP benefits
Saganash: Don't download costs to provinces 
Dewar: Cities at negotiating table with provinces and federal governments; 100% Green energy by 2030
Topp: Pedestrianized city cores, European transit models
Cullen: Allow privatized pension plans that can be switched between employers

Interesting stats cited (unchecked for accuracy): 
Moderator: Toronto Board of Trade cites biggest inhibitor to economic growth in Toronto a lack of infrastructure
Topp: Metis/First Nations average lifetime earnings is $250,000 without degree, over a million with one
Cullen:  For the cost of three new fighter jets, could lift every senior out of poverty (BS meter spike?)
Nash: Childcare in Quebec is $7 dollars a day
Saganash: $192 billion is cost of all tax loopholes, breaks and incentives

The choice of streaming with is indicative that the NDP knows where its online organizing base is. That said, there are some problems associated with only getting the debate out to this narrower audience opposed to the millions one expects from each of the innumerable GOP debates. Granted, this was one of the unofficial debates - and not the televised official six - yet the fact that there was just a small consumer video camera with onboard sound recording the event was a bit troubling, especially in comparison to gigantic TV news cameras that were there to get a few minutes of footage to interplay on the evening news. Working towards a larger audience is imperative. I was also disappointed that given how this was a more informal debate, it stuck to the 60 second / 30 second format for much of the debate and didn't give the opportunity for longer form question and answer. 

I will close by quoting the giant inscription over the stage, which is highly appropriate:
"Let us have faith that right makes might and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it". 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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Michel said...

Thanks for the overview! It's much appreciated!

Skinny Dipper said...

I was at the debate. I knew that I was going to see the leadership candidates in "violent agreement." Since it was difficult to distinguish them policy-wise, I looked at the candidates' tone and delivery. Nathan Cullen was agressive at the microphone during the free-for-all. He probably thought it was his chance to get noticed. I noticed that Thomas Mulcair took an opposite tactic: he waited until all the other participating candidates had their say. Essentially, he appeared calm but was able to give a forceful reply near the end of his debating round.

By the way, I did notice the quote over the stage.

bazie said...

Ya I agree that Cullen (who really was not on my radar outside of proposing the joint nomination business) was very assertive and as such probably got noticed for the first time by many casual observers.

As for Mulcair, I can't quite put my finger on what it was, and he never said anything bad, but I don't think this was as good a debate for him. Perhaps it is just that as the ostensible frontrunner in polls and second place in endorsements, I expected him to really stand out and he didn't on the stage. For instance, my iPad just didn't seem to have many notes on things he said while I made many for almost all the other candidates. Why this was I am not quite sure.

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