I attended the Toronto Area Council NDP Federal Leadership Debate. In this post is an overview of the candidates and in the second part is a discussion of the key themes and issues raised in the debate.
The crowd packed the 850 seat theater at the Bloor Collegiate Institute leaving 150 outside and unable to enter; an excellent showing, especially given that this is an informal debate and not one of the originally planned six. The foyer had vocal representation from all candidates, with a sight emphasis on Peggy Nash supporters which is to be expected given the proximity to her home riding. Demographically, the crowd was overwhelmingly Caucasian (especially relative to the city of Toronto), and trends towards an older demographic, although many younger people are also present (the age discrepancy may be explained in part by the desire of younger people to simply stream the debate online). The crowd was respectful and enthusiastic, with loud clapping the entire way through for all candidates and a standing ovation at the end. Peggy Nash had the loudest cheers, again most likely simply because of the proximity to her riding.
For the second time in a row, Peggy Nash came off at or near the top of the pack in terms of most measures of debate performance (completely ignoring whether one liked her policies). She truly is an excellent public speaker, a fact she could display particularly well buoyed as she was by the disproportionately pro-Nash crowd. She is likable and comes off as genuinely passionate about her causes.
Brian Topp was much improved since the first debate. He seemed more relaxed, was able to get more crowd reactions in both cheers and laughter to his jokes, and didn't make his mistake from the first debate of being needlessly abrasive in an attack. That said, like the first debate, he is not the best people on the stage in terms of likeability, being wellspoken, and general debate performance. Many of the candidates trumpeted Layton and attacked Harper, but Topp (probaby the closest to Layton) did this name dropping the most.
Paul Dewar accomplished a necessary step for him: establishing himself as a legitimate contender. He has recently being rising in the endorsements, catching up to the three original frontrunners of Topp, Nash, and Mulcair. He needed a debate where he could establish legitimacy in this group and allow people to take him seriously as a possible contender for the next Prime Minister. He got that. He doesn't have the speaking skills of Nash or Mulcair, but he might be better than Topp. He was among the more policy-centric (opposed to values and rhetoric centric) of the people on the stage which I always admire. In many ways his mannerisms and style remind me a bit of Michael Ignatieff.
One of the interesting things about actually attending a debate is that you can watch the candidates while they are not speaking and the attention is not on them. Mulcair's off mike mannerism where rather disinterested and disengaged with the debate. When he picked up the mike his lines were as well delivered and well spoken as any of them, but there lacked a certain je ne sais quoi.
One clear distinction that became apparent on multiple occasions was the issue of federalism vs provinces. Many of the answers by the other candidates were quite homogeneous in terms of growth of the federal government. There were repeated advocates for a national childcare program, national pharmacare program, national transportation strategy, and the like. Mulcair, however, appears to take the (quintessentially Quebec) approach that provinces are perhaps the best jurisdiction and that many of these things should be left to the provinces. It is a very hard case to argue as a federal NDP leader since a program of limited federal government aligns with a more conservative approach. Perhaps to combat this, Mulcair took deliberate care to specify that he does not want to make the NDP more to the center and instead wants to make the center come to the NDP.
My initial read on Cullen coming into this race is that he was here for a single purpose: to push the idea of a joint nomination procedure with the Liberals and Greens that would allow them to nominate a single candidate in ridings the Conservatives hold and make it more likely that some combination of Liberals and NDP formed the government. Given this framing, to vote for him is essentially a referendum on this idea.
In the first Ottawa debate, however, he didn't mention it once. In this debate, he used one of the five minute group discussion opportunities to give a passionate defense of it. However, both his opening and closing statements didn't include it. Further, he explicitly highlighted many times the idea that he was indeed running for Prime Minister (and thus not out to push this single idea) and that he wanted to fight to recruit people to the NDP. And throughout the debate he was speaking very specifically to all the other issues raised in a way that made it look like the joint nomination issue was just one small issue among many. I don't know if he thinks this can work or really believes he is running for future Prime minister, but it seems to me that support for his candidacy remains representative of support for the joint nomination issue.
In many ways this is a shame for I quite liked Nathan Cullen and, whatever I might think of the joint nomination idea, I simply don't think it is going to become reality this next election cycle. In the debate he probably stood out more than any other candidate in terms of getting attention, speaking passionately and well, telling jokes and getting crowd reactions. He is second only to Peggy Nash at that oh-so-difficult-to-perfect skill of using voice inflection to induce cheers and rise with them. And he had several interesting policy ideas. At times he was overly abrasive, but in general his performance likely got the attention of many who otherwise considered him a significantly lower tier candidate.
Martin Singh is the most myopic of the various candidates. His essential viewpoint is that the NDP can, and should, embrace business and its virtues as part of its broader goals and agenda of equality and the like. While other candidates would typically respond with a variety of orthodox NDP values to underpin their views, most answers by Singh would manage to sneak in the business angle in some way or other.
It also largely invalidates him. The idea of combining egalitarian values with a pro-business perspective is the domain of the Liberal party, at least rhetorically. If this was just an occasional point he made, then he might remain a competitor, but as it is with such a large focus on a perspective that is not orthodox NDP, I don't believe he has much of a shot. It is worth noting that he wasn't particularly clear in the debate on any specific of what he actually would do to help business or how that would fit with or help NDP values.
I was disappointed in Niki Ashton's appearance. She spoke less effectively than in the Ottawa debate, stumbled many times on her sentences, and didn't manage to get as much applause as most other candidates. While she clearly has good values, much of her speaking is values centric and not policy centric, with few mentions of policy ideas and even less of unique policy ideas. And she insists on using the 'New Politics' phrase excessively which I find to be a rather empty tagline that she is giving far too much prominence too. As the face for youth in the party, I had hoped for better.
Romeo Saganash simply doesn't have the kind of English speaking skills to win the nomination or extend the NDP support outside of Quebec. Even ignoring his slow style, he often relates back to his rural experiences and tells anecdotes, but offers little in the way of policies that can be pushed federally. I believe there is value in having candidates like him, Martin Singh and Niki Ashton in the race as representatives of minorities and showing the NDP's egalitarian nature. That they happen to all be third tier candidates is separate from whatever disadvantage their race, youth, or gender might give.
In this first half of my debate coverage, I have largely given overviews of the candidates without much mention of policies except where it is particularly defining. In my second post on the debate, I focus more on the various issues and policies that were raised.
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