Impressions and Analysis from the Winnipeg NDP Leadership Debate
Feb 26, 2012

Impressions and Analysis from the Winnipeg NDP Leadership Debate

The following is my impressions of the candidates and discussion of various issues raised in the Winnipeg NDP Leadership Debate. Past debate coverage:  Ottawa | Toronto | Halifax 

Brian Topp:
I believe that Brian Topp won this debate. I don't say that lightly; in every other debate thus far I have ranked him several people down from the top. However, for the first time he came off as genuinely relaxed, jovial, and personal. He won most if not all of the minor exchanges with other candidates during Question & Answer period. He provided detailed policies, optimism for himself and the NDP, appropriate criticism of Harper and the other candidates without the pettiness we have seen before, and generally came off looking more like a Prime Minister than I have ever seen from him.


A progressive tax plan:
An interesting moment in the debate came when Martin Singh challenged Brian Topp on the fact that his plan on capital gains taxes does not address the issue of charitable giving. A fair question. However, it gave Topp the opportunity to deliver a robust and passionate defense of what he terms the "single most regressive tax change since WW2" - and got to mention his commitment to charitable giving (without offering specifics) to boot. Topp goes on to question Nash about whether this issue of tax fairness should be "central" to NDP policy. I think that given the context of the Occupy movement, given the context that this framing will be going on south of the border (Topp explicitly mentions Mitt Romney), and given that such issues poll well that framing his candidacy as a "tax fairness" issue is wise move.

Peggy Nash:
Conversely, I have often ranked Peggy Nash among the top in terms of debate performance (clearly winning the Toronto debate) but she faltered in this Winnipeg debate. Many of her statements were delivered quite flatly and were heavy on platitudes not policies. With a quiet audience, she couldn't make use of her excellent crowd leading rhetoric and inflections. Her best answer was on the question of first nations communities where she referred to the Indian Act as an outdated colonial leftover and talked about the specific proposal of midwives to assist in first nations communities.

She also struggled on several one-on-one questions. When asked by Topp twice whether she would divert revenue from Cap and Trade into general government revenues or only into green energy issues she refused to answer. Paul Dewar essentially accused her of being a flip flopper on the health care user fees controversy as well as her position on corporate tax rates and she didn't do much to answer these queries. She got a weird question from Singh who wasted a question by repeating his previous question on a detail of Brian Topp's tax plan (mentioned above) but asked it of her which was a non-question and got a non-answer back.

Topp's lack of a membership seat:
One notable exchange came when Nash challenged Topp (as she has done before) on what happens if he loses a bi-election in Quebec. Topp rather gracefully acknowledged this was a risk but that all the candidates had strengths and weakness. He went on to point out his strengths and accused Nash of having the weakness of never serving a day in government. Much like the Topp/Singh exchange (mentioned above), it was the ability by Topp to take legitimate criticism from his opponents and come out with an answer that makes him look very good and the other candidate bad that greatly contributed to his win in this debate.

Tom Mulcair:
Tom Mulcair did not have his best debate. He spoke in a humorless, measured voice that seemed to be devoid of passion and holding back a mild sense of anger. It just didn't have a personable, engaging nuance to it. I am somewhat surprised (even though he did the same last debate) that his far into the campaign he has not delivered enough stump speeches to be able to rattle off closing remarks without having to flatly read from prepared remarks. Unlike most of the other candidates who are almost universally proud of the NDP and its history, Mulcair was very negative of the NDP talking about its past problems with empty and outdated rhetoric.

A French problem?
Winning inside Quebec is important. But so is winning elsewhere in Canada (click here to read my analysis on geographic importance). While other candidates outside of Mulcair and maybe Topp may have problems in Quebec, I think that Mulcair has problems outside of Quebec. The sad part is, it is largely his own fault. Near the start of the Winnipeg debate on a question about the importance of winning the west he essentially said that Quebec was the most important region in the country, noting that the west only has 3 seats; this can't resonant with western voters. When the moderator pressed him, he rephrased saying that he wanted to do in the west what was done in Quebec. He repeatedly references Quebec and what was done in Quebec (far more than, say, Nash mentions Ontario), and brings up anecdotes of people he talked to in Quebec. He also answered a question in French for about half of his time; as an anglophone it is more than just annoying. All these things solidify his reputation as 'the Quebec candidate', and I think this puts real problems for him in the rest of the country.

Nathan Cullen:
As the debates have progressed, Nathan Cullen has focused more of his time (and his opponents focus more of their time in attacking Cullen) for his joint nominations proposal with the Liberals and Greens. I have always considered his candidacy to be a referendum on this issue.What surprised me in the past was how little he actually talked about it such that one might not even know he was running on this issue back in the Ottawa debate. As such, he often did well in the debates and scored many points on other issues. This time, however, almost every interaction with Cullen focused on this issue and he couldn't get anything else in sideways. His candidacy is now back firmly into the status of being a referendum on this issue. Check back in a few days for my overview on the joint nominations proposal.




Paul Dewar:
Paul Dewar had a good debate. He was, perhaps, second behind Topp. He spoke well with an appropriate mixture of touching on the usual NDP platitudes and values while also talking about policy specifics, even bill numbers. Perhaps this is just me and my biases, but I consistently have less written in my notes for Dewar than I do for the other candidates. I usually don't have things that are particularly positive or particularly negative to say. That he doesn't seem to be the one saying noteworthy things, however, may be itself a problem for him. 

How to build the party:
Dewar's strongest movement in the debate surrounded the issues of building the party. He spoke passionately about the need to hire local ground organizers, the worries of losing the per vote subsidy and replacing it with grassroots fundraising. He talked about running issues based funding campaigns, ala the conservatives. And he ensconces this within his "next 70 seats" plan which promises targeted strategies to win a majority. Mulcair tried to press him on this, framing it as abandoning other ridings, but Dewar defended this claim well. A lot of these things speak to some of my views, and I think it is entirely reasonable to embrace realpolitik when it comes to spending resources to win elections.

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7 comments:

janfromthebruce said...

thanks for posting your thoughts about the leadership candidates for the debate in Winnipeg!

canadianveggie said...

The part of the debate that most resonated with me was Mulcair's comments about the NDP, "ordinary Canadians", and moving beyond slogans. His comments might annoy a lot of old-timers, but for young progressives like myself (living in Western Canada) I think it hit a chord. It might have moved him up to my first choice.

bazie said...

Oh interesting, see I don't really disagree because I have long disparaged how many platitudes there are in politics and not much legitimate policy discussion. However, I would hardly give Mulcair a free pass because he loads up on platitudes as well.

Now it is true that "ordinary Canadians" is a really silly slogan, but then so too is "working Canadians" or "taxpayers" or "middle class" or any number of other slogans offered by many politicians. I wrote a post a while back about these slogans: http://progressiveproselytizing.blogspot.com/2010/10/use-of-middle-class-in-public-discourse.html

Anonymous said...

But precisely which NDP "boiler plate" slogans is Mulcair actually against? All we get is a lot of empty rhetoric. Is he against the challenge to the gross inequality that's rapidly increasing in Canada? Is he against the commitment to social justice that underlies NDP views on things like pensions and unemployment insurance? Is he against the core values, backed by solid practical and pragmatic social democratic principles, that brought us things like medicare? Is he against the current demand for a fair tax system? What has he actually ever said or done that makes it clear why he even joined the NPD and what it is about its core values that appealed to him? It's hard to think of an emptier slogan than "boiler plate", which is just name-calling, especially when it's not backed up by specific examples of principle and policy and clear explanations about what he would do differently.

Brenton said...

Anonymous, I think you are mistaking criticism of language with criticism of policy. Mulcair is opposed to 70s-style boilerplate language, not opposed to the principles, values or policies that the language attempts to describe.

Anonymous said...

Brenton, I'm not making the mistake you ascribe to me, and I'm afraid you may be missing something here. It would be bad enough if Mulcair were simply name-calling (as he has been doing) without specifying what precisely he objects to, in language or in practice. But there's more to it even than that. There have been far too many indications, both in his comments during the campaign on the direction of the NDP and in his own political record, that raise serious questions about where he wants to take the NDP. No sensible person would deny that the party must look forward and face today's challenges (as it has been doing, contrary to his very contentious remarks in the last debate). But that surely does not require the party to become another version of the Liberals--which, I regret to say, seems to be what Mulcair has in mind. That's really not what this country needs. Cooperation among parties--as is the norm in other Western democracies with more democratic voting systems than ours--is one thing. But abandonment of principle is quite another. Cooperation or even coalition makes sense, but only if parties preserve certain fundamental principles that distinguish them from one another. That's not what we're hearing from Mulcair.

Anonymous said...

So, why hasn't Mulcair actually comeout and say that? He makes no attempt to clarify anything. I suppose it could be because "Canadians just wouldn't understand".

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